Sunday, March 30, 2014

Barry Levinson Makes A Statement, But Not A Point, With PoliWood

The Good: Great participation from both sides of the political spectrum, Raises a few good questions.
The Bad: Fails to land on a number of key points, Levinson talks over several of his subjects.
The Basics: Barry Levinson explores some important questions about how Hollywood celebrities influence politics without coming to any real answers in PoliWood.

When it comes to movies, my wife has a pretty simple formula for figuring out how to pick out a film I’d want to watch when we have a night to spend together: she looks up Anne Hathaway’s IMDB page and finds projects Hathaway has been involved in that I have not yet seen and she picks them up for us. That list is getting increasingly short, but my wife managed to find one such movie tonight: PoliWood. Given that my wife and I are politically active, PoliWood seemed like a documentary that we would have quite a bit of interest in and because I have largely enjoyed the works of Barry Levinson, it seemed like a good fit. PoliWood is a documentary or video essay by Levinson and it stars a number of Hollywood celebrities who are active in politics . . .

. . . admitting they are active in politics. While Levinson has some narrative to his video essay, PoliWood rambles with surprisingly little in the way of purpose. In fact, it was not until I sat down to write a review of PoliWood that I realized how little point there was to the movie.

The concept of PoliWood is simple: several actors and actresses who have gained a level of celebrity have publicly made political statements and supported candidates. The assumption has been that most of the most wealthy and outspoken celebrities are liberal and have exerted an undo influence over the American political process. Director and essayist Barry Levinson follows around several members of The Creative Coalition (a group that has largely come together to advocate for government funding of the arts) during the 2008 Presidential election. The documentary follows Anne Hathaway, Richard Schiff, Ellen Burstyn, Rachael Leigh Cook, Tim Daly, Giancarlo Esposito, Susan Sarandon, Matthew Modine and Josh Lucas as they attend political, sporting, and entertainment events.

Levinson follows the group to both the Democratic National Convention and the Republican National Convention and he comments (and documents comment from others) on the process of advocacy the celebrities utilize as they reach out to voters about issues important to each of them.

The problem is that the film does little more than that. PoliWood starts with the premise that Hollywood actors are blurring the lines between politics and entertainment. The film ends in the exact same place with no real growth in between. The subjects of Levinson’s documentary do not sufficiently address the concepts Levinson seems to want to explore with PoliWood. In his opening narration for PoliWood, Barry Levinson laments the role of the television in the American family; he talks about how daily life was changed by the invasive nature of the television and then how politicians were remade into television stars in order to get elected.

After that, Levinson follows his subjects around. PoliWood meanders around with the director asking the question of “Do Hollywood celebrities have too much influence over American politics?” and then shows them advocating for their cause and “common” Americans complaining about how out-of-touch those celebrities are with “middle” America. Perhaps the best moment of PoliWood is when Tim Daly discusses all of the non-actor related jobs he had and how he devotes quite a bit of time to “normal” things like car pools and coaching little league. In a smart, reasonable way, Daly quietly dispels one woman’s utter ignorance about how celebrities are somehow not as human or real as other people are.

But the documentary falls apart outside that. While there are decent moments, like Anne Hathaway admitting she hates talking about political issues she is not adequately informed about and some of the members of the Creative Coalition rejecting the refusal of a couple members to even hear out a successful strategist for Fox News, but largely Levinson asks questions that go unanswered or he asserts his own statements without actually backing them up in any demonstrable way in the film. For example, a number of misconceptions about celebrities are brought up during the film and one of the big ones is that right-of-center actors have a harder time getting work in Hollywood than leftists. It is not pointed out how Jon Voight and Clint Eastwood (for example) have almost constant work, even as they advocate for Republicans. Actor Robert Davi talks about a personal experience where a fan was turned off by his conservative activism, but he did not detail any issues he had with getting acting work as a result of the same activism.

Levinson also neglects to discuss at all how the influence of “Hollywood liberals” is, in part, a response to conservative businessmen advocating against social spending or progressive issues. It’s hard to say that Hollywood actors have more influence than the businesspeople who spend more money against their causes.

As a result, much of the movie swirls around Levinson making his own assertions and spreading his philosophy. He ends the movie where he begins it: articulating his own personal philosophy that television might be a destructive force in substantive political debates. PoliWood fails to back up or present a sophisticated view of its own premises (Levinson, for example, comments on how Al Gore drew attention to the global warming crisis through An Inconvenient Truth - reviewed here! – by essentially becoming a Hollywood celebrity while completely ignoring that the documentary only became a phenomenon because of Gore’s political celebrity and that if he had not been Vice President, he never would have managed to get the documentary produced) and the result is a lackluster documentary that only serves to reiterate the idea that the political process in the United States is damaged.

For other documentaries, please check out my reviews of:
Craigslist Joe
Jedi Junkies
Trek Nation


For other movie reviews, please check out my Film Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2014 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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