Hollywood hedges bets in race for White House
The election campaign's final weeks bring a slew of new films from both sides of the political divide
Regardless of who wakes up on the morning of 5 November with a "to do" list that involves shifting their personal belongings into the White House, next month's election may at least help to answer one of the oldest questions in showbusiness: can politics ever be box office?
The presidential race has inspired Hollywood to produce a string of films that pander to both sides of the political spectrum, tackling such topical issues as voter turnout, religion, gay rights, the war on terror, patriotism and the life and times of George W Bush. Leading the charge is Oliver Stone's W, a critical biopic of the serving President that stars Josh Brolin and attracted the cream of what Sarah Palin might call America's left-leaning celebrity elite to its Los Angeles premiere on Monday.
Stone says his eagerly awaited film, which has received positive – though by no means adulatory – reviews, portrays Bush as: "This guy, who is basically a bum, who becomes President of the United States." It comes hot on the heels of two other films sympathetic to the Democratic cause. One is the Borat-style documentary Religulous by Bill Maher, attacking the religious right. The other is Ridley Scott's Body of Lies, starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, which according to The New York Times showcases the CIA's "deceptions, betrayals and dispensable attitudes toward humanity" in its operations in the Middle East.
Left-wing films haven't had it all their own way, though. Last week, David Zucker released An American Carol, a highly charged send-up of liberal film-makers such as Michael Moore, which stars one of the country's best-known Republicans, Jon Voight, together with Dennis Hopper and Kelsey Grammer.
The logjam of new releases has posed the question of whether left or right-wing satires perform better at the box office. Recent evidence is inconclusive: An American Carol grossed $3.7m (£2.2m) in its opening weekend, while Religulous (which had a similar budget) managed $3.4m.
Other political films have met mixed fates. Two months ago, Kevin Costner put up $20m of his own money to finance Swing Vote, about a down-on-his-luck middle-aged man who finds himself casting the deciding vote in a presidential election. Although Costner hoped it would persuade Americans – particularly in the younger demographic, who have traditionally been hard to tempt to the ballot box – to exercise their right to vote, the film received poor reviews and underperformed at the box office.
Another billion-dollar question is whether political satire can have a bearing on the outcome of an election. Tina Fey's recent impersonations of Sarah Palin, which have lifted ratings for the TV show Saturday Night Live by 50 per cent, are said to have damaged the Republican party's standing in polls. However, Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11, which made a huge sum and became the best-performing documentary in film history when it was released ahead of the 2004 election, is widely thought to have hardened support for Mr Bush.
Liongate, the production company that released both W and Fahrenheit 9/11, said that regardless of whether they perform at the box office, such films tend to speak to the converted and therefore have a limited impact on the polls. "Because we are in a politically charged season, I think people will view W as a chance to vote with their box office dollars three weeks before they vote at the actual ballot box," its head of theatrical films, Tom Ortenberg, told Variety.
"I don't think that political films shape public opinion, but I do think they often reflect public opinion. They become a mirror."