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What's Your Bull Worth, Anyway?
by Jon Schuller

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I recently discussed how movies can sometimes contain themes and ideas that blend several movie types together in the same film. We may have a war movie that shows a prison. Have you seen a robbery movie that delves into a personal drama? We can laugh at a comedy poking fun at thoughtful, universal situations. I've watched a gladiator film that didn't always take itself too seriously. Maybe the movies are simply doing what they do best: mirroring life as a jigsaw puzzle where some of the pieces fit well and some don't fit at all.

We are living in an age of instant, two-way communications where any one of us can reach out across the miles and write or talk to perfect strangers about any subject at all. Just click on Facebook or Twitter or any one of dozens of internet sites to discuss any subject at all. Everyone has an opinion, informed or not, that affects ideas and real life situations around the world. It is truly amazing. Politics is a universal theme and a target for anyone with an opinion even a misguided one. Prior to our age of instantaneous information many peoples' opinions were influenced by the movies they watched. Movies were and still are a powerful molder of beliefs on a variety of issues and many films with political themes have become cinema classics. Look at Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra landmark movie (1939) that pretty much set the standard for politics in films. Seven Days in May (1964) combined politics with the military as a coup is plotted to take over the government. Fail Safe, also in 1964, took a serious look at what would happen if a nuclear attack happened by accident and how the world's political leaders reacted to it. The wonderful comedy Dr. Strangelove in the same year took pokes at Fail Safe and a world living with the threat of nuclear annihilation as politicians argued in the "war room." We have spies and politics mixed up in 1975's Three Days of the Condor as the secret world of the C.I.A.
becomes exposed to everyday people in New York City. The Watergate Scandal and Nixon's ensuing resignation are portrayed in the 1976 classic All The President's Men, with Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman playing the persistent reporters, Woodward and Bernstein. Redford also starred in another movie, The Candidate in 1972 that followed a political campaign from the inside. 1989 premiers The Package starring Gene Hackman as spies, politicians and a few naughty military types plot to assassinate a world leader and how the plot is foiled.

My list at least for now is a relatively short one and I may return in a future column to discuss more of these films. Today's column is about another controversial, ground-breaking political film; a movie that showed in realistic terms and spoke in genuine dialogue what a politician must endure in a political campaign as his personal life is exposed and altered for good or bad publicly day after day. The 1998 film is Bulworth and starred Warren Beatty.

Jay Billington Bulworth is a U.S. Senator who's running a re-election campaign again and is frankly tired of the whole thing. He's up against a younger popular man who makes sure that Bulworth's "socialist" views molded in the 1960s and 1970s - are out of step with America's current opinions (sounds familiar doesn't it?) of politicians. Bulworth decides to try more conservative tactics while courting the insurance lobby for donations and votes. He negotiates a huge insurance policy with his daughter as beneficiary and, since suicide would void the policy, contracts with a local wiseguy to be assassinated. At this point in his campaign in California he begins to act and speak more freely about issues. He gets drunk and winds up in a local club where he gets more drunk and smokes marijuana. He starts rapping about concerns in the campaign and winds up being helped by a local campaigner, Nina (played by Halle Berry). Much to the dismay of his campaign manager, Dennis Murphy
(Oliver Platt), Bulworth starts to disappear for hours at a time as he finds himself more involved with Nina and her neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles. He adopts a new way of speaking; he meets and gets involved with the African-American community, such as a local gang leader, L.D. (played well by Don Cheadle, one of my favorite screen actors) and his crew; Bulworth prevents a policeman from hurting some kids when he reveals his true identity underneath his new clothing.

Meanwhile his campaign manager and the media are desperately trying to find him as Bulworth imagines a stranger, who keeps following him, to be the assassin; he turns out to be a photographer hired to take pictures everywhere Bulworth turns up. Jay finally contacts the gangster to re-negotiate the contract on his life agreeing to pay more fees to cancel it altogether.

He's been hiding from everyone at Nina's family home where Bulworth meets her relatives and friends and by this time has become romantically involved with Nina despite her family's warnings and L.D.'s pressure on Nina's brother to pay his debts. The media and everyone else eventually find his hiding place and surround the home with lights and cameras. Bulworth looks at Nina as he slowly leaves the house and makes his way into the noisy crowd. But Bulworth has transformed himself in front of the entire world as his new persona, speech and dress are shown on camera, while he decries all the evils of the political world he lives in: rich campaign donors whose influence reaches into politicians' pockets; the plight of poor people he's now seen firsthand; the hypocrisies of a city where crime and poverty breed a whole generation of young criminals. Bulworth speaks his mind and the public can't get enough of the new Jay Bulworth.

Meanwhile, L.D. has decided to transform himself and his followers by getting involved in his community's problems, using his influence to change the bad to good. As Bulworth waits for a sign from
Nina that she will cross the line with him, despite the obvious prejudices of both white and black people against a mixed racial relationship and one in which a much older man and much younger woman are together. As the two kiss and wow the crowd around them, Bulworth is shot and killed by someone least expected to do it. The tragedy is his new awakening has been cut short by the same prejudice and stereotyping he was suddenly seeing so clearly for the first time.

The supporting cast of Bulworth features such great actors as Paul Sorvino, Jack Warden, and Christine Baranski. The soundtrack features many then-popular rappers and hip-hop artists as well as a beautiful theme by the renowned movie composer, Ennio Morricone.The movie was of course controversial when it premiered but well-received by audiences. I quote: " In May,2013, the New York Times reported that President Barack Obama had, in private, "talked longingly of 'going Bulworth,'" in reference to the film" when things were going against the President. I daresay he might repeat this thought many times lately with current events too.

I think the value of this film makes us remember how powerful movies are when it comes to shining a spotlight on our most sacred institutions, regardless of those bodies' true natures and how they impact our daily lives. Politics and politicians are daily held up for merciless scrutiny by the 24-hour news cycle and the worldwide web. Our current deadlock in America, in Washington, is nothing new or any less painful as we can't make up our minds whether or not the people who run the government really hear what the public demands and expects. Bulworth got more than one wake-up call, publicly and privately, to change himself and his views; to become involved with his constituents on a personal level and not lie to anyone ever again; to love another person without regard for his own safety or the opinions of others. Bravery comes in many forms as Bulworth discovers tragically too late.

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Cinema Savant
Every other Thursday

My views on an eclectic mix of films and personalties, past and present; emotional interpretations; some laughs, some cries.

Other Columns
Other columns by Jon Schuller:

Have You Been Spying On Me Lately? For How Long?

But Can She Act? That's What I Want to Know

They're Not the Same People They Used To Be

Time Does Fly When We Watch Movies

Before Minimum or Maximum, There Was Only Prison

All Columns

Jon Schuller
I am a former New Jersey native, living in Charlotte, N.C. for almost 30 years. I am a lifelong movie lover with lots of movie trivia knowledge and soundtracks in my CD collection. I enjoy sharing my love of films with everyone and have so many fond memories growing up in darkened movie theaters. I have been married 50 years (as of December 22, 2018) and we both share a passion for film (and each other of course).

If you have a comment, question, or suggestion, you can send a message to Jon Schuller by clicking here.

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