July 02, 2007
Bureaucracy on Film
In the comments to my post on They Came Back, Ginger Yellow suggests that if it's government-in-action that I want to see, then I should check out Threads -- "nuclear apocalypse from the point of view of Sheffield City Council." I'm down, as I've long wondered how the Sheffield City Council would react to nuclear apocalypse. Sadly, I can't seem to find Threads in ye olde Netflix. But let's make the question larger: What are the best movies about government in general and bureaucrats in particular? I'm not looking for thrillers taking place in the halls of Congress, but love stories in the depths of the EPA and dramas tracking one deputy undersecretary of state's lonely crusade to popularize the metric system.
Frankenheimer's Path to War is a nice and reasonably accurate retelling of the LBJ escalation of the Vietnam war, told from a bureaucratic warfare angle.
If you've read The Best and the Brightest, you'll recognize every detail. And even if you haven't, it's still a great flick.
Posted by: Petey | Jul 2, 2007 11:11:15 AM
And while it's about the spy service bureaucracy, rather than normal government bureaucracy, The Ipcress File is highly recommended.
Posted by: Petey | Jul 2, 2007 11:15:42 AM
Posted by: Daniel | Jul 2, 2007 11:23:28 AM
The only mildly amusing Pentagon Wars is an almost purely bureaucratic flick.
I wouldn't recommend it unless you're making a study of the genre.
Posted by: Petey | Jul 2, 2007 11:32:01 AM
This google search for "movies about bureaucracy" is pretty damn funny.
It seems a very limited number of porn sites have included that phrase in their searchwords. Check out the words around that phrase to see just how incongruous it all is. And wonder how the fuck that phrase got there in the first place.
Posted by: Petey | Jul 2, 2007 11:42:54 AM
That was actually my first thought too.
Posted by: McGarnigle | Jul 2, 2007 11:52:19 AM
Threads is amazing by the way - utterly harrowing in the way that a film about MAD should be. It traumatised an entire generation of British people when it was first shown in 1984. I was exaggerating slightly for effect - it's not all about Sheffield City Council, but it is in large part and it really tries to think through the practical effects of total nuclear war on societal infrastructure and human relations.
If you have a multi-region DVD player, you can pick it up on Amazon. Otherwise you'll probably have to Torrent it. It's not really a film that distributors would think appeals to the US market.
As for films about government, Brazil has to take the prize. Otherwise, you might find this paper interesting: Strange but true tales from Hollywood: the bureaucrat as movie hero.
Posted by: Ginger Yellow | Jul 2, 2007 11:55:58 AM
Ginger Yellow--that's a cute paper; I just started leafing thru it.
Posted by: Captain Goto | Jul 2, 2007 12:29:04 PM
While it is about spies, and while it is television, I must here recommend "The Sandbaggers." British spy bureaucracy! Men in suits! Meetings in offices!
Posted by: Dennis | Jul 2, 2007 1:01:57 PM
There's an interesting Cuban movie on the subject entitled "Death of a Bureaucrat". It describes the travails of a bureaucrat's family after he has been given the unprecedented honor of being buried with his party membership card. As it turns out, the card is required in order that his family may claim survivor benefits. There the fun begins.
Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 2, 2007 1:03:11 PM
...also, Finch (Stephen Rea) and his sidekick in "V for Vendetta".
Posted by: Captain Goto | Jul 2, 2007 1:05:47 PM
"A Taxing Woman" (Marusa no onna).
Posted by: SKapusniak | Jul 2, 2007 1:27:11 PM
OMG. I would so watch a marathon of bureaucratic thrillers.
Posted by: Megan | Jul 2, 2007 1:29:20 PM
Threads is indeed good and harrowing. And Sandbaggers is by a wide margin the best spy series ever, I think; Spooks has moments of rising to its level.
The Rook is a quiet, strange film set in an alternate Britain with a Gnostic theocracy. (It's not eve identified doctrinally as gnostic, but a couple of pieces of iconography point that way.) The main character is a field investigator looking into routine troubles who ends up completely over his head.
Musn't forget Kafka, in which Jeremy Irons does a swell job as Kafka living the life bureaucratic and trying not to get dragged into anyone's revolution or other trouble. The portrayal of the Castle, where of course he does inevitably end up, is really beautifully done.
Posted by: Bruce Baugh | Jul 2, 2007 1:44:33 PM
I know this isn't quite what you're looking for, but my favorite scene from "Apollo 11" captures some of the same spirit: it shows all the engineers in the control room urgently checking a vital equation (using pencils, paper, and slide rules!). The mood set in this scene is reminiscent of the typical "disarming the bomb at the last second" action-movie scene.
Posted by: Dyon | Jul 2, 2007 1:54:24 PM
Threads is probably the best of the 80s nuclear apocalypse movies. Far superior to The Day After. Watching it was really a harrowing experience for me. It's certainly available on VHS, or at least it used to be, because that's how I saw it. If Netflix doesn't have it that probably means it hasn't been released on Region 1 DVD.
Posted by: JasonR | Jul 2, 2007 2:34:25 PM
Made 20 years before Threads but spottily released until the '80s, and also totally devastating, and available on DVD: The War Game, by Peter Watkins. Watkins made it in a bone-dry documentary style for the BBC, and pissed off the government by quoting from their cheerful civil defense instructions while he depicted Kent in flames and soldiers performing mercy killings.
Posted by: Hob | Jul 2, 2007 3:13:49 PM
Would 1984 qualify?
Also, speaking of morbid Cuban movies, there was one ten years back called Guantanamero which, if memory serves correctly, involved death, burial and bureaucracy, all set to an awesome, pre-Buena Vista soundtrack.
Posted by: Headline Junky | Jul 2, 2007 3:18:57 PM
It's not a movie, but Yes, Minister (an 80s British TV series) is a gem on the interplay between the bureaucracy and political appointees.
Posted by: JS | Jul 2, 2007 4:22:31 PM
I’m a film fanatic, but I’m hard-pressed to come up with a list of great films about government. There are some I assume everyone knows about, both great ones (like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) and not so great ones (like The American President), as well as some pretty obscure ones that I thought were kind of fun but I wouldn’t exactly recommend (The Farmer’s Daughter), and some I haven’t seen but about which I have heard great things (Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom, Costa-Gavras’ Z, Kurosawa’s Ikiru). Beyond that, there are very few about government, and still fewer that go into governmental processes in any depth. So I’m going to list a bunch of films that mostly are more about politics than government, per se.
I. Films about bureaucracy:
A) The evil bureaucrat: Shoah
It’s been years and years since I saw this, but I remember that, at the time what struck me as most brilliant about it was the way Lanzman patiently, methodically, exhaustively lays out the bureaucracy of the death camps. Cumulatively, it’s overwhelmingly shocking and terrifying to realize that, above all else, the death camps were a bureaucracy. An infrastructure was built, orders were signed, timetables were created, quotas were met. Everything was done in rational, highly systematized way. It’s the most chilling thing you could possibly imagine.
B) The good bureaucrat: The Taking of Pelham 123
I love, love, love this movie. It’s one of the classic gritty, cynical, 70s New York films. It concerns a gang of criminals who hold up a subway car for ransom. The hero of the story is schlubby, rumpled transit authority bureaucrat played by Walter Matthau at his sardonic, seen-it-all best. It’s his stubborn persistence, plus his nerdily deep knowledge of the inner workings of the transit system, that ultimately saves the day. I used to be a NYC bureaucrat once so maybe that’s part of why I have a special affection for this film. But it has a lot of other fans as well (Quentin Tarantino is one) and when it was shown on my campus a few years ago, it drew a packed house and sustained applause at the end.
II. Films about power:
The Godfather films (I & II) – My favorite way of looking at the Godfather films is not as films about gangsters, or films about family, but as films about power. This theme plays itself out especially richly in part 2, and not even so much in the famous Cuba scenes or the subplot with Senator Geary, but in the scenes of the young Vito Corleone’s rise to power. Above all else, Vito is a brilliant politician, with a deep knowledge of the workings of power. That’s how he rises to the top and stays there.
III. Films about inequality and economic struggle:
A) Crimson Gold – In recent years, many of the best recent films about politics and political economy have come out of Iran. This one is one of my favorites. I won’t lie to you – it is slooooowww and at times, really, really heavy going. But stick with it – in the last hour there’s an extended sequence that just kicks it up to entire new level. The plot concerns a pizza delivery guy who robs a jewelry store, but what this film is really about the vicious inequities of the new economy, and the pain and rage of those left behind.
I should add that Jafar Panahi, who directed this film, and many other contemporary Iranian directors have been heavily influenced by the classic neo-realist Italian films of the 40s and 50s. The neo-realist school was very much about social protest, albeit not so much about government per se. But if you’re interested in films that center on themes of poverty and economic struggle but also have a broader human and artistic resonance, you should definitely check out some of the classics of the genre, such as The Bicycle Thief, Open City, and Umberto D. They all hold up beautifully.
B) Harlan County USA – Definitely among the greatest documentaries ever made, it’s the searing portrait of a famous coal mining strike that took place in 1973. I saw it earlier this year and it remains as vivid, heartbreaking, and enraging as ever.
IV. Film about the nation-state:
Passport to Pimlico – In the 40s and 50s, Britain’s famous Ealing studios made a wonderful series of small, gem-like satirical comedies. Kind Hearts and Coronets is probably the best-known of these, but this one is almost as good. It’s about a Cockney London neighborhood which discovers that, according to an old treaty, it’s actually a separate nation; subsequently, the residents decide to form their own country. Not only is this film very funny, but in its own modest, entirely unpretentious way, it’s a film the meaning of citizenship and the nature of the nation-state. It also happens to be one of my husband’s very favorite movies.
V. Films about geopolitics, occupation, terrorism, and guerilla warfare:
Army of Shadows – The best “new” film I’ve seen recently, though it isn’t really new (it was made in France in 1969 and not released in the U.S. until a year or two ago). Directed by the great Jean-Pierre Melville, it’s a stunning and exciting film that probes deep into the workings of a cell of the French resistance. It really helps you see the political logic, and the ruthlessness, of the way resistance movements work.
Battle of Algiers – This is a brilliant and thrilling film about the war for Algerian independence in the 50s and 60s. Supposedly post-9/11 it was shown to government anti-terrorism experts but if they’d actually understood it we would never had gone into Iraq.
In the Name of the Father – A stirring, terrific film starring Daniel Day Lewis as an Irish citizen who spends years in prison after falsely being accused by the British government of participating in IRA terrorist activity.
Lawrence of Arabia – It’s a great film, and though I haven’t seen it in years and years, my brother, whose judgment I trust, tells me he saw it recently and some of the parallels to our current quagmire in Iraq were uncanny. It’s on DVD but definitely see it on the big screen if you can.
VI. Film about revolution:
The Leopard – This Luchino Visconti film gets on a lot of “greatest films of all-time” lists. I would argue that it is certainly the greatest *conservative* film of all time. It’s based on a great novel of the same name by Giuseppe di Lampedusa, who was an aristocrat and a political conservative, and it concerns the revolution that occurred during the unification of Italy in the 1860s. It’s a lovely elegy to a vanishing civilization, centering on a prince (beautifully played by Burt Lancaster, who gives the performance of his career) who loves the old ways but comes to accept, mournfully, the inevitability of the new.
My favorite line is when one of the characters says something like “To remain the same, things have to change.” And that’s the conservative wisdom of this film – it understands that it’s absolutely necessary for the world to move on, while at the same time giving full due to the beauty of what is lost. (Um, needless to say, it’s a very European, old world style of conservatism we’re talking about here). Another reason you might be interested in this film is that it clearly was a huge influence on Coppola when he made the Godfather. The epic, elegiac style and mood is similar to the Godfather, and Lancaster’s performance as the prince has much in common with Brando’s courtly don. Do see this one on the big screen if you’re able.
My Love Has Been Burning – Okay, this one is totally obscure. Currently it’s not on DVD and who knows if it ever will be. It’s an absolutely fascinating film made in Japan in the late 1940s, and it’s based on the true story of a 19th century Japanese feminist who was involved with the founding of Liberal Party. It’s very smart about the compromises and betrayals inherent in movement politics and about the differences between radicals and reformers. And it is absolutely fucking brilliant, not to mention decades ahead of its time, about the sexual politics involved. I worship at the shrine of the director, Kenji Mizoguchi, and this is one of the reasons.
Posted by: Kathy G. | Jul 2, 2007 6:15:27 PM
Wow. One of the reasons I've never seen Land and Freedom, the Ken Loach film which I've heard is amazing, is that it's not available on DVD. But I just learned that it's available for viewing right here on the good old internets, for free. Here's the link:
Hope it lives up to its reputation!
Posted by: Kathy G. | Jul 2, 2007 6:40:06 PM
IIRC, Land and Freedom is about the Spanish Civil War? If so, I have watched it several times.
I am still trying to think of the bureacracy movie. Where the shuffling of paperwork and finding the right official gets the vaccinations or reveals the shoddy bridge or gets a green card. I know I have seen one.
There is Missing, with Lemmon and Spacek.
Posted by: bob mcmanus | Jul 2, 2007 7:07:09 PM
IOW, nobody else can think of a bureaucracy movie either.
Which really is kind of interesting when you remember that the development of a functional bureaucracy is essential to the modern state and society.
At the very least, apparently if any of us have seen such a movie, it was so boring that we forgot it. Not the stuff of which Hollywood legends are made.
Posted by: serial catowner | Jul 2, 2007 7:26:41 PM
Kathy G. I admire your taste in films. Two more from me: "Burned by the Sun", a Russian film about the corrosive effects and corrupt reality of Stalin's rule. In the category of revolution: Bernardo Bertollucci's "1900" a filmic tour de force comparable only, in my experience, to "Citizen Kane". Also something of a semi-sequel to "The Leopard".
Posted by: W.B. Reeves | Jul 2, 2007 7:37:04 PM
Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (death of a bureaucrat)
Orson Welles' The Trial (after Kafka's novel)
Elia Kazan's The River (TVA functionary - Montgomery Clift - tries to get family to move from their soon to be flooded farm)
Ermanno Olmi's Il Posto (young man gets his first white collar job with Italy's giant telephone monopoly).
Francesco Rosi's Hands over the City (real estate zoning and construction bureaucracy)
Zbynek Brynych's And the Fifth Horseman is Fear (working in the Nazi supply office)
There's a lot of bureaucracy focused fiction from Eastern Europe - Gogol's The Inspector General being the archetype here
Posted by: burritoboy | Jul 2, 2007 11:42:59 PM
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