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Review: PoliWood (2009)

PoliWood (2009)

Directed by: Barry Levinson

Premise: A documentary about the overlap of media, celebrity, and politics. Director Barry Levinson follows the Creative Coalition, a nonpartisan group of entertainers, as they visit the Democratic and Republican national conventions during the 2008 presidential elections.

What Works: PoliWood is a broad examination of the current media landscape, examining the intersection of entertainment with politics and how each one impacts the other. The first thing to understand about PoliWood is that it is not an attempt to be the final word on its topic. The opening credits announce that this is “a Barry Levinson film essay” and that description is apt. What Levinson has attempted, and mostly succeeded, is in sketching out the triangular relationship between media, politics, and celebrity and what that means for American democracy and for the culture. The film focuses on the members of the Creative Coalition as they travel on the campaign trail and then cuts to asides in which Levinson addresses the camera directly or covers historical anecdotes such as the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates or the Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young “Freedom of Speech Tour” recorded in the documentary Déjà Vu. What the film does is use these historical events as a way of providing some context and then link this history with the events occurring in 2008. That structure mostly works and PoliWood has some content that is very interesting and enlightening. Among the stronger aspects of this film is the way it questions celebrity advocacy. Some commentators voice their frustration with the power that celebrities are able to wield while others point out that entertainers are also private citizens with the right to comment and participate along with everyone else and still other critics point out that the presence of celebrities may draw attention to a worthy issue while simultaneously obfuscating it. The film also addresses the way spectacle has overtaken the presentation of news and the way form overshadows substance. As the news becomes a verbal cage match in which contestants attempt to defeat one another, the focus strays from the pursuit of truth and becomes a defense of predetermined political narratives and ideological encampments. These aspects of PoliWood come to a head when the Creative Coalition members visit the Republican convention and meet with conservative delegates. Their interaction is civil but intense and the protests of the conservative voices reveal something that the infotainment establishment often misses: the way in which the voices of average people are drowned out by the rancor of political spectacle. Scenes like this make PoliWood, at the very least, an important artifact of this particular time in our history.

What Doesn’t: Although Levinson makes it clear that he is only making a pass at the subjects, some of his topics warrant deeper discussion than he provides here. PoliWood is a primer on the relationship of entertainment to politics but the film’s observations about media are perfunctory and for the most part aren’t going to be a big revelation for those who are familiar these issues. The editing and organization of the film is unfocused in places; the film introduces an idea or a historical event and then moves on to a different topic, sometimes returning to it later. The filmmakers are attempting to create a web-like organization, in which all these topics intertwine with each other. That is befitting the overlap that PoliWood is addressing, but a more linear organization might have led to a more coherent conclusion.

DVD extras: Extra interviews and outtakes.
Bottom Line: PoliWood is a helpful primer for those who are trying to grasp the media environment in which we now live and the way in which the media shapes our understanding of the world. It is shorthanded in places and raises more questions than answers but the way it provokes consciousness about what we see and hear and how we think about it makes the film worthwhile viewing.

Episode: #384 (April 15, 2012)