Movies and the Mind

A front row ticket to human drama as seen through popular film

Twelve Essential Psycho-Political Films

Looking at movies from the inside and the outside

Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon in Election

Teaching at a small liberal arts college like Hanover College, I am lucky to get to work with many colleagues from other disciplines. For several years, I taught integrated courses with Dr. Ron Smith, a political scientist. Our classes were introductions of our respective disciplines, but we watched the same movies, using different elements of each to highlight our disciplinary concerns. It wasn’t that hard. Even in the most overtly political films, psychological undertones were always present (and usually not buried too deeply). Here's our seperate angles on 12 different films.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Politics: *The* quintessential American movie. It has all the important themes: reverence for the institution, naïve optimism, corruption, redemption and Jimmy Stewart.

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Psychology: The brilliance of the film is in how it affirms these classic American themes while systematicaly avoiding the issues that divide Americans (see Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion for an analysis of why this kind of non-partisan vision is so rare in America today).

12 Angry Men (1957)

Politics: The film touches on American desires for equality and justice while also raising disturbing questions about the feasibility of those things. If the “Man-in-White” hadn’t been on the jury, would justice still have prevailed?

Psychology: If the end of the film is an example of the triumph of the individual over the majority, the beginning is an example of “Group Think”—the tendency of people in small groups to think alike, suppress dissension and make bad decisions (psychologists often point to the Kennedy-era Bay of Pigs invasion as one disastrous example).

Chinatown (1974)

Politics: Combining two actual events from Los Angeles history, Chinatown is easily one of the best movies ever about public policy and natural resources. In the American West, water was politics, and all politics were about water. Corruption or the fear of corruption has run through the American psyche since the very beginning.

Psychology: Chinatown embodies an interesting paradox in that film noir is often such an "interior" (psychological) genre that it can seem almost apolitical. However, Gittes’ (the private eye played by Jack Nicholson) desperate, almost-but-not-quite cynical quest for meaning is a reaction to an external world in which political/social forces are seemingly beyond influence, thereby creating a feeling of helplessness.

Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Love the Bomb and Stop Worrying) (1964)

Politics: If war is politics by other means, then this deliciously wicked comedy shows just how absurd both can be. How many millions are “acceptable losses”?

Psychology: Dr. Strangelove’s meticulous and relentless plot exemplifies Carl Jung's observation about how obsessive allegiance to rationality and technology can obscure intuition and common sense, resulting in some darkly funny and highly irrational behaviors.

JFK (1991)

Politics: Springing from the same soil as our fear of corruption comes a fear that there is some vast hidden conspiracy that is responsible for the great events in our history. JFK offers a dizzying mixture of innuendo, coincidence, and suspicion that provides no answers about Kennedy’s assassination, but certainly makes it seem like someone was up to something, somewhere.

Psychology: This film is an excellent example of how superior directing (Oliver Stone in this case) can conceal bad ideas. While I was watching the film, it made me believe things, at least temporarily, that I don't "really" believe.

Election (1999)

Politics: Whether it be a national election, a city election, or even the high school student body election, there are certain universals. One is the inviolable nature of the electoral process itself. Another is that certain kinds of personalities are naturally drawn to the limelight; it is no coincidence that most politicians seem very similar. What happens when a teacher, trying to avoid the latter, decides to violate the former?

Psychology: The characters in Election are so familiar and well developed that their poor choices make perfect sense. What if the psychology of the people involved in high stakes elections is not fundamentally different from that of the people in this movie?

Primary Colors (1998)

Politics: Primary Colors is a thinly veiled semi-fictional exposé of Bill Clinton’s campaign for the presidency. Does idealism always become a victim to the corrupting nature of the process itself? Must one “sell out” in order to survive?

Psychology: This film tends to make viewers, at least liberal viewers, uncomfortable because it raises the dissonance-inducing question: “How many flaws will we overlook in the politicians that are on ‘our’ side"?

Fight Club (1999)

Politics: There is a theory that many of the most important recent political movements—like religious fundamentalism and neoconservatism—are reactions to the dehumanizing and individually isolating forces of modernity. Fight Club taps into this source of discontentment. People want to belong, they want to be alive, they need something to fight for.

Psychology: Most critics take Fight Club to satirize an overzealous (and psychotic) reaction to modern discontentment. Yet the film is extremely popular among college students (especially males), some of whom take it quite literally (as we can see with the formation of real fight clubs that are occasionally reported in the media).

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Politics: During the Cold War the menace of communism lingered everywhere. Anyone could be a communist. A number of great science-fiction movies of the time feature aliens that are inside us, or control us, or lurk among us in human form. Combining the fears of corruption and conspiracy with the menace of communism, The Manchurian Candidate is the most politically explicit incarnation of this fear.

Psychology: A thoroughly paranoid film, The Manchurian Candidate features a fascinating mixture of behavioral conditioning (using punishment and repetition), and Freudian psychoanalysis (manifested in repressed memories) that exploits the paranoia-inducing qualities of both psychological approaches.

Do the Right Thing (1989)

Politics: People predicted riots in the streets when this movie was released. Using a fictional killing and subsequent riot in New York, Spike Lee highlights the pervasiveness of racial tensions and stereotyping on all sides.

Psychology: When viewed with an open mind, Do the Right Thing is one of those rare movies that is both critical and sympathetic toward every character (and therefore, every political impulse), even those on opposite sides of the cultural and political spectrum.

As I read over this blog and I think back on my course with Ron, it occurs to me how it has become more and more difficult to identify where the politics ends and the psychology begins. And that is my point.

[This blog is a variation on an article edited by Sandra Guthrie that appears in the Summer edition of Hanover College’s Hanoverian (also featuring the commentary of Dr. William Kubik): http://www.hanover.edu/about/communications/hanoverian]

[Skip Dine Young's Psychology at the Movies is available at http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ISBN=0470971770]

Skip Dine Young, Ph.D., is a Professor of Psychology at Hanover College in Indiana and a licensed clinical psychologist.

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