Policy dork that I am, I can hardly watch a movie anymore without seeing something policy-relevant. From Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to last year's Ides of March, political stories have been a Hollywood favorite. But many great movie moments with strong political messages are often overlooked. Here's are the top five political movie moments that you didn't even know were political. SPOILER ALERT: READ THE TITLE FIRST, AND IF YOU HAVEN'T SEEN IT, SKIP IT.
After you've read the list: What are your favorite cinematic policy moments that you found in unusual places? Comment at the bottom.
#5 It's a Wonderful Life
The stock market crash scene is one of the most iconic in all of film. It strikes at the core fear of all working-class people, that they will lose their tenuous grip on the humble but comfortable life they've worked for so hard and so long to sustain. The insecurity of the working-class is what drove Otto Von Bismarck to found the first state-sponsored health insurance system in Germany in 1883. In this quote, he describes the same fears so beautifully captured in It's a Wonderful Life:
“The real grievance of the worker is the insecurity of his existence; he is not sure that he will always have work, he is not sure that he will always be healthy, and he foresees that he will one day be old and unfit to work. If he falls into poverty, even if only through a prolonged illness, he is then completely helpless, left to his own devices, and society does not currently recognize any real obligation towards him beyond the usual help for the poor, even if he has been working all the time ever so faithfully and diligently. The usual help for the poor, however, leaves a lot to be desired, especially in large cities, where it is very much worse than in the country.”
The only thing that saves Bailey Savings and Loan is the incredible generosity of newlywed Mrs. Bailey, who gives away their honeymoon fund to keep the depositors from fleeing to into the grasp of local mogul Mr. Potter (voted the #6 movie villain of all time by the American Film Institute).
#4 Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
“There is no Good or Evil. Only power, and those too weak to seek it.” This quote where Voldemort's attempt to join forces with Harry is one in a long tradition of movie villain philosophies, but it's the one that most directly parallels the inspiration: Frederic Nietzsche. In Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche argues that the qualities most relished by society, namely Christian-style morality and democratic rule, actually represent the worst mankind has to offer. He believes these systems are designed to trick 'the great' into submitting to 'the weak.' He argues that truly great men have, “an incarnate will to power, it will strive to grow, spread, seize, become predominant - not from any morality or immorality but because it is living and because life simply is will to power.”
Nietzsche's arguments were an inspiration to Hitler, and for a long time he was charged with being little more than a Fascist muse. Today, his place among the great philosophical thinkers who changed the course of modern philosophy has been rightfully restored. He is perhaps best remembered for critiquing shared group mentality as a sign of weakness, famously comparing citizens in a democracy with sheep. This leads me to another great cinematic representation of Nietzsche (although it's not a political moment) fromCan't Hardly Wait
#3 Catch Me If You Can
Unfortunately, I could not find a clip for this scene, so the dialogue is written below.
Carl Hanratty:Our unknown subject is a paperhander who started working on the East Coast. In the last few weeks this unsub has developed a new form of check fraud which I'm calling "the float." What he's doing is opening checking accounts at various banks then changing the MICR ink routing numbers at the bottom of those checks. Next slide, please. This is a map of the 12 banks of the U.S. Federal Reserve. Slide. MICR scanners at every bank read these numbers at the bottom of the check - slide - and they ship that check off to its corresponding branch.
Special Agent Witkins:Carl, for those of us who are unfamiliar with bank fraud you mind telling us what the hell you're talking about?
Carl Hanratty:The East Coast branches are numbered zero-one to zero-six. The central branch is zero-seven, zero-eight so on, so forth.
Special Agent Witkins: You mean the numbers at the bottom of a check actually mean something?
Carl Hanratty:All of this was in the report I filed two days ago. If you change a zero-two to a one-two that means a check, which was cashed in New York Federal Branch but it is rerouted all the way to San Francisco Federal Branch. The bank doesn't even know the check has bounced for two weeks, which means our unsub can stay in one place paper the same city over and over again while his checks circle the country.
Special Agent Witkins:You want my wife to help you? She's the one who balances the checkbook at home?
This scene captures a phenomenon that I am personally passionate about: organizational culture. James Q. Wilson defines organizational culture as “a persistent, patterned way of thinking about the central tasks of and human relationships within an organization. Culture is to organization what personality is to an individual.” Wilson argues that organizational culture is good for fostering a sense of mission and professionalism but bad for when an agency faces new tasks. He specifically cites the FBI for being unwilling to pursue organized crime. J. Edgar Hoover fostered a culture where FBI agents were the epitome of professionalism. Their suits were always pressed and agents weren't allowed to even drink coffee while on duty so as to give the impression they were always hard at work. The shady business of undercover operations did not work with this cultural vision of the FBI, so it took many years to get the agency on board the fight against the Mafia. Federal Agents laughing at Carl Hanratty for going after bounced checks instead of bank robbers captures this exact same phenomenon.
#2 Miracle on 34th St.(The political portion starts at 33:17 and runs to 34:12)
Now the last thing anybody wants to think about during the holidays is politics. Everyone knows that once politics gets brought up at the family dinner, things turn ugly. But Miracle on 34th Street is one of the most politically insightful movies of all time. Although the movie itself is incredibly heartwarming, the political reality it portrays is disturbing. It perfectly captures the feelings of a political actor, in this case Judge Henry, of being pressured by an irrational public to make a decision inconsistent with his own understanding of good policy. He knows that Santa isn't real, but if he rules that way, he'll be ruined. Substitute in any number of public policy matters where the public has a strongly-felt but completely inaccurate set of beliefs and you can begin to understand why so many non-committal remarks get made on hot-button issues.
The second half of Jaws is an action movie, but the first half of Jaws is almost entirely political. It's the story of a messenger trying not to get shot. Chief Martin Brody knows that there's a killer shark in the waters, but Mayor Larry Vaughn and the business owners of the town refuse to hear the bad news. And it costs two additional people their lives. Jaws bears a striking similarity to Henrick Ibsen's Enemy of the People, an 1882 play where a scientist who discovers the towns lucrative natural springs to be toxic has his reputation ruined by the mayor. From the environmental movement to the depletion of oil reserves to the recent housing bubble, the world of public policy is littered with stories of people who desperately tried to inform the public of the coming dangers but who were silenced by both the powers that be and by our own all-too-human tendency to hear only what we want to hear.
Bob Proctor '12 is a second year student at the Institute for Policy Studies. Contact him firstname.lastname@example.org.