Sean Penn’s latest film, The Gunman, released this March, is currently rated at an embarrassing 16% on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics accused the film of being gruesomely violent, confused, predictable, and – perhaps worst of all – boring. Penn has a co-write credit on the film, and the plot (the past catches up with a retired hitman doing humanitarian work in Africa) is likely influenced by his own humanitarian experiences in Haiti. But in attempting to make a movie that is both issue-driven polemic and shoot-‘em-up action, Penn has learned the hard way that politics and movies shouldn’t mix.
I’m not suggesting politics and movie stars shouldn’t mix; the list of celebrity donors to Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign reads like a who’s who of Hollywood cool kids. And occasional movie stars have made the transition to politics: Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, our own Glenda Jackson. George Clooney and Ben Affleck have long been rumoured to have political aspirations.
No, I’m suggesting that problems arise when Hollywood tries to shoehorn political messages into what should be entertainment. Playwright (and author, screenwriter and director) David Mamet writes in Three Uses of the Knife that “…the purpose of art is not to change but to delight. I don’t think its purpose is to enlighten us…I don’t think it’s to teach us.” This seems to hold true at the box office, with moviegoers preferring feelgood and fun over serious and (sometimes) sanctimonious.
The first film on 2014’s Box Office chart that could be categorised as ‘political’ is 12 Years A Slave, at number fourteen (and a gross of over thirty-three million dollars) – undoubtedly boosted by awards success and big-name stars, it still couldn’t come close to The Lego Movie or even The Inbetweeners 2 (both grossing around fifty-five million dollars). Another issue-driven movie doesn’t appear until number fifty-four on the chart (Dallas Buyers Club, grossing just less than nine million dollars).
Mamet defines drama as “the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal”. The mistake many political or issue-driven movies make is to strive to enlighten us about a certain issue to the extent that the hero’s quest becomes secondary. Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, for example, was described by This Is London’s reviewer as “not so much a drama as a kind of protracted educational video, the message driven home by a soupily emotional score.” It came in at number sixty-one on 2014’s Box Office chart.
Pride, which tells the story of gay & lesbian activists supporting the early-80s miners’ strike, was lauded by critics (with a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 92%) but was beaten at the Box Office by the likes of Dumb and Dumber To, Nativity 3: Dude Where’s My Donkey, and the blasphemous remake of Annie. This could be attributed to Pride’s meagre marketing budget, but I think that, while the subject matter could scarcely be more sympathetic – its pro-equality, pro-solidarity message resonates with many – a focus on the cause rather than the characters left the audience with little to sink their teeth into.
Character before cause
But there are exceptions to every rule. 2013’s Philomena earned around one hundred million dollars at the box office and was nominated for four Academy Awards (including Best Actress for the great Dame Judi Dench, in the title role). The film manages to address Ireland’s dark history of separating unwed mothers from their children without feeling mawkish or manipulative – perhaps because it’s essentially an odd-couple comedy. And of course, 2000’s enduring Billy Elliot (you might have heard there’s a wildly successful musical adaptation?) focused on the titular Billy’s struggle for self-expression, against the backdrop of the miners’ strike.
Putting characters first, using political causes for context and backdrop, is something we Brits might be particularly good at – 1993’s In The Name of the Father and 2010’s Made in Dagenham come to mind – and might also be the trick to mixing politics and cinema without lecturing (and boring) the audience.
Hollywood take note.