Beating up on Hollywood celebrities has become a favorite tactic on the right, which explains the allure of this Barry Levinson-directed project — rightfully billed as a “film essay” — exploring the fascinating nexus of showbiz and politics. Produced in conjunction with the Creative Coalition, “Poliwood” follows a group of actors to last year’s Democratic and Republican National Conventions, while providing Levinson (whose credits include “Wag the Dog”) ample time to ruminate about TV’s corrosive influence on politics. The approach is somewhat messy and more than occasionally self-serving, but there are still several worthwhile and thought-provoking moments.
Tim Daly — co-president of the coalition, and a producer on the film — leads a parade of celebrities to the conventions, with Levinson’s camera in tow. As Levinson notes, TV has transformed media into a circus that’s obsessed with celebrity; the question is how to participate without being painted as clowns.
To his credit, Levinson reaches out to an array of constituencies, from the celebs — some, like Matthew Modine, eager to remind us that many of them came from modest means — to ordinary citizens who resent these famous names leveraging their status to champion their views. The central moment comes when Levinson brings the stars together with a focus group conducted by ubiquitous Republican pollster Frank Luntz, as the participants rail against “limousine liberals” telling them how to live.
Levinson, however, makes an obvious point too often overlooked in this conversation — namely, that the media aggressively seeks out celebrities to lend sizzle to such spectacles, then abuses them for stating an opinion. It’s also questionable what actors or musicians are perceived to gain personally from speaking out, since as music producer/activist Danny Goldberg notes, “The dominant theory of career management is ‘Don’t offend anybody.’ ”
Some of the stars interviewed stress that they draw a sharp line between their careers and their passions. Anne Hathaway, for example, says she doesn’t promote movies when engaging in politics and won’t discuss politics while doing the interview circuit for a movie. Yet in an environment where former Vice President Al Gore is shown being asked of his Oscar attire, “Who do you have on?,” maintaining such lines of demarcation is difficult at best.
The main drawback of the “film essay” format is that Levinson affords himself a little too much face time to hold forth on these matters, even dredging up the Kennedy-Nixon debates to examine where the process went wrong.
Those indulgences notwithstanding, “Poliwood” is an intelligent look at the forces that have helped bastardize political discourse into a “We can’t talk anymore” free-for-all, while creating a sober, laid-back forum for celebrities to explain their activism. Like everything else in today’s echo-chamber-oriented media, however, such an exercise is unlikely to win hearts or change minds despite good intentions.