Last summer, when news broke of an HBO film in production about the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, Joseph Biden was still considering a run for the presidency. The vice president couldn’t have been happy about a re-dramatization of the 1991 Supreme Court hearings; as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden presided over the all-white, all-male panel’s grilling of Anita Hill, and many women still smolder at the memory. Now, with “Confirmation” scheduled to air next month, Biden isn’t a candidate, but Thomas is still on the bench, and the Supreme Court’s nomination process is very much in the news. The timing seems certain to thrust the film’s themes of race and sex into the presidential debate, but who will benefit is hard to predict.
Already, former Republican senators Alan Simpson and John Danforth, who were also on the judiciary panel, have assailed the film, calling an early script they reviewed “distorted.” One member of Thomas’s 1991 legal team called it “a propaganda piece for Anita Hill and for Hillary Clinton’s run for the White House.” But a film about young women bringing charges of sexual harassment against powerful men could have distasteful repercussions for Clinton’s campaign as well.
The problem with predicting the impact of popular movies on American politics is that the films contain multiple messages. When “The Right Stuff” was released in 1983, the punditry thought it would surely help former astronaut John Glenn, then seeking the Democratic nomination for president, who is depicted in the film as both a national hero and a sensitive science nerd. Newsweek magazine ran a cover headline reading “Can a movie help make a president?” In the event, Glenn lost the nomination to Walter Mondale, who was crushed by Ronald Reagan the following November. With technicolor hindsight, the pundits concluded that it was actually the swaggering test pilot Chuck Yeager whose character resonated with voters.
The more partisan a film, the less likely it is to affect voter behavior. That’s because of the confirmation bias that bedevils our politics generally: People tend to visit the websites and see the films they already agree with. Conservatives fairly swooned at the current “13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi,” thinking it could derail Hillary Clinton’s candidacy. Ted Cruz hailed it at a January debate, and Donald Trump rented a theatre in Iowa to show it during the run-up to the caucuses. But studio executives admit the movie’s success is limited mostly to the red states. Even a film as popular as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 911,” which six million people watched in its first week in 2004, couldn’t prevent George W. Bush’s reelection.
The effects of films on the national psyche are mostly subtle and indirect. “Movies have very little influence on our politics and a tremendous amount of influence on our subconscious and how we view the world,” said critic Neal Gabler, whose book “Life: The Movie — How Entertainment Conquered Reality” explores the intersection of politics and popular culture. For example, he said, “The Big Short,” with its florid depictions of Wall Street greed, “isn’t going to help fortify Dodd-Frank, but it does make us angrier.” Films reflect the mood of the culture as much as they shape it, and the current national mood is anxious and alienated.
Through it all runs the quintessential American yearning for a single heroic figure to vanquish our enemies and inspire us to a higher purpose. “Movies idealize who we want to be but they don’t change who we are,” says Gabler. So when a leader tells us we can rise above partisan gridlock, or restore national greatness with a single bound, we’re already conditioned to believe. Of course, real life is messier and doesn’t resolve in two hours. No wonder we feel cheated.
Renée Loth's column appears regularly in the Globe.