‘Poliwood’ fails to dig deep

Levinson's film chronicles celebrities as they champion political causes during the national election.
Levinson’s film chronicles celebrities as they champion political causes during the national election.

What do Spike Lee and a Minnesota mom have in common? More than you might think, according to director Barry Levinson’s latest film, Poliwood. The screening, sponsored by the Gaudino Fund, took place on the final night of the Williamstown Film Festival. What Levinson describes as a “film essay” made its New England premiere at the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute last Saturday.
The night’s festivities began with a brief montage of Levinson’s widely praised films, which include Good Morning Vietnam, Diner, Rain Man, The Natural and Wag the Dog. Though hardly 10 minutes long, the interlude showcased the mastery and variety of Levinson’s work, and proved to be a tough act to follow for the subsequent screening of Poliwood.

The film attempts to document the complex relationship between Hollywood and politics. Levinson, who mentioned during a subsequent Q&A that the film was shot using only eight days of footage, follows celebrity members in the Creative Coalition, the entertainment industry’s political and social advocacy nonprofit, during experiences at the 2008 Democratic and Republican National Conventions as well as President Obama’s inauguration. Poliwood provides an inside look at the world of celebrity advocacy: We watch Spike Lee interrogate New York Governor David Paterson on funding arts in public schools, Anne Hathaway advise love-struck middle school boys on how to help the environment and Susan Sarandon tear up as Obama speaks at his inauguration.

But Levinson’s film offers more than just a peek inside the life of a celebrity advocate – too much more, in fact. The exploration of show business in politics and politics in show business proves too grand in scope to be effectively addressed in 90 minutes. The “film essay” skims the surface of a plethora of nuanced issues, without ever fully following through on the questions that it poses.
The film portrays a range of topics, including an artful and articulate illustration of how the advent of television has permanently altered the terrain of American politics. The film begins with a shot of a 1950s family bringing home their brand new television while a voice over from Levinson outlines the evolution of the large dinner table discussion to the smaller, nuclear family TV dinner. The film suggests that television has not only brought about an era of TV politicians and opinionated celebrities, it has also changed the way we discuss politics in our own home.

This is a rich and worthy subject, but the scattered footage and occasionally gratuitous voice-overs from Levinson are not up to the task of providing an equally rich analysis. Peppered in alongside captivating questions about media and politics is the bland argument that these celebrity activists are just “normal people” who want to use their popularity for social good. While this may be true, Levinson’s footage often does more to undermine than prove his point. In one scene, for example, members of the Creative Coalition are shocked to receive advice from a speaker who tells them that celebrities might want to “watch their language” when they make political opinions. Actor Josh Lucas whines in protest but doesn’t bother to reflect how his refusal to take this advice might damage his ability to be a successful advocate. In another scene, the celebrities sit down with a focus group of “real people” in a Minnesota city. A visibly angry mother argues that stars don’t have a place in politics because they are out of touch with the rest of the country. The celebrities prickle, suggesting that not only do they disagree with this accusation, but they also have never seriously considered it. Unfortunately, the thought-provoking questions that Levinson’s film sets out to explore are never fully pressed. The film simply has too much ground to cover and wastes too much time trying to prove that celebrities really care about their causes.
A post-screening Q&A session and discussion with Williamstown Film Festival director Steve Lawson gave Levinson a chance to provide deeper, more developed responses to the ideas addressed in Poliwood. Levinson underscored the point that as television and the Internet increasingly change how the public takes in information, it becomes all the more important for us to progress as viewers. “We have to adjust as TV evolves,” Levinson said.

Though the film’s look at celebrity subjects may have been superficial and unpersuasive, the same cannot be said of Levinson’s strong opinions on entertainment, the media and politics. The achievement of Poliwood, as well as the success of Levinson’s post-screening interview, is Levinson’s ability to make his argument with clear, provocative visuals. What do Spike Lee and a Minnesota mom have in common? Footage of Ronald Reagan and Sarah Palin, Hollywood stars and Joe the Plumber announce the unsettling reality that in the age of information, we are all entangled in the seamless bonds of political affairs and popular culture.