LOS ANGELES — After watching the screwball comedy antics of the candidates running for the Republican presidential nomination, I’m beginning to believe there isn’t much difference between a campaign debate and a Hollywood press junket.
To hear political reporters tell it, Michelle Bachmann spends as much time in hair and makeup as Lady Gaga. Mitt Romney has a campaign team that analyzes his every move in at least as much detail as the battery of marketing executives planning the launch of a Spielberg movie. And Herman Cain, having offered an assortment of explanations for how he became entangled in a sexual harassment imbroglio, sounds a lot like a studio chief vainly trying to distance himself from a film that bombed.
The similarities between the worlds have cropped up in a host of recent political films, but no movie has made the connection more explicit than “The Conquest,” an acerbic French drama that, drawing partly from fact and partly from fiction, re-creates the tumultuous events framing Nicolas Sarkozy’s successful 2007 bid for the French presidency. Opening in L.A. this week, the movie shares a tone of dark, almost film-noir-like cynicism with “The Ides of March,” the George Clooney political drama now playing in theaters.
Like “Ides,” “The Conquest” is a study in the perils of ambition, with an emphasis on how much politicians have become slaves to consultants who obsessively seek to manipulate the media to benefit their candidates. “The Conquest” is far more entertaining than “Ides of March,” in part because it doesn’t take itself so seriously and in part because it’s good at capturing the black comedy in Sarkozy’s movie star-like self-absorption.
Sarkozy (Denis Podalydes) behaves like a film star — charming and flirtatious on camera; grumpy and easily wounded in private, sulking after a manufactured media event goes awry. Conferring with his speechwriter, he sounds like an actor huddling with a writer hired to polish a script. “I want sweep, I want passion,” he says. “I have to make them want me.”
They don’t talk like actors just because their lines were penned by showbiz people. Screenwriter Patrick Rotman made documentaries about French presidents François Mitterrand and Jacques Chirac.
As in Hollywood, everything is a media event. Determined to appear athletic, perhaps to draw attention from his lack of height, Sarkozy is always out bicycling or jogging, camera crews in his wake.
But when his archrival, Dominique de Villepin (Samuel Labarthe), goes out for a vigorous swim before a meeting with Sarkozy, allowing the press to photograph his muscular physique, Sarkozy is furious. Oozing sarcasm, he tells De Villepin: “You looked great coming out of the water, like Ursula Andress in James Bond.”
The politician Clooney plays in “Ides of March” has a far more serious, issue-oriented demeanor. I guess Clooney, as a politically involved movie star and the film’s director, figured it might be too close for comfort for a movie star to play a politician who acts like, well, a movie star. But both films’ storylines revolve around the weak link for all too many politicians: sex.
With “Ides,” there’s a scandal involving a young intern. In “Conquest,” Sarkozy’s wife (Florence Pernel), tiring of the media circus, packs her bags and has an affair with the campaign’s PR consultant. Sarkozy has a few flings of his own, but he is such an inveterate media manipulator that it’s hard to tell whether he is despondent over his wife’s infidelity or just play-acting, hoping to inspire public sympathy. (In real life Sarkozy went on to marry Carla Bruni, a singer and actress who appeared in “Midnight in Paris.”)
“The Conquest” reminds us that politicians are the same the world over. Watching Sarkozy scheme, I was reminded of how much he resembled Tony Blair as portrayed by Michael Sheen in “The Deal,” the brilliant 2003 TV movie penned by Peter Morgan that offers a prickly portrait of Blair’s sly, opportunistic rise to power.
Apparently there is a universal political character type: As seductive charmers with a raw hunger for power, they transcend any cultural barrier, like a good action movie. “The things that propel people into acting and politics are basically the same — a neediness for approval and a desire for a higher calling,” says Allan Mayer, a PR strategist at 42West who covered two presidential campaigns for Newsweek before going to work in showbiz, where he’s been a strategic adviser to the likes of Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg.
“It’s no wonder that a lot of actors become big supporters of political figures while a lot of politicians are hugely enamored by movie stars. The parallels are incredibly striking. If you’re in modern-day politics, you have to be able to give a great acting performance. And if you’re a movie star today, you have to mobilize your constituency and leverage your brand the same way a politician does.”
As far back as the Madison Avenue-like 1968 Richard M. Nixon campaign masterminded by Roger Ailes, now the czar of Fox News, politicians have found ways to create an appealing, Hollywood-style narrative for their ambitions. For Ronald Reagan, it was “Morning in America.” Bill Clinton was the country boy from Hope, Ark.
Today the message has to be so easily digested that it resembles a tagline for a movie. This year we’ve seen Bachmann cast herself as a mom who helped raise 23 foster children; Rick Perry as the flinty Texan who’ll create jobs; Herman Cain as the maverick CEO who can’t be bamboozled.
For a while, President Obama sold himself as the adult in a roomful of congressional dingbats. Now he’s assumed a new identity, the pugnacious populist eager to put America back to work. Every politician plays a role today, supported by a crowd of media advisers and consultants who perform almost the same function as showbiz agents and publicists. It’s little wonder that Lucas Baino has become the hot new political ad maker in GOP circles; his campaign spots look like trailers for a Hollywood thriller.
In politics, as in movies, audiences are more uncomfortable than ever with complex characters. They want superheroes who make things look easy — Captain Americas with a 9-9-9 plan. If your character has flaws, you’re an endangered species — at the box office and on the campaign trail.