Great political movies (No32) Bulworth

When better than the 4th of July to review a movie that questions some of the fundamentals of American democracy and government?

For me this is the last decent movie Warren Beatty made before he effectively retired. In it he plays a liberal Senator who is in the midst of a mental breakdown. His once radical edge has been eroded over the years and he is now trying to repackage himself as a conservative. Driven to the brink of insanity by the long hours of campaigning, the collapse of his family and the betrayal of his youthful idealism he decides to hire someone to assassinate himself while in LA during the last few days of the 1996 election. Thanks to a deal he has cut with the healthcare insurers, his family will receive a huge payout when he is killed.

Suddenly freed from his responsibilities and confronted with yet another speech repeating the same tired platitudes he spectacularly goes off message and decides to tell people the truth. The whole concept of ‘politican tells the truth’ is a bit of a cliché but here Beatty gets away with by breaking so many taboos. For instance when appearing in front of a church congregation of African-Americans, he informs them that neither the Democrats or the Republicans really care about them, but that it doesn’t matter because it’s a two-party system so they have to vote Democratic. He then lurches through the rest of the movie insulting everybody in sight in a way that would be genuinely offensive if this wasn’t a work of satire. He takes drugs, goes to all night dance clubs and gleefully swears on TV. Throughout all of this he is pursued by Oliver Platt, his long-suffering campaign manager, desperate to know what the Senators new strategy is.

In terms of politics Bulworth is possibly one of the most left-wing mainstream films in recent memory. As well as underlining the absurdity of the current two-party system, it also attacks the war on drugs, the private healthcare providers and American capitalism in general. During a TV interview Beatty points the lunacy of rich journalists interviewing rich politicians for the benefit of the rich owners. The film makes clear that the news process is skewered towards those with money and that most politicians these days are increasingly packaged to appeal, not to ordinary voters, but a poll driven demographic on TV. Equally entertainment and news have become blurred so that Bulworth’s new persona becomes an instant hit.

What is probably best about Bulworth is Beatty’s willingness to make a fool of himself. For a man famed for his supposed vanity he seems quite willing here to take risks and look stupid. He dresses in ‘street’ gear and generally acts like an idiot. Then there is the rapping. Watching Bulworth addressing a crowded fundraiser while dancing around and rapping about the joys of socialized medicine is one of my all time favourite movie moments. It’s just a shame that Clint Eastwood is probably too old to follow suit.

Ok so the satire is a little heavy-handed at times, and Beatty is really preaching to the converted, but like with his previous work Reds, Bulworth is a film willing to take risks and say things that mainstream Hollywood movies generally steer clear of. For that alone it’s a great movie to watch on the 4th of July.

Here is the trailer for Bulworth:

For a full list of great political movies please click here

About matthewashton

I'm a Politics Lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. I specialise in the fields of American, British and media politics.
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4 Responses to Great political movies (No32) Bulworth

  1. That church scene….WOW!

    • I remember seeing this when it came out and just being blown away that he was willing to trash his own image like that. He’s completely right though, neither the Democrats or the Republicans will pay much attention to the poor or minorities unless they can raise some serious funds for them.

      I love bit later on when he gleefully challenges an old lady “Go on, say it, say that dirty word, Socialism!”. I think Sorkin had a hand in the script and it shows as some of the one-liners are terrific. My favourite is “You know, there’s a lesson here, which is never try to make life or death decisions when you’re feeling suicidal”. Wise words indeed.

  2. markynyoga says:

    to bad it is only a Hollywood movie. no one would ever dare “tell the truth” in Washington.

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