The vice president has died, and the nation's chief executive (Jeff Bridges) appoints a woman (Joan Allen) to the job. In "The Contender," a political thriller that DreamWorks SKG is releasing next month, Allen plays a Democratic junior senator who needs to be approved by the House Judiciary Committee before she takes over as the nation's No. 2. * In the real world, this would mean days of hearings on weighty issues. In "The Contender," sex is topic A. It seems our heroine has a promiscuous past, and when a ranking Republican lawmaker (Gary Oldman) finds out about it, the stage is set.
Leave it to Hollywood to make congressional confirmation hearings hot. This is the place, after all, that created "The West Wing," NBC's hit series about a Democratic president (Martin Sheen) and his savvy executive staff, which has struck a chord by making the inner workings of government look as exciting as "ER" during a full moon.
Traditionally, Hollywood's biggest role in the political process has been a financial one. Even after the three DreamWorks founders--Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen--opted to step down from their informal stint as Hollywood's chief Democratic fund-raisers, the money keeps flowing in. By one recent tally, the entertainment industry has ponied up at more than twice the rate it did during the same period in the 1996 presidential election cycle, with donations to Democrats topping those to Republicans by 2 to 1.
But the industry injects something far less tangible than cash into the electoral process--and we're not talking about Warren Beatty. The way Hollywood dramatizes politics influences voters' ideas about strong leadership and skilled governance as much as the TV spots that the industry helps pay for. And despite itself, Hollywood may even be doing some good.
THE FACT THAT HOLLYWOOD AND WASHINGTON can serve each other to mutual advantage doesn't prevent pundits in both camps from mixing it up.
"Just as Americans have developed a warped impression from TV of what goes on in the courtroom or in a hospital or in a police station, politics as entertainment definitely has an effect on the electorate," says Dan Schnur, former national communications director for Arizona Sen. John McCain's presidential bid. "It's overly simplistic to say that because voters have gotten used to being entertained by TV politicians, they feel more of a need to be entertained. But they're increasingly impatient. A natural human politician doesn't have a prayer."
If Schnur is all doom and gloom about Hollywood's impact, though, Patrick Caddell is practically a Pollyanna.
A longtime Democratic strategist who quit politics in disgust in the 1980s to work as a consultant in Hollywood, Caddell says Schnur is missing the point: By helping Americans imagine a better political reality, television and movies can do something that's difficult to accomplish in the rough and tumble of actual campaigning.
"There's an opportunity to remind people that they are not wrong in believing that politics can be something other than a circus of corruption," says Caddell, who has served as an advisor on several movies ("In the Line of Fire" and "Air Force One") and on TV's "The West Wing."
"In 'The West Wing' we walk a critical line between being very realistic and at the same time being very idealistic," continues Caddell. "As Martin Sheen likes to say, it's a little bit of what might have been--if, say, a Bobby Kennedy had lived--and of what might still be."
Writer-director Gary Ross, who has written inspirational movies with political themes ("Dave," "Pleasantville"), not to mention speeches and jokes for a variety of candidates, including Bill Clinton, also treads the sunny side of the street when talking about Hollywood's impact.
"The irony is that Hollywood, which is seen as the most cynical and craven of all institutions, understands that what people really want is to not be cynical, but to have deeper beliefs," Ross says. "I believe a show like 'The West Wing' does a tremendous service by showing decent people trying to do a decent job for something they believe in."
Asked if Hollywood oversimplifies government, Ross demurs. "If anyone reduces politics to simple homilies, it's politicians more than entertainment--like when George Bush tries to reduce everything to a screed against Washington, D.C."
But to the extent that TV and movies often candy-coat political reality, do they truly serve Americans' interests? Andrew Fleming, director and co-writer of last year's "Dick," a film comedy about two teenagers who stumble into the middle of the Watergate scandal, spent some time in the real West Wing researching his script.
"It didn't feel at all like [the one on TV]. It felt very heavy and bureaucratic," Fleming says. "Any time there is entertainment that's talking about issues and making them engrossing, that's positive. But 'The West Wing' is really romanticized."