The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Roger Ebert can't stand Sarah Palin

September 23, 2008 |  6:26 pm

It's no secret that everyone is weighing in on politics these days, from David Letterman to Barbara Walters and the esteemed ladies of "The View," who, as the New York Times pointed out, have had Barack Obama, John McCain and even Bill Clinton on their couch, with McCain clearly getting the toughest grilling. But should film critics be weighing in on the presidential race as well? America's leading film critic, the Chicago Sun-Times' Roger Ebert, certainly thinks so, and has been on quite a roll lately, writing a series of barbed commentaries about GOP vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin.

Palin Ebert leaped into the fray with an essay about Palin where he dubbed her the ''American Idol" candidate. Ebert said, in part: "There's a reason 'American Idol' gets such high ratings. People identify with the candidates. They think, 'Hey, that could be me up there on the show!' " Roger added that he didn't want a candidate who simply appointed people to study global warming long after the scientific consensus was in. Nor did he want someone, as he put it, who "sneers when referring to people who go to the Ivy League," noting that as a teenager, he dreamed of going to Harvard, but his dad, an electrician, didn't have the money to send him.

Ebert has also weighed in on Palin's interview with ABC's Charlie Gibson, which he said reminded him of being asked questions by a teacher when he didn't have the foggiest idea what to answer. He's now posted a clever questionnaire about creationism, which Palin believes should be taught alongside evolution in schools. Ebert's questionnaire appears to be a generic critique of the scientific limitations of strict creationism, but ends with an obvious nod to the moose-hunting Alaskan governor, by asking the question: "Why would God create such an absurd creature as a moose?" Ebert offers the answer: "In charity, we must observe that the moose probably does not seem absurd to itself."

Ebert is hardly the only critic who's begun to focus on politics. When I was up at the recent Toronto Film Festival, I found myself seeing the festival in an entirely different light after reading a variety of posts from New York Post critic Kyle Smith, who had tons of fun mocking a number of lefty-minded films and launching an especially derisive assault on Barack Obama, whom he criticized for being the favored son of various Hollywood liberals, tying Hollywood's worship of Obama to Steven Soderbergh's gauzy-minded view of "Che."    

But back to my original question: Liberal or conservative, should film critics be at work on a second front, offering their take on America's politicians?

Judging from past e-mails I've received from readers, I'd say a majority of our readers would say no. You'd probably get the same answer--no--if you asked a traditional journalism professor, or for that matter a traditional newspaper editor. I guess that (once again) makes me a contrarian. To me, film critics, like TV and theater critics, are especially well equipped to analyze today's politics, which is why Frank Rich made such a seamless transition from theater to media and political commentator. In fact, in some ways film critics are probably better equipped to assess the political theater of today's presidential campaigns, since our campaigns are--as has surely been obvious for some time--far more about theater and image creation than politics.

As far back as the Kennedy-Nixon debates, and certainly since the era of Ronald Reagan media mastermind Michael Deaver and campaign operative Lee Atwater, political campaigns have revolved around the dark art of media manipulation, in particular in their use of campaign-commercial image-making to engage our emotions and fears instead of our ideas or intellect. Filmmakers have known for this for years, which is why so many gifted directors, from Oliver Stone ("JFK, "Nixon" and especially "Talk Radio") to Warren Beatty ("Reds," "Bulworth" and as an actor-writer-producer on "Shampoo") to Ron Howard ("Ed TV" and the upcoming "Frost/Nixon") have eagerly dissected the messy intersection of media and politics.

If filmmakers have found fertile ground doing it, why shouldn't critics explore it too? I don't share Smith's conservative politics, but if he had gone beyond trashing showbiz liberals and pursued the argument that Soderbergh's starry-eyed take on "Che" was emblematic of the media's early unabashed fascination with Obama, he would've had a rich tapestry to work with. There are many unerring similarities between the way the Washington media treat political fresh faces and the way the entertainment press gushes over Hollywood's Hot New Thing. They build them up and then they tear them down.

Ebert Ebert's assessment of Palin as an "American Idol"-style aspirant was also right on the mark. He shrewdly saw her as a wish-fulfillment fantasy, understanding how powerfully her seemingly down-home, small-town vibe connected with the average American voter--who, having largely declined to pay any attention to much real political reporting, doesn't know any more about politics than "Idol" viewers know about music. To use an even more primal example, Palin was a modern-day re-invention of Jimmy Stewart in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," Frank Capra's populist fantasy that also portrays Washington the way it is portrayed in McCain TV ads, as a cesspool of corruption.

David Thomson, another brilliant film critic who often writes of politics and social issues, is harsher on "Mr. Smith" than I would be, calling it a "kind of fascist inspirationalism," but he makes a point that seems especially relevant to our current political debate. Thomson despises what he calls the film's resort to "patriotism, statuary and quotation," calling Stewart's Jefferson Smith character "a tyrant, a wicked folksy idiot, who commandeers James Stewart's alarming sweetness. He is the real threat in the film."

I'd never thought of the film in that way, but that's what makes good critics so valuable. And if a film critic can cast fresh light on our overheated political process, I'm eager to read what they have to say. Like art, politics can be uplifting, fascinating and unnervingly disturbing, which makes it far too important to be locked away from some of our most insightful observers. 

Photo of Sarah Palin by Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times; photo of Roger Ebert by Seth Perlman / Associated Press