Josh Kurtz – Celluloid Edition: On a ‘Wing’ and a Prayer

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By: Josh Kurtz 

I should have written this column at the beginning of the summer – some thoughts on political movies and a TV show.

Light topics go hand-in-hand with summer. But it’s still before Labor Day, so maybe we’re ok.

What’s the connection to the general topic of this column, Maryland politics?

It stems from a meeting in Annapolis this spring of the Maryland Young Democrats, where I was one of the speakers. Someone asked me what my favorite political movie was. Without the opportunity to give it much thought, I answered “All the King’s Men.”

Someone else asked me what I thought about the TV series “The West Wing.” I answered that while there is much to admire about the show, I did not watch regularly, because I found its Clintonian version of governing and current events somewhat disingenuous so deep into the administration of George W. Bush – almost an abdication of responsibility for a series so clearly meant to depict what life in the West Wing is really about.

This triggered an immensely strong reaction from those Democratic youths. They explained, seemingly in unison, that to them, “The West Wing” was an ideal, a parallel universe, a refuge from the nasty Bush years. Which I totally get. Though if I had had the presence of mind at the time, I might have said to them, condescendingly, “Don’t mourn, organize.”

The funny thing is, when I’ve since run into some of the Young Dems who were at that meeting in Annapolis, they bring up my less than glowing assessment of “The West Wing.” I guess I struck a nerve.

So I’ll say it again, and in a little more detail. Good show. Strong writing – though the witty repartee, I thought, was greatly exaggerated. Because most top White House aides, I’d wager, are under way too much pressure and are way too overwhelmed by work to be clever.

Great acting. I mean, Martin Sheen – one of the best actors of his generation. Stockard Channing – bravo. One of the most versatile actresses around. Anyone who can go from Rizzo in “Grease” to Abbey Bartlet is ok in my book (and I’ve seen her on stage). And they had a daughter on the show named Zoey. I have a daughter named Zoe in real life.

But my criticism remains: To me, that show did not ring true – at least not during the era that it mostly aired (and I know, I know, it started in 1998 – I looked it up).

I would also like to amend and extend my remarks from that Young Democrats meeting and present for general consumption my six favorite political movies of all time.

What is a political movie, exactly? Not everyone’s definition is the same. After all, plenty of movies have elements of politics in them.

Certainly, some of the greatest films of all time, though not strictly political, have politics in them – from “Citizen Kane” to “Casablanca” to “On the Waterfront” to “The Godfather” movies. Heck, even “It’s a Wonderful Life” has class warfare in it. And some scholars have suggested that “The Wizard of Oz” was a metaphor for FDR and the politics of the 1930’s.

Woody Allen has featured hapless revolutionaries in two of his films, “Bananas” and “Sleeper” (“Pretty soon we’ll be stealing Erno’s nose” has got to be one of the keenest political observations in the history of cinema, and “a man named Albert Shanker got hold of a nuclear warhead” one of the most wicked lines ever delivered, though it would only translate in certain parts of the country at certain times in our history).

“Do the Right Thing,” now celebrating its 25th anniversary, is chock-full of political messages without a trace of overt politicking. And many war movies are by their very nature political (in this category I highly recommend “Paths of Glory,” a 1957 Stanley Kubrick film starring Kirk Douglas about French soldiers in World War I who are court-martialed for refusing to go through with a suicidal attack designed to make the generals look good).

I guess, when it comes to political movies, I take the Potter Stewart approach – I know them when I see them. So without further ado, here are my top six:

6. “Dr. Strangelove.” Speaking of Kubrick. Any film that makes you laugh about the prospect of nuclear annihilation is doing something right. Some of the characterizations of military leaders, while cartoonish, are probably not too far off the mark. Peter Sellers, in three roles, is brilliant. “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here – this is the war room!”

5. “All the President’s Men.” The politicians are mostly off-screen – but man, what a story! And put together like a thriller. Read the book, too, if you haven’t. Fun fact: The filmmakers not only recreated The Washington Post newsroom on a Hollywood sound stage, they took trash from the real Post newsroom and stuck it in garbage cans on the set. It’s a cliché for journalists my age to say this, but part of the reason I decided to become a journalist was because of Woodward and Bernstein (my other big influence was the reporting on local politics done for years at the Village Voice by Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett – and I was fortune enough to work for Barrett for a while when I was in my mid-20’s).

4. “A Face in the Crowd.” Andy Griffith like you’ve never seen him in this 1957 gem directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. Griffith plays the scary Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter who becomes a media sensation and later tries to influence presidential politics. With the sublime Patricia Neal as the woman who discovers and sometimes loves him, and a young Walter Matthau, already curmudgeonly, as the writer for Rhodes’ show who loves Patricia Neal. The world is full of hucksters and opportunists, and this movie exposes every one.

3. “The Candidate.” Elements of this 1972 masterpiece are dated now, but it’s a dead-on and funny assessment of the politics of the day. With Robert Redford as the idealistic legal aid lawyer who is drafted into running for the U.S. Senate from California on the promise that he’ll lose. Terrific supporting cast, including the grossly underrated Peter Boyle as the campaign’s top strategist, and the great Melvyn Douglas, whose own life was greatly touched by politics, as Redford’s father, a former California governor. Did the filmmakers know about Pat and Jerry Brown?

2. “All the King’s Men.” Superb adaptation of the classic Robert Penn Warren book, with Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, the Huey Long-like figure who dominates his state’s politics for a short, combustible period. The movie does not have the time to delve into all the history and the layered relationships in the way the book does, but it packs quite a lot into 110 minutes. I have never seen the Sean Penn version.

1. “Duck Soup.” People occasionally accuse me of being a Marxist. I’ll cop to it – I’m the Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo kind of Marxist. This, the best of their many great movies, is anarchy at its finest, thumbing its nose at political authority, war, the high and mighty, and hypocrisy at every level of society, with a million zingers and sight gags. It was made 81 years ago, but it never gets old.

My Honorable Mention list would include “Bulworth,” “Being There,” “The Great McGinty” and “Power,” among others.

Now that I’ve had my say, I’d love to hear your favorites. Drop me a line and we can keep the conversation going. If I get a lot of fun responses, maybe I’ll devote a follow-up column to them. See you at the movies!

Josh Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily, a Capitol Hill publication. He can be reached at .

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Josh Kurtz has been writing about Maryland politics since late 1995. Louie Goldstein, William Donald Schaefer and Pete Rawlings were alive, but the Intercounty Connector, as far as anyone could tell, was dead.

But some things never change: Mike Miller is still in charge of the Senate. Gerry Evans and Bruce Bereano are among the top-earning lobbyists in Annapolis. Steny Hoyer is still waiting for Nancy Pelosi to disappear. And Maryland Republicans are still struggling to be relevant.

The media landscape in Maryland has changed a lot, and Kurtz is happy to write weekly for Center Maryland. He's been writing a column for the website since it launched in January 2010.

In his "real" job, Kurtz is editor of Environment & Energy Daily down on Capitol Hill. But he'll always find Maryland politics more fascinating.

Kurtz grew up in New York City and attended public schools there. He has a BA in History from the University of Wisconsin and an MS in Journalism from Columbia University. He's married with two daughters and lives in Takoma Park, Md. He hopes you'll drop him a line, or maybe go out for a meal with him, because he's always hungry -- for political gossip.