As the winter continues, three members of the department offer some recommendations for political viewing for when its too cold to go out…
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
One of my favourite films about politics is Frank Capra’s Mr Smith Goes to Washington (Columbia Pictures, 1939), which tells the story of Jefferson Smith, who is plucked from obscurity to become a United States Senator after the incumbent dies in office. The film is saccharine sweet in places; Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart, is all ideals and no interests, which is hard for most political scientist to understand. However, as in Stewart and Capra’s better-known collaboration – It’s a Wonderful Life – such sentimentality is merely a vehicle for exploring the dark side of the American dream. Striking in this regard is the film’s portrayal of machine politics, a practice whereby politicians were beholden to shadowy party bosses who frequently championed business interests and political gain. This practice was at its peak in the United States in the late 19th Century – the heyday of Tammany Hall – but it was still prevalent in the 1930s. Harry Truman, for example, was disparagingly known as ‘The Senator from Pendergast’ after his election in 1934 thanks to his close connections with Missouri political boss Tom Pendergast. Pendergast, indeed, may have served as an inspiration for Jim Taylor, the political boss who sends Jefferson Smith to the Senate, and there are shades of Truman’s everyman persona in Smith. Truman retained a strong sense of loyalty to Pendergast even after the latter’s imprisonment for tax evasion and the former’s promotion to the Vice Presidency.
Jefferson Smith, in contrast, takes on Taylor’s political machine in the press, and in the famous filibuster scene in which he takes to the Senate floor for 24 hours without interruption to rail against graft, greed and lies in the US political system. It is a fine performance from Stewart but Claude Rains – better known for his role as Capt. Louis Renault in Casablanca – steals the show as the corrupt but conflicted senior Senator from Smith’s unnamed State. Mr Smith Goes to Washington rarely makes the list of all-time best films these days, but it continues to inspire contemporary political drama and practice and its disenchantment with, but hope for, politics still resonates.
When students starting my course on Space and Power in International Politics ask for background reading, I tell them to watch as much as possible of Season II of The Wire
For those fortunate enough to have a first-time viewing of this US TV show ahead of them, it’s essentially a programme about the life of Baltimore, or indeed any large American metropolis. The second series is set on the city’s docks, now dominated by the ubiquitous Twenty-Foot Equivalent Unit (TEU) – otherwise known as the container . This steel or aluminium box acts as the protagonist of capitalist globalisation in the series; a cipher for a whole host of local and transnational social relations marked by ethnic, gender and class cleavages.
The world’s pioneering container firm was called Sea-Land Services for a reason: it promised the smooth transit from truck to ship (and vice-versa), thereby shrinking distance and reducing cost. This was, for many, a signal moment in the annihilation of space by time. When Frank Sobotka, the Polish-American working-class hero of the second series and his union comrade Nat attend a corporate seminar on the effects of containerisation in Rotterdam, the pitch is an eminently temporal one: ‘Gentlemen. Ladies. The future is now’ declares the PR suit before handing over to the promotional video: ‘To bring goods to an exploding global economy, and to deliver those goods faster, cheaper and safer, modern robotics do much of the work’.
Container technology, it is intimated, eliminates error, accident and inaccuracy by drastically reducing the number of man-hours employed in processing the cargo. ‘That’s efficiency, Nat’ chips in a fellow audience-member. But the management’s PR man is immune to any irony, intentional or otherwise. His mantra is the universality of standardisation ‘No, no, they work with all kinds of cargo, in all kinds of weather.’
The second series revolves around the fate of illegal commodities transported in the containers –drugs and trafficked women. Against the neo-liberal fantasy of the global economy as a ‘flat’, seamless space , The Wire tells a story of territorialisation and sense of place. The contraband may come from distant shores, controlled by exotic characters like ‘The Greek’ and his Ukrainian and Israeli intermediaries, but it constructs sharp, local ‘on-the-ground’ divisions between the East- and West-side gangs of Baltimore. It also creates characters like Bodie, a young drug runner who is genuinely incredulous about the existence of different radio stations outside his native Baltimore. ‘You ain’t never heard of radio station outside of Baltimore?’ his side-kick Dragon asks. ‘No man, I ain’t never left Baltimore and I wasn’t trying to get no radio […] Why would anyone want to leave Baltimore man, that’s what I’m asking?’.
In the end, it is the figure of a discarded, anonymous corpse haunting this series that pierces through the shimmering surface appearances of global capitalism. Not simply because it represents the murky depths of a containerised world, but mainly because it reveals in the starkest light the political grounding of our globalised economy. The fallen idol of Series I, Inspector Jimmy McNulty is demoted in the second season to duties with the City’s Marine Unit where he maps the ebb and flow of harbour waters so as to locate the dumping of a dead body beyond the County line into Baltimore Police territory. This eminently political act of delimiting an ‘inside’ and an ‘outside’ – of manipulating a jurisdiction – is conveyed with magisterial simplicity in The Wire, offering a profound lesson for any student of space and power in international politics today.
Le Grande Bellezza (The Great Beauty)
Recently I finally managed to watch Le Grande Bellaza, a film by Italian director Paulo Sorrentino. It’s about an ageing journalist, caught up in the hectic social life of Rome’s elites in Berlusconi’s Italy. When I first watched I wasn’t really sure what was happening. But for days afterwards the film wouldn’t leave me alone. So, here’s why it should be watched.
First, it has just been nominated for an Oscar and has already won a Golden Globe for best Foreign Film 2014 as well as winning or being nominated for all sorts of other awards.
Second, it looks absolutely amazing (take a look at the trailer here). The film swirls around the new and old Rome from crazy parties to ancient buildings. Visually, it’s a bit like Eyes Wide Shut-without Tom Cruise. Instead you have the Italian actor Tony Servillo, who spends his time looking cynically amused at the madness around him, while half trying to find a way out (Servillo recently played a famous Italian politician in the film Il Divo by the same director).
Third, the film is really about Silvio Berlusconi. He isn’t in it and his name never appears. But the film tries to tell us what Berlusconi, three times Prime Minister of Italy and founder of a new party called ‘Forza Italia’, did to the country. A bit like Thatcher was said to have made Britain greedy in the 1980s, Silvio Berlusconi made Italy in the 2000s selfish, shallow and self-obsessed.
The film is full of rich, idle and selfish people attending parties, seeking all sorts of thrills but unable to really ‘feel’ anything. Tony Servillo’s character once wrote a novel in his youth and now he begins a search for real inspiration (the Great Beauty) to try and recapture the emotions he felt when he was younger.
One warning. Mark Kermode, he who reviews all films, gave it 3 out of 5 stars and said that in the film ‘dialogue is often abandoned in favour of music’. I agree and warn you not to expect a ‘straight’ story or plot (but the music is tremendous-see this five star review).
Ben Worthy is a Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck.