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A Political Scientist at the Movies : REEL POLITICS American Political Movies From 'Birth of a Nation' to 'Platoon' by Terry Christensen (Basil Blackwell: $29.95; 256 pp.)

December 20, 1987|Michael Wilmington | Wilmington is a Times staff writer.

"Reel Politics"--by San Jose State political science professor Terry Christensen--is a survey of American political attitudes in movies from the early 1900s to the present. High time, you feel at first--aflush with good will for the endeavor--especially during this current movie era of mindless jingoism ("Rambo"), vigilantism ("Commando"), slash and cash ("Friday the eternal 13th"), the teen-sex comedies and the disco success sagas--all hot and rotten with the intoxicants of sex, revenge and success. Somebody should say something about all this. But is that somebody Christensen?

Doubts gather immediately. The book is divided into 17 footnoted chapters, in each of which Christensen briefly sketches in the socio-historical currents, and then discusses--or in most cases, synopsizes--what he considers that period's most important political films. His style, unfortunately, is bland, choppy, and humorless. But his approach seems thorough and his criteria clear. He says of his choices "These are not necessarily the best political films in terms of either art or philosphical content but they are the ones Americans saw and are therefore surely the most influential."

Does this mean the films he skips were not seen? By Americans or just by Christensen? Gradually, our expectations plummet. How would a serious enthusiast of film or politics react after coming on statements like these--all typical of "Reel Politics"? "Most of us go to movies with someone else, and afterward, we talk about the film." "All of us have some sort of ideology, but many Americans pretend they have none and so do most of the movies." "Usually (movies) tell us that bad people can mess up the system and that good ones can set it right." "Filmmakers should have more faith in their audiences and take more chances with movies about politics. Investors and distributors should support them." "The need for the camera to point toward something, usually a person, helps explain the emphasis on individualism." And: "Music is also used to convey ideas in a political film. The sound track tells us who the good guys and the bad guys are." Many are likely to get annoyed, feel their time is being grotesquely wasted and maybe even consider hurling the book across the room.

Yet, let's be generous. There's a need for good reference surveys for younger college students--or high school students. What seems oppressively banal or not worth mentioning to us, may be vital information for them. Christensen's heart is obviously in the right place. He is clearly well-intentioned, a serious left-wing student of government, against bad people and for good ones. Can we recommend this work, then, to the young and idealistic?

No, we can't. Not even to elementary school students--unless they have a stack of reference works nearby to straighten out the blizzard of errors Christensen and his editors inflict on us. "Reel Politics" is a proofreader's scandal: a Little Big Horn of erroneous facts and grievous misquotations and misspellings. Ronald Reagan himself would be hard-pressed to match it. Anxious for some, any, amusement from its limp pages, we counted 66 factual errors and misspellings in 223 pages of text. And these were just obvious errors: not questionable opinions, or most of the errant plot descriptions and misquoted dialogue.

For the rest, we learn in "Reel Politics," to our astonishment, that Orson Welles was 26 when he made "Citizen Kane" (he was 25); that Charlie Chaplin's Great Dictator, Adenoid Hynkel, was titled "Der Furor" (rather than "Der Phooey"); that Ernst Lubitsch wrote, directed and produced "To Be or Not to Be" (Edwin Justus Mayer wrote it from a story co-authored by Lubitsch), that many of James Bond's menaces were Chinese; that the song at the climax of "Dr. Strangelove" is not "We'll Meet Again" but Liberace's old signature tune, "I'll Be Seeing You"; that coke dealing biker Peter Fonda in "Easy Rider" is a "saint-like hippie leader"; that "Big Wednesday" is about three surfers who were drafted and went to Vietnam (Gary Busey and Jan-Michael Vincent stayed home); that the great box-office triumphs of the mid-'80s were "Rambo" and "Red Dawn" (John Milius, call your accountants!); and that anchorman Peter Finch's famous slogan in "Network" is "I've had enough and I'm not going to take anymore!"

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