TCS Daily

Politics Makes For Bad Movies; Bad Movies Make For Worse Politics

By James Pinkerton - January 10, 2006 12:00 AM

Aristotle believed that art imitates life. Oscar Wilde responded that, no, life imitates art. I offer two modest corollaries: First, politics makes for bad art, especially bad movies. And second, bad movies make for worse politics -- and tragically bad medical politics in particular.

Unlike Ari and Oscar, I don't expect to be immortalized for my aesthetic observations. However, I do hope to make a point what's relevant to today's medical arena -- which is to say, relevant to the life and death of billions of people. My point is, what might be called the "Constant Gardenerization" of international politics is going to retard progress toward vital medical cures.

Last month Edmund Tramont, head of the AIDS research division of the National Institutes of Health, made a media splash when he put forth an opinion about the conspiratorial state of AIDS-vaccine research. The Pharma companies aren't making much progress, he said, because they figure that the government will do it: "If we look at the vaccine, HIV vaccine ... It's not going to be made by a company. They're dropping out like flies because there's no real incentive for them to do it. We have to do it."

This bit of "news" emerged on Christmas day, perfectly timed to make Pharma look like the Grinch that stole the cure. And so while the story dutifully included a denial from Ken Johnson, senior vice president of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America -- who noted that the companies he represents are working on 15 different potential vaccines -- Tramont had made his demagogic point. And so we might revisit his concluding words: "We have to do it." The "we," of course, is the government -- or, if one prefers, the taxpayers.

Then Tramont went further. Speaking of a hypothetical government-created vaccine, he predicted that the drug companies would seize upon the state's handiwork: "If it works, they won't have to make that big investment. And they can make it and sell it and make a profit." Here Tramont is on slippery ground. If the US government did the work on an AIDS vaccine, the political reality is that Uncle Sam would insist on making the intellectual property widely available, which would mean that lots of different firms -- including, quite likely, Indian generic firms -- would get into the game. And in an environment of near-perfect competition, profit margins would be narrow to non-existent.

However, such down-the-road nuances were probably lost on most of Tramont's audience. For many, the takeaway was simpler -- and more conspiratorial. As many "know," the evil Pharma companies have joined the diabolic pantheon already inhabited by the oil companies, who are "known" to be sitting on the formula for cheap oil.

But in fact, it's difficult, bordering maybe on impossible, to whomp up formulas, chemical or biological, to instantly solve the world's problems. We might consider the testimony of the AIDS Vaccine Advocacy Coalition, which recently recalled the overconfidence many felt when AVAC was formed, to coincide with World AIDS Day, 1995:

"We were optimistic that with more resources, more cooperation and more scientific knowledge, an AIDS vaccine could be found in time to stem the growing epidemic. A decade later the field has more resources, more cooperation and more depth of scientific knowledge -- but still no AIDS vaccine."

And AVAC concludes, glumly, "While we've learned much in the past decade and made great strides in scientific, policy and ethical arenas, the road ahead is still a long one."

Others can hold forth on why AIDS is so problematic, but I will add my non-scientific corollary here: Hollywood, which prides itself on red-ribbon sensitivity to AIDS, isn't helping.

A case in point is the Ralph Fiennes movie alluded to above, "The Constant Gardener," released in August. The film spins a conspiracy theory that smears private-sector research not only in AIDS, but also in tuberculosis. Any Pharma executive who sees the movie might be excused from thinking to him or herself, 'Who needs the grief that comes from trying to cure such hot-button diseases? Yes, I might make a little money, but I will be portrayed as a mustache-twirling mass-murderer. Surely it's easier to work on something uncontroversial, such as E.D. or toenail fungus.'

The film is based, of course, on a 2000 novel by John le Carré, who puts the following words into one of his black-hatted corporate evildoers: "Tuberculosis is megabucks. Any day now the richest nations will be facing a tubercular pandemic, and Dypraxa will become the multibillion-dollar earner that all good shareholders dream of."

A few contrarian voices made the point that the scenario put forth in the film should be seen as positive: Steve Sailer, writing in The American Conservative, observed,

"Ludicrously, the screenplay claims that the evil corporation is cutting corners to rush the pill to market because of the obscene profits it will make preventing an epidemic of a new antibiotic-resistant form of TB that threatens to kill two billion people. In that case, the drug company would deserve a tickertape parade."

But in the dominant cultural le Carréan worldview, it's impossible to think well of anyone who would solve a big problem and thereby profit from such problem-solving -- so much for the "invisible hand."

Le Carré's leftism was unnoticed for a long time, because his spy novels were better known for "moral equivalence" -- the idea that there wasn't difference between West and East during the Cold War. But now, in the book-turned-movie, he argues for moral unequivalence: NGOs are good, corporations are bad. In the cutting words of film critic William Baer, "Since the Iron Curtain fell in 1989, the British novelist John le Carré (born David Cornwell) has been obliged to shift his primary focus from Cold War moral equivocation to more ordinary topics of leftist political correctness."

And such P.C. helps explain the enormous positive buzz that the film has gained; it routinely turns up on lefty-filmy "top ten" lists. And here's a prediction from the right-tilting Captain's Quarters blog:

"The lessons we must learn are that pharmaceutical companies are eeeevil, as are any companies that compete for profit. The only constants in TCG are the constantly pompous performances of the Good Guys and the constantly devious natures of The Bad Guys. My prediction: this film will get at least seven Oscar nominations, including Best Director, Best Actor and Actress, a possible nomination for Koundé's Supporting Actor, and probably Best Film."

The Academy Award nominations haven't been announced yet, but in November "Constant" won three British Independent Film Awards, including best film. And it's been nominated for three Golden Globes, including best picture and best director.

Which is to say the politics of a movie such as "Gardener" will play well in critical circles. But such paranoid politics doesn't play well in commercial circles. That's the point made by Brandon Gray, of Box Office Mojo. Despite the buzz, the film's box office has been a "disappointment," Gray declared in an interview. Putting "Gardener" in a pot with other recent agitprop-y movies, such as "Syriana" and "The Manchurian Candidate", Gray observed, "People don't like to be preached to." And so these preachy movies "have trouble finding an audience."

What people want instead, Gray continued, are "the trappings of politics," such as Harrison Ford aboard Air Force One or Nicole Kidman at the United Nations. But if the political message overpowers the story and the drama, well, that's popcorn poison. There are exceptions to every rule, of course, such as "Fahrenheit 911", but as Gray noted, a documentary is pitched to a much different audience than a regular plex-film.

For fun, I asked Gray what sort of political movies are most likely to succeed. His answer, not surprisingly, was that the most politically powerful films are those that "bury the lede" -- that is, those pictures which make their point subtly, even indirectly. As an example, Gray cited the hidden politics in "The Passion of the Christ," which ranks in the all-time top ten at the box office. Its colossal popularity was, in part, "a response to perceived Hollywood nihilism." It was, he adds, "A vote for Bush. When the film took off, it was clear that the president was going to be re-elected."

Gee, that's probably not the sort of politics that Hollywood has in mind, is it? One imagines that many in the movie biz would rather stay (relatively) poor putting out movies such as "Gardener," rather than become rich(er) by releasing more "Passions."

So we have a three-part puzzle that adds a little update to the wisdom of Aristotle and Oscar Wilde.

First, Hollywood loves to make lefty movies that the elites love and the masses loathe. Second, even though the movies don't do well financially, they do succeed in fouling the political climate such that drug companies put themselves and their shareholders' money at risk by getting into the media crosshairs. And third, the diseases that are thereby neglected get worse, and millions of people die. I wonder if Ralph Fiennes or director Fernando Meirelles will get an award for that.

James Pinkerton recently wrote for TCS about Message Politics vs. Meta-Politics.


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