How the film industry’s various depictions of government shed light on our current political divide. 

The cultural experience movies create is often overlooked for their entertainment level. However, film criticism can be as complicated as literary criticism, as there are often political or ethical implications in films. 

Films are a combination of sights and sounds within the structure of a story that is powerful enough to shape the horizons of what is possible for audience members. 

Within the chaos of entertainment, there is order. Andy Crouch, the executive director of Christianity Today, argues that creativity cannot exist without order. Without this order, he explains in his book called “Culture Making,” art would lose its artistic and narrative strengths. 

“Without the darkened box of a theater, films would lose their compelling power,” Crouch wrote. “Without the lines and spaces that make up written English, this book would be a soup of letters. Creativity requires cosmos — it requires an ordered environment.”

In the same way that art requires an ordered environment to have the power to influence, movies require an ordering of artistic and compositional elements in order to deliver the same social impact. Governments function in a similar way — they need the structure of the legal system in order to govern and administer power. What they have in common is that they bring ideas to fruition, and have the power to influence people. 

When it comes to politics and movies, the two inspire one another. Just look at a slew of films in the last three years; Bombshell (2019),  The Hunt (2020), Get Out (2017), and Antebellum (2020) — even the infamous Avengers series. Each one depicts, in some form, a fictionalized government based on relevant truth that is exaggerated.

While movies such as The Avengers (2012) and Justice League (2017) have been successful in uniting people over beloved heroes and fictional worlds, the political system in America has not. 

Films and their political underpinnings

In the opening of The Hunt (2020), twelve strangers wake up in a clearing. They have no idea where they are or how they got there all they do know is that they have been chosen for The Hunt. The film has caused political controversy for the way it symbolizes the current unrest. 

The movie centers around a group of “elites” that hunt down “deplorables” for fun. The political satire being the current state of immigration laws, mass shootings and the drastically different political views people within a society can have. 

According to USA Today, President Trump didn’t specifically call out the movie; however, he did state on Twitter, “..the movie coming out is made in order … to inflame and cause chaos. They create their own violence, and then try to blame others. They are the true Racists, and are very bad for our Country!”

Ryan Izay, an adjunct professor in the department of cinematic arts at Azusa Pacific University, argues that it’s a satire focused on horror. 

The Hunt may be the best example of a film correlating to current politics … because they show the underlying fear and anxiety on both sides of the political parties; that we are ultimately destroying ourselves and becoming monsters in our inability to coexist.”

The Hunt is only one example among several fairly similar cinematic works that have been produced over the years which fit under the genre of horror. However, Izay explained that the genre of horror has historically been political-driven, as can be seen in The Hunt. 

The fictional worlds created in films impact our present-day reality. There are repercussions and unintended consequences on both sides of the equation. The Avengers films, a hugely popular series worldwide, show heroes and villains, depicting war, killing and fighting as the only means to find peace. 

They show human beings, American citizens specifically, as helpless and in the need of saving. These concepts impact the horizons of what is possible within a human being’s mind. 

At the end of the day, these films are forms of entertainment, but we cannot neglect the invaluable insight they offer into our current tumultuous political landscape. 

“I don’t think films directly influence politics, but indirectly they might,” Izay said. “Films are successes or failures based on the audience’s acceptance of the ideas and/or themes.” 

Worldwide, people accepted and loved the heroic ending to Marvel’s Avengers in Endgame (2019). Despite the villain Thanos, who wants to perform genocide against the majority of humankind. And in the same year, just a comic-book universe away, DC Comics Joker (2019) left audiences divided because of the “dangerous” depictions of the rationale for mass shootings. 

Audiences either sympathize with the characters, simultaneously accepting the premise of the movie, or they reject the concept.

Indirectly or directly, films have the power to shape the audience’s horizons of what they think is possible, and historically speaking, art has been seen as one of the most influential factors when it comes to cultural development. 

“Culture, in the abstract, always and only comes from particular human acts of cultivation and creativity,” Crouch wrote. “We don’t make culture, we make omelets. We tell stories … We pass laws. These specific products of cultivating and creating … become part of the framework of the world for future generations.”

Undeniably, that art has the power to change our perceptions of reality, and indirectly, influence how we engage with the political system. 

Uniting the masses

Films are a form of artwork that combines visuals and sounds, music and dialogue, elongated pictures and dazzling storylines. When put together, all these individual pieces create a complex puzzle that viewers get to see. Just like a book, the ideas that run through a movie are interwoven into every element with intent,  and when filmmakers successfully administer the artistic elements within movies, viewers become more susceptible to these thoughts in the film. 

Avengers: Endgame (2019) itself hides political topics, such as women’s empowerment and the role of government in foreign affairs. Yet, because of the grand fight scenes and love stories, audience members escape reality through this creative-expression, and by default seem to accept the values that their favorite characters embody.

Look at Tony Stark/Iron Man. In the Marvel franchise, Stark begins by being a playboy personality and part-time billionaire war weapons dealer. He changes after a traumatic experience in the desert and miraculously begins to fight for humankind. 

Throughout the franchise, the audience witnesses a character arch that showcases a man that changes his opinion on the role of government. In the Iron Man series, he refuses to give up his suits to the government for fear that they would become too powerful. Then in Captain America: Civil War (2016), he fights his fellow Avengers to sign the United Nations peace agreement, which allows the UN to control the Avengers.

Because this character, played by the infamous Robert Downey Jr., is so beloved the roles of government and his political views are overlooked. He changes his opinions through experiences. Often unconsciously, audience members absorb the character’s values by starting to stand for the beliefs that they hold. 

The comic-book based films performed well in the box office and are both artful and profitable entertainment, Izay states. 

When speaking about mainstream films, Izay clarifies, “Mainstream films attempt to unite audiences. They do it for purely monetary reasons. Since the late 1970s [with movies like] Jaws and Star Wars, there has been an effort to reach as wide of an audience as possible with blockbusters. These films cost more, because of their potential to make more … it seems that mainstream movies worry about profit first and foremost. Enacting change is just a side effect.”

Film depictions of government often reflect the perceived corrupt or true nature of government despite the fictionalization for entertainment purposes. 

As much as I talk about movies carrying underlying themes and messages of cultural and political relevance, this should not negate the fact that they also serve as entertainment,” Izay said. “Entertainment provides relief in stressful times, and that is necessary.”

This factoid should not detour movie watchers. Rather, these movies allow us to engage in fun conversations about superheroes and villains proving that films unite, even in a country culture that is divided.  

Culture in the making

The very fabric of culture-making is using tools like art to bring people together and unite them over ideas. 

Films are organized pieces of craft that encompass many facets of artistry, from graphics to artistic expression and imaginary creatures to poetic dialogue. This creative process is enabled by the structure of the film — the plot, the narrative structure, the characters — offers layers of meaning within the film runtime. Following the end of the film, this creative process flows into the discourse that takes place as a result of audience participation, resulting in a symbolic and powerful exchange of ideas.

These ideas are planted like seeds into the audience’s minds and left to flourish on their own, as opposed to government campaigns that often do the opposite and forcibly tell you what you should believe in and limiting citizens’ participation in the process.

There is a power dynamic at play — where filmmakers treat their audiences as equals, trying to create stories that resonate and allow people to feel like a part of the movie. The process can often turn to manipulative narratives. Simultaneously, politicians, on both sides, are known to be dishonest and stereotypically manipulative. Both filmmakers and politicians only see success if people are willing to support their endeavors financially, yet the means of earning that support vary. 

Jared Brown, a senior cinematic arts major that currently works within the film industry, explained that filmmaking aids in times of controversy by allowing people to witness and immerse themselves in other people’s experiences.

 “Our political beliefs are made up almost entirely from our own personal experiences and perceptions of the world,” Brown said. “The amazing thing about films is that they offer us such a deeper and more intimate understanding of how others experience the world.”

Brown thinks that the film industry has done a good job of not becoming extremely politicized. 

I think for once in a long time, the film industry is headed in the right direction,” Brown said. “We as a society … need to learn to start being more understanding of one another if we want to continue to make the world a better place, and I think films are a wonderful place to start building that bridge of understanding.”

Izay states that the magic of film influence is that movies can present an idea or perspective to an audience member that they might not have considered before. This allows them to sympathize with a character unlike themselves, and by extension, potentially leading to a cultural shift in ideology.

“And if enough people begin to shift their belief system, they will want the laws and society to shift with them, and that is where politics come into play,” Izay said. “Just as easily, however, audiences might reject a film because they disagree with the politics and it ends there.”

The beauty of this interplay of ideas is that in film, the audience has the power to do so. There is power in what we choose to watch.