Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Countdown to Election '08

As the 2008 US Presidential (and Congressional) election draws nearer, I thought it would be fitting to take a look at how politics, especially American politics, has been portrayed on film. I'm going to try to do a post a day until Election Day, because there's more than enough to choose from, but that's not a promise. I hope this is something people will enjoy, no matter what their political persuasion.

And I'm going to start with something that's not even a movie, but I can't possibly do a series on politics without giving it a very special mention.

The West Wing

It wasn't the first television show with a political bent, but it was the first show that took us inside the White House and introduced us to the people who help the president run the country. It was a Democratic White House, but it wasn't a partisan show. There were lots of Republican characters on the show, and they were almost without exception incredibly smart and just as patriotic as the people on the other side of the aisle.

Aaron Sorkin was heavily involved in the writing of the show - either solely writing or co-writing every single episode - for the first four seasons. After Sorkin left, to spend more time with his remaining sanity, the show faltered but came back strong in my opinion in the seventh and final season. That season focused on a new election, this time for the successor to Martin Sheen's President Bartlett, and the two candidates were a young, non-caucasian Democratic senator and an older, mavericky Republican senator. Funny old world, innit? (Incidentally, writers for the show have said that the fictional Democratic candidate Santos really was based on Obama, and even consulted with Obama's then aide - now chief campaign strategist - David Axelrod for research.)

I can't even begin to scratch the surface of the awesome storylines, character moments, and wowza dialogue that made this show such a wonderful phenomenon to watch each week. I'm not even going to try. But I do want to talk about a single episode, the pilot, which I think was the mission statement for the show, particularly the last few minutes.

We start with White House Deputy Communications Director Sam Seaborne (Rob Lowe), at a DC bar trying to fend off questions from a journalist and making eye contact with a lovely woman across the room (Lisa Edelstein, who most of you probably know as Cuddy from House). We then meet several other members of the White House senior staff as they are informed of the President having had a bicycle accident. Chief of Staff Leo McGarry (played by the late, great John Spencer), who is upset with the New York Times crossword for misspelling 'Khaddafi.' Deputy Chief of Staff Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford), who recently smarted off to an important member of the religious community and may lose his job over it ("Lady, the God you pray to is too busy being indicted for tax fraud!"). Communications Director Toby Ziegler, who tries to point out how silly the 'no cell phone' rule is for air travel. Press Secretary CJ Cregg, who is treadmilling and trying to flirt when she gets the news, and subsequently falls on her face.

We don't see the President for most of the episode. It's focused on the staffers and their responsibilities and relationships. Toby arranges a meeting with the offended religious personality and a couple of others to talk about how to appease them and thereby save Josh's job. Josh has lunch with an ex-girlfriend who is working for (and dating) a senator who may pull a Ted Kennedy and oppose the incumbent President in the next election. Sam, after spending the night with the lovely lady from the bar, accidentally takes her pager with him the next morning and discovers that she is an upscale call girl. He also gets stuck giving a tour of the White House - one of the few topics about which he cannot speak intelligently and with authority - and humiliates himself in front of Leo McGarry's lovely daughter and the third grade class she teaches. And on top of all that, several hundred Cubans have been spotted trying to escape from their homeland and seek refuge in the US.

In the final act, Toby, Josh, and CJ go to the meeting with the Very Important Religious People. And, because no description could match the awesomeness (excepting the bizzare ignorance of religious personalities as to what the First Commandment actually IS), here's the clip:

Sadly, that clip does not include the much more moving final couple of minutes, between the President and the senior staff, where he states what the show is really about. (The speech is in a separate clip, but without the context, so I'm not going to embed it.) They've received news that half of the Cubans who escaped from Havana in little more than fruit baskets have died and that the rest have arrived in Miami, seeking asylum. And here's the good part:

With the clothes on their back they came through a storm, and those who didn't die want a better life, and they want it here.

Then there's a wonderful moment, another mission statement of the show, I think. The President, who from a PR standpoint, should fire Josh for his nationally televised outburst. Instead, though, he's more of a father figure - somewhat jokingly chiding him for not being able to come up with something cleverer, but making sure he understands it can't happen again.

As great as the show was at inspiring people about what America could be, I think the human moments of the show were just as important, if not more so. These characters are not just serving their country and doing a job - they genuinely care about each other. Later that season, Josh and Sam would attempt something incredibly unethical and immoral to help Leo save face. When Josh considers bring a civil action against the KKK for contributing to the shooting that almost killed him, Leo and Toby (and Sam) offer to take a leave of absence from their very important jobs and help him sue the pants off them. President Bartlett had a very special relationship with his secretary and long-time friend, Mrs. Landingham. There were few more moving moments in the show than when he imagines seeing her ghost, echoing an earlier conversation they'd had and telling him that she can respect his decision not to run again if he doesn't think it's the right thing to do, but that if he doesn't want to because he thinks it'll be hard and that he might lose ... "then God, Jed, I don't even want to know you."

I could seriously go all day for many days about this show. It was such an incredible piece of patriotism, dealing with real and current issues that our country was facing and putting them with pretty faces that we loved to watch week after week. Every episode had a handkerchief-grabbing, hand-over-your-heart, humming-America-the Beautiful moment, and while I think the show itself ran its course and went out on a high note, I'm sad that there's nothing really out there that tugs at America's heartstrings like that.

Ah well. All seven seasons are on DVD.

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