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Politicians on film: ‘Yes we can!’ In Focus by Richard Crouse November 28, 2008

Sean-Penn-in-MilkThis year may go down in the history books as the year politics became hip again. Barack Obama’s “Yes we can!” vigor reignited America’s political passion, helping to break a forty-year-old Election Day turn-out record and actually get people under the age of seventy to tune into Meet the Press.

That excitement has infected Hollywood as well. This year sees three high profile political biographies hit theatres: W., about the life and wild times of George W. Bush; the soon-to-be released Frost/Nixon; and this week’s limited release Milk, starring Sean Penn as the first openly gay man elected to public office in the USA.

Hollywood has often looked to politics for inspiration. Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of rubber-cheeked Tricky Dicky in Nixon was nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, as was Raymond Massey’s take on the 16th president in Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and James Whitmore as Harry Truman in Give ’em Hell, Harry.

Wild in the Streets, a 1968 counter-culture cult film about Max Frost, a multi-millionaire rock star with plans to take over the government, is one of the wilder political “what-if” films.

Frost’s scheme begins with staged riots on the Sunset Strip. Next he spikes Washington’s drinking water supply with LSD and while D.C.’s powerbrokers are hallucinating he gets them to pass a law lowering the age limit for all elected offices to 14. Soon he wins the Oval Office, immediately imprisoning everyone over 30 in concentration camps where they wear dark robes and are perpetually stoned on LSD.

Max’s plan just might land him in trouble, however, when the next generation adopts the new slogan: “We’re gonna put everybody over 10 out of business.”

Seen through today’s eyes the film is little more than a fun, druggy artifact from the freewheeling sixties, but at the time its message was taken seriously by some in the establishment. At 1968’s Presidential Convention the Mayor of Chicago hired security to protect the city’s water supply from being laced with LSD.

Other unconventional political films include Whoops Apocalypse which sees America’s first female president, played by M*A*S*H’s Loretta Swit, try to avoid World War III and 1964s Kisses for My President which focuses on the tough job of First Husband as he puts a masculine spin on the role of First Lady, hosting women’s groups and garden parties.

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