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'Bulworth': Right on the Money

June 14, 1998|Robert Shogan | Robert Shogan has been The Times' national political correspondent since 1973

WASHINGTON — Campaigning in South-Central Los Angeles, U.S. Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth, played by Warren Beatty, is asked at a black church why he hasn't done more for the local community. "Well, 'cause you haven't really contributed any money to my campaign," he responds.

Anger and surprise rumble through the audience. But Bulworth adds: "If you don't put down that malt liquor and chicken wings and get behind somebody other than a running back who stabs his wife, you're never gonna get rid of somebody like me."

Real senators, of course, don't talk that way--not if they want to stay in the Senate. But if the scene--and the movie--strain credibility, the larger point is served. "Bulworth," in its own wacky way, delivers a devastating and hilarious indictment of the corrupting impact of big money on American politics.

Indeed, more directly than anything Hollywood has ever turned out, "Bulworth" takes on the power of political money, which 30 years of reporting on office holders and office seekers have taught me is hard to overestimate. Sure, money does not always dictate election outcomes--if it did, we would all be attending political seminars at the Nelson Rockefeller Presidential Library, as well as studying Al Checchi's campaign strategy.

There is a method to "Bulworth's" madness. It's an attempt to resolve the built-in dilemma facing any effort to satirize politics in the 1990s. With the skyrocketing demand for campaign funds, the shameless stress on manipulating public opinion through "spin" control and the seemingly unending flood of allegations of personal misbehavior against President Clinton, politics often seems to parody itself. Satirical films, as a result, run the risk of seeming hollow.

To avoid that danger and drive its liberal, reformist message home, "Bulworth" wields its wit less like a rapier than a bludgeon, as with its reliance on racial and ethnic stereotypes. Still and all, to this political observer, "Bulworth" stands head and shoulders over the two other recent films that sought to take on contemporary politics--"Wag the Dog" and "Primary Colors."

"Bulworth" is all about money and what it does for politicians; the money allows them to buy the television commercials, which serve as a substitute for convictions and courage, qualities conspicuous by their absence from the political realm.

The harm done by money is twofold: Not only does it influence the decisions politicians make, but also, their obsession with catering to fat cats leaves little time for dealing with issues that matter to voters.

This point is driven home artfully by Bulworth/Beatty in one of the many rap rhymes that enliven the film:

Now people have their problems

The haves and the have-nots

But the ones that make me listen

Pay for 30-second spots.

In seeking to undermine tolerance for this system, "Bulworth" sometimes goes way over the top. Besides deriding African Americans and the faith many of them share that O.J. Simpson was innocent of murder, it also mocks the role of Jews in politics, where they have long played a prominent role as fund-raisers and contributors.

"My guys are not stupid," Bulworth replies good-naturedly when asked why he has chosen to visit a gathering of Hollywood moguls, many of them Jewish: "They always put the big Jews on my schedule."

But in general Beatty's movie has a firmer grip on political reality and the boldness to push that reality to extremes in ways that are both entertaining and provocative.

In "Wag the Dog," White House advisors fabricate a war with Albania to divert public attention from a sexual indiscretion committed by the president--a conceit too far-fetched even for satire.

As for "Primary Colors," it sacrifices its satirical edge early on and transforms itself into an apologia for the behavior of its hero, Southern Gov. Jack Stanton, who, of course, bears an unmistakable resemblance to former Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton. Indeed, the movie relies at times on the main lines of defense of the White House's resident spin doctors, who have trumpeted the idea that any sin charged against Clinton was also committed by some of his predecessors.

"You don't think Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was a president?" Stanton asks a disillusioned aide, who confronts him over the revelation of his latest indiscretion. But whatever wrongs Lincoln committed, Stanton said, "he did it all just so he'd get the opportunity to stand in front of the nation and appeal to the better angels of our nature."

Now that's satire--Stanton comparing himself to Abraham Lincoln. But the scene is played as straight melodrama; Stanton's words serve to restore the faith of his aide, and Stanton marches on to the White House.

By contrast, "Bulworth" avoids such temporizing claptrap. Despite its implausible plot, the film is based on a fundamental reality--money, often called "the mother's milk" of politics, is also the root of political evil.

Or as Bulworth puts it:

One man, one vote

Now izzat really real?

The name of our game is

"Let's Make a Deal."

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