Saturday, September 25, 2010

On Conservative Movies. Sort of.


I recently wrote a piece for Vulture about whether we need more (and better) right-wing movies. (Short summary: Yes, mainly because liberal movies need a good kick in the pants to make them better.) It was pegged specifically to the news of an “upcoming” Ronald Reagan biopic, but it had been percolating in my mind for some time. (BTW, I put “upcoming” in quotes because it currently has no directors or actors attached, and biopics of political figures have a notorious tendency to not happen – see also the Lincoln biopic, the Ataturk biopic, etc.)

It was a tough piece to write on some level, because it’s obviously hard to define what a “right-wing” film actually is. I cite things like Missing in Action and Red Dawn and Rambo, but of course those are specifically action movies – comparing them to, say, Goodnight and Good Luck doesn’t quite feel right. Some extracurricular discussion about what constitutes a serious right-wing film yielded The Lives of Others as an example – a fine film that many conservatives embrace, but in the post-Cold War era, skewering the East German police state doesn’t quite have the bite that it might have had in the 1970s and 80s. (Though, it must be noted that The Lives of Others did prompt some controversy in Germany, with many on the Left disputing its claims.)

Which is all a roundabout way to start discussing Marie: A True Story, a seemingly little-remembered 1985 film by the great and underrated Roger Donaldson (The Bounty, Smash Palace, Thirteen Days, The Bank Job), and recently released on DVD via the wondrous Warner Archive Series. It’s the based-on-fact story of Marie Ragghianti (Sissy Spacek), a harried single mom and domestic abuse survivor who became head of the Tennesee Parole Board in 1976 and soon blew the whistle on the corrupt government of Gov. Roy Blanton, which was accepting bribes in exchange for clemency towards prisoners. Blanton had appointed Ragghianti, and his administration tried to push her around, so she took them to court. The heroic lawyer who represented her was a Republican politico named Fred Dalton Thompson, who is played in the film by a Republican politico named Fred Dalton Thompson; yes, the role launched his acting career.

Can we call it a right-wing movie? Ragghianti was a lifelong Democrat, and reportedly still is (though she did lend her support to her friend Thompson during his hilariously ill-fated Presidential campaign a couple of years ago), but consider the facts. The film not only depicts a corrupt Democratic administration (and furthermore takes care to remind us several times that it’s a Democratic administration), but it also makes lack of clemency something of a virtue. When we see Ragghianti presiding over board hearings, she pretty much always refuses to parole anybody, no matter how sad their stories. At one point, she looks into the woeful eyes of a convict’s young daughter as the man begs for release; in the following scene, she reveals that denying the man clemency broke her heart, and then expresses outrage at the idea that anybody might want to make money off such a pathetic situation.

That's all well and good, but there's more: She also remarks that after looking into the man’s record, she saw that his father had been executed when he was nine years old: “How do you tell a nine-year-old child that his father is going to the electric chair?" she asks. "How do you expect that kid to make it in life?” In other words, a social conscience and moral rectitude are not mutually exclusive; law and order hard-asses are not uncaring automatons. Just because you can understand the nuances of a situation doesn’t mean concepts of right and wrong are suspended. The film also goes out of its way to show Ragghianti as a devoted Catholic, which not only helps underscore her morality, but also allows for some de rigeur cinematic indulgence in heavy-handed symbolism. (Actually, I quite like this film. Donaldson has always had a way with people sitting around in rooms talking, knowing what details to focus on and how to keep dramatic conversation interesting without having to resort to outrĂ© stylization; he was like the 967th director tapped to helm Thirteen Days, but he really should have been the first.)

Anybody, no matter their political persuasion, should be able to appreciate the ethical themes depicted here: Bribery is wrong, exploiting prisoners is despicable, and strong-arming plucky whistleblowers played by Sissy Spacek is beyond the pale. But that doesn’t mean that it can’t be called a conservative film. Indeed, one of the things that marks good political cinema is its ability to convince, something today’s left-wing films appear to have mostly forgotten how to do. Conversely, a bad political film can make you question its beliefs, even if they happen to be ones you share. I remember, back in 2000, wanting to claw my eyes out while watching Rod Lurie's The Contender, an ultra-liberal drama so cartoonishly smug, so tin-eared and awkwardly manipulative that afterwards I actually sought out some Republican friends with whom to bemoan its bleeding-heart godawfulness; it's that sort of lame, self-satisfied political cinema that prompted me to write the Vulture piece in the first place. Which is why it felt so bracing to finally see Marie. I feel like a lot of today's films could borrow a page or two from its book.

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