MR. OBAMA GOES TO WASHINGTON
—Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940).
—Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995).
THE REFORM WILL BE TELEVISED
I mentioned in the second part of my recent mammoth 21-point post that recent American cinema has frequently been more politicised in its larger scale, commercially financed incarnations. This includes television, thanks largely to HBO, which has supported some of the most progressive TV drama since the BBC gave Mike Leigh and Alan Clarke free reigns back in the ’80s.
I don’t mean to suggest that shows such as Oz (1997-2003), The Sopranos (1999-2007) or The Wire (2002-2008) match the formal innovation or brilliance of cinema’s high points. There are no TV Bressons or Cassavetes—Leigh and Clarke being the eternal and inexplicable exceptions (about which the BBC have apparently been trying to cover their tracks ever since—when was the last time any of their remarkable BBC features were broadcast?). But, working well within the confines of American narrative cinema, these shows have nevertheless pushed the boat of serialised drama out about as far as it’s ever gone. Eschewing mood music, heavy-handed exposition, conventionally sympathetic characters or a clearly delineated moral code, they create worlds of doubt and uncertainty where characters’ actions, plotted and arced though they may be, are limited, misguided and often futile. Most of all, these shows transgress the long-held belief of American TV in American institutions. They do not take for granted, unlike all of their predecessors, that society’s institutions (from the police to justice to the medical establishment) are inherently worthy, respectable and effective (not to mention manned by likeable, well-meaning and attractive individuals). Apart from all this, of course, the scope offered by 60-plus hours of screen time allows for narrative possibilities that feature filmmaking simply can’t broach, and contains an inherently humanist tendency; spending so much time with characters facilitates the viewer’s involvement and sympathy, no matter how imperfect or compromised they are.
The West Wing (1999-2006) is not one of these exceptions. Following the experiences of a White House staff through two presidential terms and presidential campaigns, the NBC-broadcast show trades liberally in the institutional grandeur and nobility of the “greatest office in the land” for its dramatic pull and weight. The lead characters (all Democrats, of course), while flawed, are fiercely intelligent, compassionate and extraordinarily decent: they are, in other words, presumably working in a White House in a galaxy far, far away. Episode’s plot-lines are usually rephrased after each ad break, and the character’s fundamental beliefs and assumptions are rarely undermined or questioned. Obstacles are usually personalised (the bad egg politician) or treated as inevitable as the weather (the huge PR and marketing aspects of governing), and our heroes’ weekly catharses are always accompanied by the swell of synthetic strings.
The reason TWW is still worth writing about, and interesting to consider in contrast to the more obviously “good” TV of the HBO school, is that it has on occasion, despite all its limitations, managed to intelligently dramatise and tease out certain paradoxes and challenges of trying to effect change within the political system. Part of this may be because the advances of HBO have begun to sink in further afield in other ways. Across the board, American television is typically more nuanced and attentive to real world relationships and politics than it was ten or twenty years ago, even if the underlying ideologies haven’t budged significantly. Another reason may be the way in which the dramatic form is inherently more open to a dialectical and multi-faceted (and humanised) discourse than “objective” journalistic practices and therefore, pointed at complex issues in an intelligent and well-researched way, it can easily open up an engaged dialogue even if it’s at the hands of apolitical Hollywood TV writers.
Aaron Sorkin, TWW’s creator and (unusually for TV) the solo author of the first few seasons, has always denied an interest in politics per se, justifying the show’s chosen subject matter as simply being ripe dramatic material; and judging from his subsequent series, Studio 60 on Sunset Strip (2006-2007), the primary thread running through Sorkin’s work seems to be a sub-Hawksian obsession with wisecracking, witty workaholics—in particular those who’s occupations are defined and made or broken on the back of their skillful manipulation of words.Like Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday (1940), Sorkin’s characters may try to use their talents for ethical ends, but their raison d’etre is the sheer pleasure of the work itself. Consequently, characters are valued and judged in TWW universe not on whether they are “good”, ethical or compassionate (because some may have these traits and yet, like Ralph Bellamy, be portrayed as gullible and buffoonish) but because they can argue anything, hold 100 pieces of information in their head at the same time and negotiate and manipulate complex systems of information and power. Notwithstanding its occasionally confused slips into editorialising (sometimes hawkish, sometimes liberal), these are TWW’s fundamental politics.
Within this value system, where characters are always trying to convince somebody about something, whether they be a co-worker, congressman or the media, some key, deep-seated conflicts emerge and re-emerge. They include: the conflict between doing good and looking good (ie, trying to enact progressive measures while still maintaining an attractive public media image, the credibility of which will often effect the viability of said measures), between noble ends and dirty means (ie, the inevitable bargaining, trading and blackmailing that achieving political goals entails), and between the needs of the job and the individual’s personal, emotional and romantic needs. These demanding and ultimately irreconcilable forces create characters who are masters of compromise and strategic sacrifice, but the show is distinct from a lot of modernist cinema dealing with similar themes in that it views this negotiation of systemic limitations as generally benevolent rather than a process of loss or trauma.
These conflicts are endlessly resurrected as sources of drama, but positioned in such a way that, while character’s actions cover the spectrum from defiant subversion of institutional needs to dutiful acquiescence to them, the resolution always reinforces the nobility of the political game. Nobody has to give up their ideals (the few characters without them never seem to have had any in the first place), because the very heart of their ideal is the political process, not the aims (equality, justice, etc) the political process supposedly exists to serve. If the show’s idealism somehow never seems to truly clash with the manipulative world of political wheeling and dealing, it’s because these things are actually one and the same. The show’s ultimate ideal is pragmatism.
MACHINES AND LIES
Some of the implications of The West Wing, taken at face value, are clearly regressive. In pushing us to identify with these characters in positions of power, we come to prioritise as they do, the skills and pleasures of the political game, and begin to cheer for our side’s prominence in this game. We forgive their inability to reform the education system because they are likeable and funny and we’re really more concerned that the two that keep flirting with each other will eventually make out and get married. We are implicated in their endless compromises, in their manipulation of the media and their strategic, occasionally callous power plays, because we want our guys to win.
A lot has changed in Hollywood, evidently, since the times when Frank Capra made his best political films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1940) and State of the Union (1948). In his treatment of individuals attempting to work within powerful institutions and systems, Capra operated under a markedly different set of philosophical and dramatic principles.
In the above clip from Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington, Jean Arthur tells Jimmy Stewart that not everybody in Washington is like Taylor and Paine, the businessman and politician that are the film’s key figures of corruption: “that kind just throw big shadows, that’s all”. But the rest of the film shows that the problem runs much deeper than that: their actions are endemic of a political culture where public representatives are bought and paid for by private elites, and the idea of a free press is just more PR. Rather than the characters of TWW, working within a neutral bureaucracy that is alternately pliable and stubborn, in Capra’s Washington, the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against anything or anybody decent, and within this environment, the nuances of TWW’s much-loved negotiatory procedures are less tenable.
The difference in the visions of Capra and Sorkin et al is somewhat analogous to the process of co-optation that saw radical opposition and resistance in the US largely pacified and neutralised in the past few decades. Although Capra’s outlook has been thoroughly sanitised in American culture (as Ray Carney as argued), his films consistently depict social and political systems as debased and dehumanising and never suggest that they could be easily reformed (even his characteristic, clipped happy endings are only ever based on momentary triumphs and the promise of further struggle). In Capra’s films, the best of which were produced during the Great Depression, the key issue is not how to manipulate the system but simply how to avoid having one’s identity crushed and negated by it. Considering this, perhaps Stewart’s impassioned, climactic speech as Mr. Smith find its real-world parallels not in any realm or era of electoral politics but in the tortured and incendiary performances of the ’60s New Left.
The West Wing—which, in its final two seasons, uncannily dramatised Obama’s rise to victory two years before it happened—is a product of a very different age. A character like Mr. Smith could never exist in its world for many reasons, but the fundamental one is that he wouldn’t be able to negotiate its values. His ideals would mean nothing without the verbal and negotiatory prowess to enact them, and while Smith’s central achievement at the end of the film does involve both his powers of speechifying and his ability (coached by Jean Arthur) to harness institutional rules—this achievement is treated as Herculean, unsustainable, and harrowing. What the occupants of the West Wing do over lunch, nearly kills Mr. Smith. Although perhaps that parallel is too neat, since the physical strain of Smith’s performance, its intensity and its precariousness, seem much closer in tenor to an act of resistance—an attempt to put one’s body “upon the gears and upon the wheels” of power—than any kind of political manipulation. It’s more about finding his own language than learning an institutional one.
The other reason that Mr. Smith could no longer go to Washington, and perhaps the reason the radical aspects of Capra’s work are so buried nowadays, is that the values Stewart’s performance embody have been widely discredited, or at least drastically marginalised. This is the case for its formal qualities as well as its political implications.
Formally, Capra’s films are emblematic of an era of Hollywood cinema that has long past. The flexibility with which Capra utilised Hollywood conventions, the liberties he gave his actors, the ways in which he stretched scenes beyond their expected narrative functions (there are no standard scene lengths in his films)…all these qualities are now solely the domain of arthouse cinema—and certainly not possible in the streamlined world of TV production. Additionally, the mismatched cuts and discontinuities that Capra’s films are riddled with—like his admirer, Cassavetes, he cut for the performance, not for synchronised movement—are no longer acceptable now that the notion of “production value” has become sacrosanct.
But above all, the performative potentials that Capra explored in the ’30s and ’40s are not possible in the context of TWW. Working on a fast-paced schedule, and portraying the same characters for some 7 years (with a total running time of over 150 hours), the show’s regular actors inevitably become more rote and systematic in their performances—the same tics, the same reactive glances and concerned tones. But the performative style is tied in with the show’s formal philosophy as well: while Capra frequently employs narrative archetypes (the man against the system, the greedy businessman vs. the innocent small-towner), TWW is archetypal in a much more fundamental way. Its characters may be more conventionally realistic, but their emotional lives are simply conventional—they feel Pride, Admiration, Regret and Sympathy and we know they do because the actors (with some help from the music) are telling us. This is what ultimately separates and weakens the show in comparison to Hawks, who’s characters’ verbose pathologies were rarely tempered by having accessible, nougat-filled emotional insides.
Capra’s heroes are filled with desires, aspirations and ideals, the expression and enaction of which are arduous and imperfect endeavours. There is a pragmatism to his vision that may anticipate Sorkin’s show in some respects, but what’s missing is the sense of great conflict and inner struggle that that pragmatism creates. The most striking thing about TWW is not just that all of this seems to be no longer imaginable—but that even its former possibility has been forgotten. The characters have nothing inside they can’t get out, or perhaps, they just don’t have insides in the way Capra’s characters did. The corollary of this is that they don’t have radical aspirations.
After the ultimate collapse, failure and disillusionment of the ’60s New Left project and, most recently, after 8 years of Bush, what remains of the Left in America is battered and disempowered, faced with a resurgent, regressive system within which, as Greil Marcus put it, one can only make meaningless choices and against which one can seemingly not intervene. Even cultural forms of resistance seem Quixotic in the face of Debord’s “spectacle-commodity society” in full flight. Of course, activism was a common practice throughout the Bush nadir, but there was a never sense of revolutionary possibility involved. In Revolt Video’s unique activist documentary, Route Irish (2007), covering the protests against US war planes landing in Ireland, the point is brilliantly made that much modern activism serves more as a form of exorcism and disassociation (”not in my name”) than a project aimed at actually changing anything. (TWW’s one portrayal of anti-capitalist activists is also telling: given a meeting with a White House staffer, they are so disorganised and inarticulate that he just sits down and reads the newspaper while they argue amongst themselves. He later calls their protests “activist vacation”.)
So, in the absence of any viable form of opposition, there are two options: apathy or a renewed belief in systemic reform. Faced with the boredom of inertia, optimistic visions of working within the system can have an irresistible appeal, and TWW could be said to have cultivated this belief, offering a two-term fantasy presidency running almost exactly parallel to Bush’s 8 eight years. Barack Obama (who has often situated himself as a product of the progressive struggles of the ’60s), then, took it to its logical conclusion. But, while many have argued convincingly that Obama’s victory (and his remarkable use of decentralised organising) is yet another tremendous absorption and nullification of the Left, its merits can’t be easily dismissed.
The moderate, diplomatic and balanced approach that TWW and Obama both represent, while not ideal, is arguably the most effective approach given our current circumstances. Of course, much of Obama’s discourse has been bland, empty and rhetorical, but in his finest moments, such as his remarkable speech, “A More Perfect Union“, he’s created a skillfully modulated and nuanced discourse that manages to employ the narrow, rhetorical vocabulary of American politics (freedom, the American dream, etc) and embue it with progressive meaning by connecting it with an array of ordinary struggles. He’s managed to do this while also pragmatically playing the political game, and “A More Perfect Union” is a perfect summation of this, being at once an expression of his political style and a defusion of a damaging media controversy.
Central to Obama’s approach is the belief that divisiveness retards political change. In other words, in order to get anything done, you need to be careful what you say: understanding everybody’s point of view, and prioritising sensitivity over truth-telling. This is the political reasoning underlying the innocuous rhetoric of “unity” and it explains both why Obama condemned Reverend Wright’s comments and why he refused to disown the pastor. It doesn’t matter that everything that Wright said is true; the problem is one of form: it’s how he said it. He said it like a Capra character—honest, uncompromising, and performatively intense and loose. He did not mediate, did not temper himself so that more people would consider his message. Obama’s response to Wright is neither black and white nor vague: he acknowledges the validity and justification for African-American anger; but he objects to it because “it prevents the African American community from forging the alliances it needs to bring about real change”. He doesn’t disagree with the content of their sentiments—he just thinks their form is “counterproductive”.
For Capra, forms were not so interchangeable. In State of the Union, millionaire businessman Grant Matthews (Spencer Tracy) is groomed as a presidential candidate by a host of political, media and business elites. Matthews is pushed to restrain his iconoclastic oratory style and controversial policy positions (which his minders condemn as “antagonistic”) for the sake of satisfying as many special interest groups as possible. He pragmatically relents at first, but is eventually persuaded by his wife (Katherine Hepburn) that there’s no such thing as compromising a little; such external acts of public submission have internal consequences: you lose your identity. You lose what you had to say in the first place.
If there’s a counterargument to be made, three of TWW’s best episodes embody it:
• “The Birnam Wood”, written by John Wells, focuses on an American-hosted summit between Palestinian and Israeli authorities, depicted as a somewhat Quixotic attempt by US President Bartlett (Martin Sheen) to resolve the Middle East crisis, against the weary cynicism of almost everyone else involved (his Chief of Staff insists it’s a waste of time and the Israelis and Palestinians aren’t that much more enthusiastic). Apart from the obviously fanciful earnestness and impartiality of the US administration’s position as mediators, a surprisingly balanced and vivid political reading of the conflict is drawn and, for the uninitiated, it offers a pretty decent overview of why the Israeli-Palestinian situation is so entrenched. But moreso, it uses the opportunity of this most unresolvable of disputes to tease out a style of tactful and compromising discourse. The Palestinians and Israelis come to an agreement.
• “Opposition Research”, written by Eli Attie, looks at the beginnings of Obama-surrogate Matt Santos’ (Jimmy Smit) campaign for the presidency, centring on the conflict between Santos and his campaign manager. Santos is the most Capraesque of TWW’s characters, and, echoing State of the Union, the episode focuses on his campaign manager’s attempts to button down his controversial policy plans and focus on “honing his narrative” and image as a politician, while of course, avoiding saying anything that will antagonise certain interests. But, if TWW can solve the Middle East crisis, it may not come as a surprise that this conflict between ideals and pragmatism is also overcome. The campaign manager acknowledges and respects Santos’ earnest aspirations, while Santos consents to play the image-politics game for the sake of having a shot at the presidency. His identity is not destroyed in the process.
• In “Internal Displacement”, written by Bradley Whitford (one of the show’s main actors and one of only two things he’s ever written), the White House Chief of Staff, CJ Cregg (Allison Janney), attempts to intervene in the Sudanese genocide using diplomatic means. With military intervention considered a political impossibility, she tries to enact a UN resolution sanctioning the oil revenues of those responsible, but first has to overcome the opposition of China, which has vested interests in Sudan, and then has to seek the help of France and Germany, who want permission to sell arms to China…and so on. Later in the episode, over dinner, Janney gives one of the most frank appraisals of TWW’s philosophy of compromise in the whole series:
DANNY: Just get something done.
CJ: Well that’ll come down to what it always comes down to.
DANNY: What’s that?
CJ: How dirty do my feet have to get without disappearing into the mud in order to get an inch of what I really want done.
DANNY: Doesn’t sound very heroic.
CJ: It’s not.
In fact, TWW endlessly plays up the heroism of this kind of practice (not least in its deafeningly pompous stars-and-stripes title sequence), but in this moment, at least, it acknowledges that there is an ever-present danger of “disappearing into the mud”.
The genocide in Sudan, by the way, is still going on.