With the release of The Ides of March, we might be thinking a little more lately about movies with some political timber burning in their engine. I'm sure we're already only a few months-to-a-year away from some plucky producer dramatizing this Occupy Wall St. business. Politics is serious stuff for the most part and, most often, flicks that try to get political feel just about as somber as a congressional hearing. Thus, I figured I'd might be fun to look at some flicks that play with some political topics in manners most entertaining. Movies that give us our spinach with a thick coat of marshmallow Fluff on it, as it were...
One, Two, Three (1961) Dir. Billy Wilder
At first, I was thinking of picking Dr. Strangelove to represent satire from the Cold War era, but let's be real: I wouldn’t be telling you anything new, there. Enough has already been said about Kubrick’s epic spoof of nuclear annihilation, so I’ll opt for something that takes a lighter, but just as insightful, angle on the old communism/capitalism wrestling match. This was James Cagney last starring role and he plays an ex-pat executive in West Berlin who’s trying to bring Coca-Cola to the USSR not long after they've erected the Wall. He’s got to put that business a little to the side, however, when the boss tells him he’s got to babysit his teenage daughter, a willful Southern belle, while she’s vacationing in Deutschland.
In short succession, the girl secretly marries an hot-blooded young socialist from “the East Side” and, to quickly diffuse the situation, Cagney frames the guy and has him arrested by East Berlin’s secret police. When the girl discovers she’s pregnant, Cagney’s conscience gets the better of him and he springs the boy out of custody, but on the condition that he take on the appearance of a respectable son-in-law while the big boss visits.
What follows is an amusing riff on My Fair Lady where Cagney grooms this stubborn comrade into an exemplary capitalist. With startlingly rapid-fire dialog and pacing, this flick levels equally-charming ridicule upon the crassness of capitalism and the intellectual impracticality of communism. I know we've got some Screened Pups who don't like to watch anything made before they were born but, trust me, the humor in this is still sharp, even 50 years after the fact.
They Live (1985) Dir. John Carpenter
It’s funny that there’s such fond nostalgia today for so many parts of 80s pop culture that were considered “douchey” at the time. I’ll leave it to somebody smarter than me to weave Wall Street, hair metal and however many teen comedies together into some arching thesis about materialism’s reign in the era of Reaganomics. Suffice it to say, though, the rise and fall of the yuppie arced and crested throughout these years, and they were as odious in the popular imagination as the hipster is today. If you’re looking for flicks that take potshots at these “uh-huhs,” your options run all the way from RoboCop to Bonfire of the Vanities, but few will run as goofily over-the-top as this.
Or maybe it’s only relatively over-the-top. I’m still kind-of disappointed that Piper opts to play a laconic everyman instead of letting the Hot Rod loose. This flick has so many famous one-liners, but none of them sound as outrageous on film as you’d expect after reading them on paper. Anyway, a flick about a magic pair of sunglasses showing the true alien forms of the rich, as well as the true messages behind all advertisements, isn’t the most sophisticated (nor subtle) satire. However, you’ve got to give this it’s proper due for approaching modern class struggle in an entertaining way, at least. I mean, here's a movie that's still capturing enough imaginations that its parts have been steadily appropriated by Bart Simpson video games, street artists like Shepard Fairey and even extended scenes in South Park...
Demolition Man (1993) Dir. Marco Brambilla
Leniency and restriction in American entertainment seems to wax and wane every decade or so. We’re certainly in a time of looser permissiveness, right now, but there was a notable period in the later 80s and early-to-mid 90s when restrictions got a lot more noticeable. No, it didn’t affect every movie, but it definitely contributed to RoboCop 3’s PG-13 rating and boys’ Saturday morning ‘toons suddenly seemingly a lot tamer in comparison to what they got away with for years. If Twisted Sister and Mortal Kombat were the respective scapegoats of the PMRC and the ESRB, then Rambo and all the other hyper-masculine heroes of action’s golden age were easy targets for Seneator Joe Lieberman.
The conceit here’s similar to RoboCop 2 (that guy again?) in that it pits your archetypal movie tough guy (Sly Stallone, no less) against a threat more treacherous than any rifle-toting scumbag: political correctness. It’s a rather brilliant premise to transplant a bout of macho into an anemic utopia future where such a thing’s been thoroughly regulated out of existence. "Thinking man's action movie" is a term that gets thrown around a lot, but I'd say this is the most underrated case of a flick that enjoys breaking your jaw while, at the same time, waxing psychological about the repressed urges the act represents.