Ben Howe, editor of the conservative website RedState, penned a piece for Buzzfeed yesterday lamenting the lack of high-quality movies advocating for conservative politics. His critiques center around the trailer for a sci-fi film showing the dystopian future of forced redistribution (and, apparently, unenthusiastic extras) the Tea Party sees Obama piloting America heedlessly toward. The fact that this movie, A Movement on Fire, turned out not to be an actual movie but a promotional short produced for the recent Conservative Political Action Committee conference is of minor importance. He’s right: from the film adaptation of Atlas Shrugged to the anti-abortion weepie November Baby to, with apologies, the hilariously sacrilegious Innocence of Muslims, movies designed to explicitly promote a conservative agenda have been neither artistically nor commercially successful.
Howe attributes this failing to the amateurism of the production, but also to its basic strategy, criticizing the film for not being imaginative enough in creating an alternate reality, as well as putting the focus on the future rather than the present. (He also seems to think The Hunger Games is a conservative movie?) Where this goes wrong, I think, is in assuming that movement-focused liberal films are any more successful. Sure, there are some successful documentaries about explicitly liberal stuff, but there are conservative ones, too. That’s not what Howe’s talking about. He’s talking about fictional films that are primarily about making a progressive political movement look good, and selling those values to the public. And those fall into two categories: movies that aren’t primarily about the progressive movement, and failures.
Take Conservapedia’s (which is, as you can perhaps guess, Wikipedia for conservatives) list of the Worst Liberal Movies. Some of the films are, at best, mildly critical of Republicans (Game Change, Recount, and Frost/Nixon, though criticizing Richard Nixon hardly puts you on the far left in America) or conservative policies (Dead Man Walking, Philadelphia, But I’m a Cheerleader), and even these are less about the politics than they are the people and the stories they’re telling. The ones that did well started with strong characters and proceeded from there. And even these aren’t pro-liberal so much as they are vaguely anti-conservative; they’re not, as Howe would want, making progressivism look good. The few major Hollywood movies that can be said to be truly about liberal movements, like Cradle Will Rock, Milk, Reds, The Motorcycle Diaries, Bullworth, or Fair Game, again either focused more on the people than the politics, or else landed with a thud. It’s not so much that conservatism and entertainment don’t match; politics and entertainment just don’t go well together.
Of course, Howe says liberals are “having action movies made about their foreign policy decisions,” meaning that he thinks Zero Dark Thirty was a liberal film. Many critics would disagree! But if we’re going down that road, sure, there are lots of movies that endorse left-moderate views. Between Crash and Brokeback Mountain, unthreatening expressions of consequence-free tolerance were the quickest route to an Oscar in the mid-00s. But lots of films lean conservative, too. Besides Bigelow’s film, 2012 best picture winner Argo was nothing if not a love letter to the CIA, and a subtle burn on Jimmy Carter to boot. You can see it in more populist films, too. The Dirty Harry series endorsed the law-and-order vigilantism that propelled the emerging conservative movement in California in the 1970s. The figure that movement produced, Ronald Reagan, presided over a conservative turn in pop culture during the 1980s, going so far as to quote Back to the Future in a 1986 speech – a movie that, for all its positive qualities, ultimately paints a negative picture of foreigners and a positive one of the post-war America conservatives express such fondness for.
Of course, it’s fair to say that even though a movie like Milk probably isn’t driving a lot of people to vote for Obama, it’s at least getting made. No hagiography of someone like Barry Goldwater exists. Movies are an intensely collaborative form, and major Hollywood movies have to get past several million roadblocks before they get to theaters. Surely the existence of so many liberals in Hollywood provides a rich, supportive base to turn liberal-leaning ideas into polished, greenlit movies. But more than anything else, it shows that you have to be willing to sacrifice your principles to get your message out there, to water down your values and turn them into a formulaic blockbuster with a three-act structure, a romantic interest, and a main character who audiences can identify with. Philadelphia, the first major movie about AIDS, was about an asexual gay man and a homophobic lawyer fighting corporate greed (which even conservatives are against now) rather than the years of neglect and denial from the medical and political establishment that doomed a generation of gay men. The Tea Party isn’t willing to compromise its values politically. Why would we expect them to do it artistically?