Friday, 22 February 2008

DVD: Man of the Year

Lowdown: An honest man gets elected as the president of the USA.
Acclaimed director Barry Levinson of Rain Man fame seems to have developed a taste for the political comedy. With Wag the Dog under his belt, he moved on to make Man of the Year. This year, Man of the Year becomes more relevant than ever with the USA currently going through an election campaign aimed at replacing what most of the rest of the world regards as the worst American president they ever had the pleasure of knowing. I suspect the feeling is shared by many Americans, too, which makes the questions asked by Man of the Year about the political process producing a president and the mechanisms behind it all very relevant.
We have on our hands a guy called Obama who talks about change this and change that, but while I admit I am very ignorant in the way of American politics I am very much unable to identify any significant differences between him and his competitors. As in, change what? While my ignorance prevents me from being able to draw conclusions, my leading theory is that said Obama is mostly full of hot air.
This gets us to Robin Williams and the comedian TV talk show host he portrays in Man of the Year. Elections are coming up and an audience member tells him he should be running as he would be the only credible candidate; quickly enough, he realizes that maybe he should. His ticket is honesty, openness and transparency while not accepting any campaign money from anyone, and quickly enough he becomes the leading independent candidate. Guess what? Quickly enough he also becomes the next American president. The world is about to change!
Not that quickly, though. In a separate plot line we have Laura Linney as a software developer working for the company that does the software counting people’s votes. Linney discovers this bug that won Williams the elections even though he was far from winning a majority of votes. This Linney bit of the film feels more than a bit out of place with the Williams bit: For a start it’s a thriller as opposed to a comedy, focusing on how the software company wants to get rid of Linney using all sorts of nasty ways in order to avoid the imminent collapse. And second, while the Williams plot line is thought provoking and fresh, the Linney line is often stupid. For example, the bug that reshaped the election results is so stupid even Microsoft would have been able to identify it in time; there’s no doubt the filmmakers chose something that could be easily digested by non geek viewers, but they erred way too much and ruined the credibility of their film in the process. It would have been better not to tell us what the bug was in the first place.
Eventually the Williams and Linney plots unite, and then the question becomes – well, what’s next? Should the USA continue with the wrong president just because this president seems to actually offer some fresh ideas? Will the new president be in any way able to implement these new ideas? And most of all, what do all the rest of the people think about having a president elected on the basis of a minority vote.
All in all, lots of good questions about political systems are asked in Man of the Year, questions which are relevant to probably all democracies and not just the USA. And I agree, most of these questions do expose the king of democracy in his full nakedness. Still, as revealing as the film can be, it is what my mother would describe as “Parve”. That is, it is too neutral for its own good, too afraid to take a dive and commit to anything. It raises interesting questions but it only goes skin deep, reverting quickly to shallow answers instead of daring to go where no Hollywood made film has gone before. Especially with its very disappointing ending, you get the feeling that Levinson is quickly trying to mop up after himself in order to avoid being too outrageous and actually hurt some politician’s soul by accident.
Best scene: Williams takes part in a pre-election debate with the two main parties’ candidates and breaks debate rules to expose how the main candidates are puppets of the organizations supporting their election campaigns. Not that it exposes some top secrets, everyone should be able to see that Bush is a puppet of the oil companies, but it’s a funny scene and if it would make some people in the general public actually take notice of the fact their president is a puppet of companies with rather immoral agendas then the film has served its purpose.
Picture quality: Lots of noise, but that’s paled by disastrous color rendition making everything looks yellowish.
Sound quality: Nothing special.
Overall: A good idea that fails to take the extra step. 3 out of 5 stars.

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