'Poliwood': One-Sided, Occasionally Fascinating Look at Politics and Celebrity

Did you know celebrities have a right to speak their minds about politics courtesy of The First Amendment? Or that the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon televised debate changed the way we saw politicians forever? “Poliwood,” a new film “essay” from director Barry Levinson, uncovers those nuggets and much, much more.

The film, set to bow at the Starz Denver Film Festival this weekend and already airing on Showtime, does offer more than just those recycled themes. It’s an occasionally fascinating look into the modern actor’s mindset as well as the anger the general public feels when they hear celebrities pontificating on events of the day.

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Director Barry Levinson

We’re also given a peek at the passions driving some celebrities to speak out on the issues. Yet the film is emblematic of Hollywood productions which strain to achieve balance but come up mostly empty.

The bulk of the film features liberal celebrities from the Creative Coalition, a nonpartisan group, maneuvering around last year’s Democratic National Convention in Denver.

The group itself may not choose sides, but we see plenty of footage of its actors beaming as President-elect Barack Obama speaks. And when some of those celebrities pack their bags for the Republican National Convention in Minneapolis, they look as if they’re preparing for a funeral.

“She’s All That” actress Rachael Leigh Cook is forlorn when she realizes Republicans will be invading her Minnesota hometown. “But what can you do?” she asks with a shrug.

Maybe, if you’re part of a nonpartisan coalition, you go and learn what people who disagree with you think about politics.

Levinson, who conducts one interview wearing an Obama knit cap, complains about the rise of flash over substance while watching Gov. Sarah Palin’s appearance at the RNC. But he has nothing to say about similar hoopla surrounding Sen. Obama or his throng of admirers.

“Poliwood” takes a half-hearted stab at defending actors for being out of touch elites who don’t understand how reg’lar folks think. Levinson lets actor Matthew Modine shares memories of back breaking work of his youth and the pride he felt in a job well done.

That’s wonderful, and it’s likely many of today’s stars worked just as hard - or harder - before fame and fortune came calling. But living in a cocoon of fame and wealth for an extended period can change a person’s perspective, sometimes radically.

When Jennifer Lopez sang, “I”m still Jenny from the block,” was anyone buying it?

A few celebrities acquit themselves well regarding their right to speak out, including Susan Sarandon, Ellen Burstyn and Modine.

Aging political troubadours David Crosby and Stephen Still ramble on in platitudes that add nothing to the debate and only support those who say celebrities should keep their yaps shut.

“Poliwood’s” focus keeps shifting, robbing whatever potency the film essay might have had otherwise. Levinson detours into a conversation about how the mainstream news is getting too bogged down in tabloid fare and often exploits story lines that tell us little about the way government works.

The film also takes time to savage Joe the Plumber for overstepping his bounds by acting as a war correspondent for PJTV. And yet the entire film is about celebrities who, one could argue, overstep their bounds every day by talking about matters they’re not well versed in.

A few scenes prove pure dynamite, like watching pollster Frank Luntz gently lecture some Coalition members about the harsh words they use in trying to sway the masses. Before Luntz can finish, actors Josh Lucas and Gloria Reuben nearly jump out of their seats, both recoiling at being told their methods might not be effective.

Even better, listen as actress Lynn Whitfield shares why she won’t be joining her Coalition peers at the RNC. “I don’t have the skill to communicate with people who have hurt my feelings so deeply,” she says.

Anne Hathaway makes a valid point that often journalists will ask an actor about a political topic even though the actor had no intention of of discussing the subject.

We almost get a reason to applaud the celebrities and their outspoken ways when director Spike Lee nails New York Governor David Paterson with a tough, but fair, question about city school funding. Paterson can’t come up with an answer, but the liberals in attendance, including Lee, simply laugh at the governor’s awkwardness and the question is dropped.

The Creative Coalition co-produced “Poliwood” but the film does it few favors even if it proves intermittently enlightening.


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