Barry Levinson may very well have stumbled into a career renaissance, albeit in a slightly different career. He was one of the most consistently entertaining directors of the 1980s (his output that decade included Diner, Tin Men, Rain Man, and Good Morning, Vietnam). Then something went awry in the 1990s; he started turning out clunkers like Toys and Jimmy Hollywood and the criminally overrated Bugsy, and his last honest-to-God great film was 1998’s Wag The Dog (and its greatness may have had more to do with its prescient timing and David Mamet’s brilliant script).
But now, Levinson has made PoliWood, a personal documentary that’s better than any narrative film he’s done since. (Levinson's recent ESPN documentary, The Band That Wouldn't Die, confirms his skill as a documentarian.) In fact, PoliWood reminded me, in many ways, of Sydney Pollack’s final directorial effort; his 2005 film Sketches of Frank Gehry was also a very personal doc that proved a vast improvement over workmanlike but forgettable pictures like Random Hearts and his Sabrina remake.
Levinson wisely puts his cards on the table right up front; the opening credits don’t include the customary “A Barry Levinson Film” but instead “A Barry Levinson Film Essay.” There’s something about that phrase, film essay, which changes our expectations; the last movie that I remember willingly embracing that label was Orson Welles’ wonderful F For Fake, and it was a better picture for it; the connotation of that label is looser, more personal and freewheeling.
The film was inspired by Levinson’s work with the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan (but, come on, mostly liberal) organization of entertainer/activists. It’s loosely organized around the 2008 presidential campaign, as Levinson uses the group’s visits to the Democratic and Republic national conventions to examine the role that mass media plays in present-day politics, and if actors and other entertainers should take advantage of their celebrity to voice their opinions and raise awareness about their causes.
He finds a good format for the film, alternating (often non-chronological) documentary footage and interviews with his own, straight-to-camera commentary breaks. Those bits are among the film’s high points. In one, he talks about JFK’s 1959 TV Guide editorial on the danger of allowing television to influence political campaigns; Levinson then notes how Kennedy’s own campaign, and the subsequent Reagan administration, marked the beginning of the “television president.” In another, he makes an interesting comparison between the story of “Joe the Plumber” and the classic film Meet John Doe, which turns into an incredibly insightful (and bruising) analysis of Joe’s subsequent attempts to battle his own obsolescence.
The documentary footage is also well-cut and consistently interesting; it doesn’t hurt that the celebrities involved in the Creative Coalition are mostly well-spoken, thoughtful, attractive people like Anne Hathaway, Ellen Burstyn, Josh Lucas, Tim Daly, and Rachel Leigh Cook. Commentators like Lawrence O’Donnell, Tucker Carlson, and Eric Alterman add probing insights as well.
What’s surprising about PoliWood is that it turns out to be about more than we anticipated; yes, the issue of celebrity-as-pundit is addressed, and thoroughly, but Alterman makes such a compelling case for it early in the film that we don’t require much more in the way of logical argument. What Levinson does that is so interesting and unexpected is his subsequent shift to a larger analysis of mass media and political discourse. There is some frank and astute discussion of how, in today’s 24-hour news cycle, handlers must “create the character” of the politician, just as these actors create the characters they play in their films. From there, it’s no leap to draw parallels between Hollywood and Washington, D.C.—and between the negative connotations of both cultures.
Late in the film, the cameras follow Levinson to a “focus group with celebrities” that he has organized with the help of Fox News’ Frank Luntz (who gained a bit of notoriety for his “independent” focus groups during the campaign, but never mind that). He and several other coalition members sit down with a group of regular folks, and for a while, it is tough and uncomfortable to watch—they let these actors have it with both barrels. And the actors listen, but then they all start to talk and listen to each other, to have an honest debate and an attempt to find some ground. It’s the closest thing to a happy ending that we could hope for in a culture this polarized, and Levinson’s thought-provoking and entertaining documentary is a valuable part of that kind of conversation.
"PoliWood" is playing all month on Showtime.