It's not uncommon to hear people discussing -- or complaining about -- the ways in which Hollywood celebrities are involved in politics, whether they're airing their opinions during a concert or speaking in public on behalf of a politician. Barry Levinson (Diner, Good Morning Vietnam) thought this was an interesting enough topic to address in his documentary Poliwood, which focuses on the 2008 national Democratic and Republican conventions. Unfortunately, the documentary shows us little that we haven't already seen, and tends to preach to the converted.
Poliwood is subtitled "a Barry Levinson film essay," which signals us that this will be a more personal style of documentary. Levinson opens the movie with shots from his 1990 feature film Avalon and uses this footage to discuss the ways American lives have changed because of television. His focus is on the Creative Coalition, a non-partisan organization of celebrities that focuses on issues such as arts education. The documentary shifts to the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, where Creative Coalition members such as Anne Hathaway, Tim Daly, and Ellen Burstyn talk about how they include politics in their lives. It's especially surreal to see Richard Schiff at the convention after his role on The West Wing -- in one scene, someone from the Clinton administration walks up to him and says "You played me!" -- but Schiff handles it all with good humor.
Over the course of the film, Levinson brings up a number of related issues: the power of still photos or video footage to convey a story we think is true because we are seeing it, even if it's not the whole story; the perception of Hollywood as overwhelmingly liberal; the increasing blurring of the lines between politics and celebrity on television; the ways in which television has affected politics and politicians; the ways in which TV news has become less of a public service and more of a moneymaking endeavor with a continual drive for higher ratings; the role of TV news in the increased political polarization in America; the importance of arts in education; and whether everyone really ought to be involved in politics, or not.
Any one of those issues would have been an excellent focus for a documentary, and in fact many have done so already. Errol Morris examined photos of Abu Ghraib versus the actual events that occurred in Standard Operating Procedure, and Shut Up and Sing shows us what can happen when musicians discuss politics in their concerts. The problem with Poliwood is that none of these issues ever get in-depth treatment; Levinson talks about it with a few celebrities and maybe a politician or two, then cuts to something else. It's all over the place, not just in theme but in location -- sometimes I wasn't sure where Levinson was, or when. Sometimes he appears onscreen in black and white, which I think is meant to show that these are observations he made after the conventions, but I'm not sure and it serves no helpful purpose.
In addition, for a film that is supposed to be showing a non-partisan group at work, and which is apparently trying to dismiss the accusations of "liberal bias" in Hollywood, Poliwood is unfortunately unbalanced. I would estimate that about two-thirds of the convention footage is from the Democratic National Convention ... the GOP convention footage is shorter and close to the end of the film. At the Democratic convention, Levinson shows us the celebrities in meetings and at big events; at the Republican convention, he focuses on a focus group where "ordinary people" confront celebrities about their roles in politics. He also spends too much time wondering what the deal was with Sarah Palin, which is an interesting discussion that doesn't really belong in this movie.
Poliwood has a few fun moments -- I especially liked Anne Hathaway, who comes across as a young woman who just wants the opportunity to get involved in politics like other people her age, and who jumps up and down and nearly squeals during Obama's acceptance speech. And Levinson includes some concert footage from musicians who are interviewed in the film, and who played concerts in a political context. But again, while the music is fun, it further diffuses any focus or point that the movie may have been trying to make. Although Poliwood is meant as a personal essay more than a straightforward documentary, a theme or focus would have kept the film from being more than a lightweight curiosity. It borders on being a vanity piece where a Hollywood filmmaker follows his actor and musician friends around, which won't appeal to people who already believe celebrities are all a bunch of liberals who should stay out of politics.