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Washington Plays Itself

How movies about the political system fell in love with cynicism and messaging

Robert Redford as the idealistic would-be politician Bill McKay in the 1972 film "The Candidate"

The pivotal scene in Robert Altman’s 1988 miniseries Tanner ’88 happens early in the show—in fact, it happens near the very end of the pilot, as former congressman Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), a fictional addition to the already stuffed roster of Democrats running for president that year, winds down with his staff after a humiliating day on the campaign trail, one of many to come. Earlier, he’s told, members of a focus group who viewed his ads had peppered his team with different versions of the same question: Why, exactly, was he running? As the campaign’s videographer films him surreptitiously from under a glass coffee table, Tanner, comically aloof and diffident up to this point, rationalizes his long shot campaign in a rare moment of unguarded authenticity—a monologue soon to be fashioned into an ad that will briefly make Tanner a real contender.

It begins with an anecdote about a Democratic Leadership Conference meeting he’d attended in South Carolina, where his daughter, Lexi (Cynthia Nixon), had asked the other presidential candidates assembled to share their favorite Beatle. Gary Hart had fumbled around for a name. Michael Dukakis had unconvincingly chosen Paul. And Joe Biden hadn’t bothered to give an answer at all. “Now, I don’t know if Lexi knows the names of all the Beatles herself, let alone the answer to her own question, but it suddenly dawned on me that I sure as hell did,” Tanner says. “And I knew for sure that anybody who didn’t had absolutely no claim to generational leadership. Now I must have—what—10 years on Joe Biden. But, dammit, he wasn’t paying attention back then, and I was.”

Tanner waxes lyrical from there. Thomas Jefferson, like Copernicus before him and Darwin after him, had demonstrated the importance of asking “impertinent” questions, he says. And Vietnam and Watergate, the great shames of the last decade, had actually demonstrated America’s capacity to improve itself. “In our darkest hour, leaders, real leaders, have always stepped forward to hold the American people to the responsibility of citizenship,” he declares. “I’m not sure that it’s me, but I’d like the chance to find out.” As he exits the room, he turns to face his staff again. “Oh, and if you young people are still wondering, the right answer is John Lennon.”

It’s a moment that could have been penned by Aaron Sorkin. But it wasn’t. Written by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, Tanner ’88 studies presidential campaigns and its titular character with a bemused cynicism. It’s clear to viewers by the time Tanner rises to ramble on about Biden, the Beatles, and Copernicus that he’s no leader; his mushy liberal ideals wind up trumped by his own passivity and the rigors and inanities of politics in the late television age. Shot documentary-style and largely improvised over the course of the actual Democratic primary race, the series was inarguably ambitious for its time and is widely remembered as a classic of American political satire—partially because politicians loved it. Biden doesn’t appear in the series, but Hart, Dukakis, and a constellation of other candidates and political figures of the era do. Republican candidate Jack Kemp’s hammy overenthusiasm for his cameo—“I’ll beat your ass,” he reportedly yelled at Murphy at one point—led to his scenes being cut from the pilot.

Michael Murphy (right) as presidential candidate Jack Tanner, with his daughter, Lexi (Cynthia Nixon), and Bob Dole in Robert Altman’s miniseries “Tanner ’88”

Stories like this make Tanner ’88 a curio, an unusual and memorable experiment without too many direct imitators. But it does fit into a particular canon. There are four major modes of film and television about American politics. There’s earnest and saccharine material (The West Wing, Madam Secretary, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), soaps and thrillers that verge on or embrace the fantastical (House of Cards, Scandal), and works on the goofy end of the satirical spectrum (Veep, Parks and Recreation). Then there are arch and knowing works, like Tanner ’88, that aim for realism from an ironic distance, often with the help of cameos or documentary techniques. An early and influential entry in this tradition, Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, turns 50 this year. Its spiritual successors, including Tanner ’88, Mike Nichols’s Primary Colors, and Steven Soderbergh’s little-seen K Street, show us our political system through the eyes of our political class at the peak of its own self-obsession. All are stories from the days before the reality and endurance of “American democracy” became an open question among elites—a half-century in which it was possible to believe that success in politics was a matter of mastering certain immaterial yet immutable laws, and that the talents of hacks and flacks matter more than the forces of history.

1960 was year zero for modern American politics. John F. Kennedy and his campaign were truly of and for the television age; their mastery of the medium, often casually attributed to Kennedy’s looks, marked the beginning of a revolution in how the powerful, handsome and not, communicate with the public. It also marked the beginning of election journalism as we know it. The wildly influential documentary Primary—shot by D.A. Pennebaker, Albert Maysles, and other legends-to-be of documentary filmmaking—intimately covered Kennedy’s campaign against Hubert Humphrey in Wisconsin. And in print, the journalist Theodore H. White offered a novelistic and behind-the-scenes look at the whole race in the bestselling and Pulitzer Prize–winning first entry of his The Making of the President series. But neither is quite as famous today as a book that was branded as a more subversive take on White’s work—Joe McGinniss’s The Selling of the President 1968 (1969), which covered the shrewd, consultant-heavy, and media-savvy campaign of the man Kennedy had outshone in 1960, and introduced Nixon television strategist Roger Ailes to the world for the first time.

Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, released in 1972, was another coming-out of sorts for Ailes’s line of work. While the film is nominally about Robert Redford’s Bill McKay, a reluctant first-time candidate trying to keep his ideals and his head straight on the campaign trail, his frumpy, pudgy, and crass consultants are the real stars of the show, which winds up being a Pygmalionesque tale of transformation. “People will look at our stuff and see a guy with guts,” one says of McKay early in the film. “They’ll look at the Crock and think he can’t get it up anymore.”

“The Crock” here is California Senator Crocker Jarmon, an avuncular, long-serving conservative Republican about old enough to be McKay’s father—an age gap the Jarmon campaign and the press underscore often. McKay’s actual father had been governor; his distaste for the wheeling and dealing his father had mastered and the tumult of the 1960s had initially driven him away from conventional politics. When the operative Marvin Lucas seeks him out at the start of the film, McKay is working at a legal aid clinic. And he agrees to run only after Lucas tells him he can run to lose, using the campaign as an opportunity to publicize the issues he cares about. But, famously, he winds up winning, having been coached well by Lucas and his team. In the film’s last scene, a dazed McKay tries to steal a quiet moment with Lucas away from his cheering supporters. “What do we do now?” he asks. The crowd finds them and rushes into the room before Lucas can answer.

Here again, the subtleties are dispensed with—campaigns are a mucky, mind-numbing business, and The Candidate is intent on us knowing it. There’s a mock interview where McKay’s staffers encourage him to dial back his enthusiasm for abortion rights. “Just say it’s worth studying,” he’s told. A fire breaks out in Malibu, and McKay’s rushed over for a photo op—“Don’t turn this into an issues thing; it’ll make it look like you’re trying to make political capital out of a fire,” he is warned—only to be upstaged when Jarmon lands on the scene in a helicopter. In a critical speech near the end of the film, McKay begins at a populist pitch—“The biggest, the richest, the most powerful country cannot keep its full job force working!” he says. “It cannot tend all its sick people. It cannot feed all its hungry people or decently house its poor people”—but, mentally worn down from his staff’s entreaties, he starts speaking in platitudes as Lucas looks on approvingly and stately music fades in. “I think the time has come when the American people realize that we’re in this together,” he drones, “and that we sink or swim together.”

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The Candidate’s comfortably jaded, Academy Award–winning screenplay was, perhaps unsurprisingly, written by a veteran political journalist—Jeremy Larner, who had also worked as a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy. But Larner’s finger-wagging didacticism isn’t quite as overbearing on-screen as it is on the page, thanks to Ritchie’s immersive, documentary-style approach—it’s a morality play, but the McKay campaign does feel fluid and real, partially because Larner’s characters share the spotlight with real figures making cameos. The actress Natalie Wood attends a McKay fundraiser. Playing himself, ABC anchor Howard K. Smith delivers some on-air commentary on McKay’s softening edges and political phoniness. Hubert Humphrey, George McGovern, and a slew of California politicians appear briefly. And while they don’t appear themselves, Larner’s script namechecks columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, names that would have been familiar mostly to Americans who followed national politics very closely. Political junkiedom as pop culture had fully arrived.

Few things in The Candidate feel more dated now than Ritchie’s fascination with TV screens. The camera lingers on them and gives us views of the scene from them at every opportunity, burying important but no longer novel ideas about truth, artifice, and how cameras blur the lines between them under several layers of showy reflexivity. Filmed 16 years later, Altman’s Tanner ’88 makes the same move at its very beginning—our first glimpse of the candidate comes from a screen in a control booth as Tanner sits for an interview. Before long, we’re introduced to the aforementioned videographer, Deke, who happens to be making a “neorealistic political film documentary” about the campaign, to the irritation of Tanner’s campaign manager, T.J. (Pamela Reed). “If I hear you use that phrase ‘neorealism’ one more time,” she sighs, “you’re going to be using it outside.”

But Tanner ’88 takes its immersion and self-referentiality a few extra miles beyond The Candidate. The series follows Tanner and his campaign from New Hampshire all the way through to the 1988 Democratic convention, with the bare bones of each episode’s cameo-heavy plot sketched out in response to the real events of the primaries. Tanner’s bid is ultimately torpedoed by his own ambivalence about the campaign, which leads him to pursue a romance with Michael Dukakis’s deputy campaign manager Joanna Buckley (Wendy Crewson). In the series’ final episode, Kitty Dukakis appears as herself to console Buckley about the scandal and ask if Tanner will endorse Michael, who had by then won the nomination.

In an earlier episode, Dorothy Sarnoff, an image and body language consultant employed by Jimmy Carter and Bob Dole, makes a more comic pre-debate cameo that sends up her profession in all the ways you might imagine. “Here’s the vital triangle,” she tells Tanner, poking at his abdomen. “They’re the rectus abdominis muscles[, which] if used in contraction on exhalation prevent the production of a negative chemical in your system that makes you physically have the manifestations of nervousness.” The viewer is supposed to come away from the scene thinking Sarnoff’s a good sport, but the series’ cameos are made with the magnanimity of people with little to lose—Tanner ’88 jabs at the superficiality of elections without puncturing any given persona in particular. Assurances to that effect were surely made by the political consultant Altman hired to help book appearances—Sidney Blumenthal, a reporter for this magazine and other publications in the ’80s and ’90s who would go on to become a top adviser to the Clintons. He appears as himself among the guests he convened for a Washington cocktail party in the series’ fourth episode. They spend their time on-screen offering Tanner banalities. “You’re not going to win,” a partygoer tells Tanner sagely, “just because you’re a good guy.”

Naturally, Tanner’s uncomfortable with this kind of no-nonsense, whip-smart advice and clearly suspects his run might have been a mistake altogether. “I allowed you people to exploit me there,” he says of the ad his staffers crafted out of the Beatles speech. And, unlike McKay in The Candidate, he never really wises up and commits himself to winning—full of convictions but hopelessly devoid of conviction, he shuffles steadily toward defeat, wincing and grimacing through a gauntlet of comic indignities along the way. In one of the series’ best scenes, Tanner’s high-minded and high-strung daughter, Lexi, persuades him to make a promised but forgotten appearance at an anti-apartheid demonstration. After a brief speech urging a comprehensive global boycott of South Africa, he’s unwittingly handcuffed backward to a chain of activists and arrested. As he tries to explain the arrest as an accident at a press conference in the next episode, Lexi interrupts him, makes up the rest of his South Africa policy on the spot, and condemns Jesse Jackson for not appearing at the demonstration as Tanner tries to slink out of view.

Both The Candidate and Tanner ’88 offer us candidates we’re supposed to believe are flawed but fundamentally good—at least before their good intentions are subverted or undermined by the demands of campaigning and the wily masters of medium and message pulling the strings of American politics from behind the camera. Neither spends much time contemplating the possibility that the system might have larger problems than the existence of the 30-second spot, and neither offers a particularly full picture even of the relationships between politicians and their strategists. McKay and Tanner are implausible naïfs, resigned to getting pushed around by staffers who want them to win more than they themselves do. By contrast, Primary Colors takes a look at a politician with more political gifts, fewer scruples, and a real hunger for power: Bill Clinton.

No, Clinton himself doesn’t make an appearance, and the film as a whole is devoid of political cameos beyond the likes of television personalities such as Geraldo Rivera and Larry King. But the film, written by Elaine May, and the novel it’s based upon, anonymously written by journalist Joe Klein, are both loosely but clearly based on Clinton’s 1992 campaign. Bill and Hillary, the governor and first lady of Arkansas, become Jack and Susan Stanton, the governor and first lady of an unnamed Southern state, played by John Travolta—doing a memorably broad impression—and Emma Thompson. Campaign strategist James Carville, a character almost too strange for fiction, is reshaped into the still aggressively Southern but more intelligible strategist Richard Jemmons, played by Billy Bob Thornton. Gennifer Flowers, the lounge singer who just before the New Hampshire primary produced edited tapes appearing to document an affair with Clinton, becomes Cashmere McLeod, a hairdresser who just before the New Hampshire primary produces edited tapes documenting an affair with Stanton, in what amounts to a shot-for-shot remake of Flowers’s press conference.

One of the more glaring creative liberties Primary Colors does take is with the identity of its main character—not Stanton/Clinton, but Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a Black stand-in for Clinton deputy campaign manager George Stephanopoulos, whom Klein invents and positions as the nation’s conscience. “I’ve never heard a president use words like ‘destiny’ and ‘sacrifice’ without thinking, ‘bullshit,’” he says to Susan early in the film. “And OK, maybe it was bullshit with Kennedy, too, but people believed it. And I guess that’s what I want. I want to believe it.” Here, a pattern is reversed—not a candidate who was born yesterday, but a consultant, one who in the end swallows his principles and reconciles himself to his amoral employer’s way of doing things, rather than the other way around.

That’s a change that seems truer to how relationships between candidates and their staffs generally work, though it’s motivated here less by Klein’s gifts of perception than by his animus toward Clinton. Klein was discovered as the author of Primary Colors thanks to text and handwriting analyses, but the mystery should have been easier for Washington’s politicos to solve than it evidently was. Though he’d initially been friendly with him, Klein urged Clinton to move right on race and social issues so persistently that the White House—Bill Clinton!—eventually froze him out. In retribution, Klein worked to draw more attention to Clinton’s personal foibles, an effort that culminated with his novel, a frothy mix of barely disguised fact, pure fiction, and salacious innuendo so irresponsible that even Clinton’s detractors at National Review called it preposterous.

Notably, of all the criticisms and accusations against the couple, personal and not, that Klein’s novel and the subsequent film might have drawn from, the back half of Primary Colors centers around the now long-forgotten allegation that Clinton had fathered a Black child. In both the novel and the film, the campaign’s efforts to neutralize the scandal help drive Stanton fixer Libby Holden, a character played by Kathy Bates and based on Clinton fixer Betsey Wright and White House counsel Vince Foster, to suicide—a decision that’s not quite believable given her willingness to defend Stanton on virtually all other matters. Earlier in the film, we see her punch a hole through a door, pull out a gun, and jam it in the crotch of the man who recorded Burton’s phone calls with Stanton. “I’m a gay lesbian woman,” she warns. “I do not mythologize the male sexual organ.”

As genuinely lurid as the world of the Clintons has been, this scene in particular belies the praise Primary Colors won for its realism. But there are larger issues with the film’s verisimilitude. Throughout, Stanton/Clinton’s campaign is misleadingly depicted as a two-bit, backwater operation wholly disconnected from any national political infrastructure and the wider Democratic Party. And for a narrative ostensibly aimed at dismantling Clinton’s self-image, Primary Colors is curiously incurious about his manner and personal affectations. Off the trail, we see Stanton/Clinton and his team kicking back with ribs behind a trailer in some backwater part of his home state; Travolta’s take on Clinton is even drawlier and fonder of Southern idioms than the genuine article—a man who attended Georgetown, Yale, and Oxford and, as governor of Arkansas and chair of both the Democratic Governors Association and the Democratic Leadership Council, had already become a major and visible advocate for the Democratic Party’s shift toward the political center and technocracy by 1992.

There are bits and pieces of Stanton/Clinton the wonk throughout the film, but those moments are less about what he’s saying than how he’s saying it—late in the film, for instance, he gives a speech to factory workers about the inevitable demise of their sector and the “skills” training that would lead them to new jobs. “I will fight, sweat, and bleed to get the money to make education a lifetime thing in this country, to give you the support you need to move up,” he tells them. “But you have got to do the heavy lifting your own selves.” We hear nothing more of this and what it means. Just as Tanner ’88 renders a Democratic Leadership Conference meeting as little more than an occasion to have asked the Democratic candidates about the Beatles, Stanton/Clinton’s speech is intended as little more than another demonstration of his charisma and political gutsiness. The film just moves on, mirroring the political vapidity it putatively laments.

To its credit, Steven Soderbergh’s K Street, a largely improvised 2003 miniseries on the lobbying industry, isn’t quite as insubstantial. There’s policy here—subplots on trucking regulations and the Recording Industry Association of America’s campaigns against illegal downloads, for instance—but it’s overshadowed by the oddity of the show’s experimental premise and central events. It’s about a fictional lobbying firm whose top consultants are James Carville and Mary Matalin. Both play themselves in a narrative cluttered up with incomprehensible office intrigues, the romantic woes of fellow consultants played by John Slattery and Mary McCormack, and—in keeping with Tanner ’88’s ripped-from-the-headlines approach—a set of episodes in which Matalin deals with accusations that she may have leaked the identity of Valerie Plame. It is, without a doubt, one of the most baffling things HBO has ever aired.

It’s also one of the most boring, although that’s partially because Soderbergh nails political Washington’s aesthetics—the series was shot handheld on cheap, digital video, which only emphasizes how gray, drab, and dimly lit the spaces D.C.’s operators tend to inhabit really are. And in addition to cameos from politicians whom HBO’s viewers were surely thrilled to see—Orrin Hatch! Steny Hoyer!—a remarkable number of those operators appear as themselves. It’s a veritable who’s who of who’s thats. You could fit every American outside the Beltway capable of recognizing Tammy Haddad—political Washington’s preeminent party hostess—onto a basketball court. She appears in conversation with McCormack without introduction or explanation anyway, showing off a purse shaped like the White House she’d won at a dinner for the Larry King Cardiac Foundation. John Breaux Jr., a lobbyist and the son of Louisiana Senator John Breaux, appears as a love interest in three episodes. Naturally, media personalities get screen time as well—there’s a run-in with Joe Klein on the street here, a lengthy phone call with Bill Kristol there. In a late episode, Carville has a chat with Tucker Carlson and thanks him for babysitting his kids before his appearance on Crossfire.

Who and what was all this really for? Ostensibly crafted to give viewers a glimpse of Washington’s under-heralded power players, K Street never really shows or says anything surprising. Lobbyists, the viewer is informed, are amoral mercenaries who care far less about the substance of the issues they take up than about the thrill of landing a big client, whoever it may be. At every point when the show seems poised to flesh this out further—each and every time things threaten to get morbidly interesting—it gets in its own way. In the series’ third episode, Carville—who can be heard complaining later in the series that the firm isn’t getting any windfall contracts from Iraq—takes on a PR campaign for the Saudi regime, which he defends on the grounds that radical Islamists would take over the country in its absence. “All these people that want to throw these guys out—who the hell do they think they’re going to replace it with?” he asks heatedly. “Tony Blair? No—you’re going to have all these Waheebees [sic] or whatever the hell they call themselves in there.” After another conversation with Chuck Schumer and John Slattery about the “Waheebees,” the Saudi subplot turns into a dull and unintelligible crime story about an illegal transfer of funds—a situation seemingly orchestrated for inscrutable reasons by the founder of Carville and Matalin’s firm, played by Elliott Gould, who spends most of the show in his New York apartment watching Mildred Pierce.

Really, K Street’s most thought-provoking scene is one of its first. In the series’ pilot, Vermont Governor Howard Dean, then running in the Democratic presidential primary, participates in a mock debate prep session with Carville and Paul Begala. At one point, Carville offers Dean a line to use in the event he’s challenged on his ability to address racial issues, given Vermont’s whiteness—one referencing the Black populations of conservative states like Mississippi, then represented by Republican Senator Trent Lott: “If the percentage of Black folks in your state was determinative of your record on civil rights,” Carville says, “then Trent Lott would be Martin Luther King.” It’s a good line—so good in fact, that Dean went on to use it in an actual presidential debate. Later, we see Carville and John Slattery crack up at a clip of Dean saying it. Here again, we’re watching the flacks watch the candidate, only this time with the reflexivity inherent in political docu-fiction taken to an extreme—a warning about the blurring line between truth and artifice that winds up erasing it entirely.

While interest in the roles that lobbyists and operatives play in our politics obviously isn’t wholly misplaced, they’re just about the easiest targets around. And in straining to say something larger, these narratives all lean on the same social concern for added depth: race. There’s a scene in The Candidate where McKay trudges awkwardly through Watts; in K Street, the Black lobbyist Francisco Dupré, played by Roger Guenveur Smith, is exoticized by his co-workers and has a deeply strange improvised heart-to-heart with Donna Brazile. “This city,” she tells him, “is full of castrated brothers.” In Tanner ’88’s most jarring episode, the silly romantic subplot about Tanner dating Dukakis’s deputy campaign manager is interrupted by a stop in Detroit, where we watch real Black residents confront a fake white politician about violence and poverty in their neighborhoods. Throughout, Murphy squirms in what may well have been genuine discomfort. The episode ends with him discovering a child who’d been shot and left to die by the side of a road. None of this really amounts to commentary. A body is thrown before viewers less to tell them something novel about Detroit than to tell them that Altman and Trudeau are troubled by Detroit’s problems.

Tanner ’88’s first explicit engagement with race happens in a markedly different context and tone. At the Blumenthal-arranged cocktail party, then-Representative Ed Markey offers thoughts on how Democrats can gain and retain suburban voters. “The interesting thing this year is that there are a lot of issues like drugs, which only Jesse [Jackson] thus far in the Democratic Party is speaking to,” he says. “If a white candidate could begin to talk about the concerns which suburban, BMW-driving could-be Democratic primary voters are concerned about, their kids, their families—there’s another side to all this money, which is what it means in terms of access to a whole bunch of things that undermine the family.” Democrats, in other words, needed a white candidate capable of assuaging racialized suburban anxieties about crime and cultural change.

That candidate arrived in 1992, although Primary Colors doesn’t dwell on those aspects of Clinton’s campaign very much at all—there are no transmuted versions of the Sister Souljah moment, the execution of Ricky Ray Rector, or Clinton’s speech at Stone Mountain in the film’s narrative. Instead, we’re given a scene in which Billy Bob Thornton’s Carville analogue, Richard Jemmons, is confronted by Burton for exposing himself to a female staffer and launches into an unhinged racist tirade, ripped straight from the book. “You [...] are a honky,” he says. “You just look Black. It’s the best part of you. It lets you intimidate the pale faces, especially lib-labs, and work that voodoo sexual shit on white girls. I’m probably blacker than you are. I got some slave in me. I can feel it.” This is a talking-to the film implies Burton ultimately needed. Jemmons, after all, is invaluable—the very brains of the campaign. Burton—a young, stuck-up, politically correct liberal, and a political neophyte by comparison—reconciles with him almost immediately. This, the film says, is what it takes to win.

In 2008, we elected a president who resembled Burton more than Jemmons. An apex candidate running an apex campaign defeated the Clinton machine and, some people allowed themselves to believe, defeated racism itself—all thanks to rhetoric, branding, and deft crisis management. That, at least, is the reading of Barack Obama’s rise we’ve been encouraged to adopt over the last year by pundits who insist the Democratic Party today can similarly message its way around the deepening structural disadvantages it faces in our federal system. But Obama, as politically gifted as he was, rode a wave of overlapping factors to the presidency in 2008—a war, a financial crisis, demographic changes, and new technology that revolutionized political communication yet again. By 2012, it was obvious that some of the very same forces, or the reactions to them, were eroding the Democratic Party’s strength in electorally crucial areas; by 2016, the party’s position was weak enough that it was defeated by a Republican candidate who shredded every shibboleth the consultants had spent the last five decades compiling.

Washington movie and TV shows don’t tell us much more than we already know about politics, but they do deepen our understanding of why so few were able to see Donald Trump and the collapse of politics as we knew it coming. “Our lives are more and more determined by forces that overwhelm the individual,” McKay says in The Candidate—this is the first and last you hear of such forces in the film. Instead, the film inaugurates a tradition that misses the forest for the trees—critiques of political professionals that aggrandize them as the frustrating yet endlessly fascinating loci of all our problems. “Politics is bullshit,” one of McKay’s activist friends tells him early in the film. That may well be so, but the empty pageantry has a purpose. Our obsession with political hacks has encouraged the public to think about politics on the hacks’ terms; entirely too much time we might otherwise spend debating policies and values has been given over to trading superstitions about “electability” and “momentum.”

Instead, we ought to turn our attention to the defects of economic and political structures we’ve long taken for granted. Filmmakers and artists aren’t obligated to be political didacticists. But those who take up that responsibility and mean well ought to give us more than the easy, know-nothing cynicism we’ve been handed down for generations. So, politics is bullshit. Fine. What do we do now?