The term "abuse of power" is in the news again. Adding insult to injury, we learn that our nation's most ubiquitous hockey mom, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, was engaged in some flagrant high-sticking activity while in office, attempting to get her former brother-in-law fired from his job as a state trooper.
Man, when it rains, it pours. Just when Palin's divisive hate-mongering at Republican rallies was driving my own shaky opinion of her to an all-time low, this happens. It appears that behind all the winking and the "I'm just like you" patter, Sarah is just another spiteful, crooked politician.
Of course, beyond the base peccadilloes of our language, policy, and now ethics - challenged Sarah, abuse of power is being felt in broader, more fundamental ways by virtually all Americans. Over 85 percent of us feel the country is headed in the wrong direction, and the other 14 percent either live under a rock or have been struck by one.
Surveying the country's current financial mess, regular citizens are experiencing a frustrating sense of impotence. Beyond this, we are hopping mad at the power brokers in Washington and on Wall Street who allowed the crisis to happen, as they were otherwise engaged getting filthy rich at our expense.
Abuse almost invariably occurs wherever there is a concentration of power that can operate unchecked. This is true of both the public and private sectors, and while some speak of the necessary separation of business and politics, it's abundantly clear that the two are not-so-secret bedfellows.
The following ten films portray past examples of abuse of power, broadly defined to encompass the misuse of high position and influence in the political, corporate, and military realms. They each reinforce the central truth that this form of corruption is nothing new, but a recurring societal problem we have never fully come to grips with. It seems we never learn the right lessons or take the right actions to protect the majority of the populace who time and again end up taking the hit for the folly of an elite few.
All The King's Men (1949)- Known for taking on the corrupt state government, charismatic Southern lawyer Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) is a populist hero in the eyes of voters, who elect him to the governor's post. Once in power, Stark turns out to be as rotten as the rest, despotically ruling the state, cheating on his wife with campaign manager Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge), and disposing of those who challenge his authority. Somehow, Stark retains his robust public appeal, at least until his crooked ways catch up with him. Based on Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, which fictionalized the life of murdered Louisiana governor Huey Long, Robert Rossen's scathing portrait of corruption remains one of our most compelling films about political demagoguery. At the center of it all is B-movie veteran Broderick Crawford, who gives an all-or-nothing, powerhouse performance, which netted him an Oscar. "Men" also won Best Picture that year, and remains, sadly enough, as timely as ever.
Paths Of Glory (1957)- An aloof, ambitious French general (Adolphe Menjou) sends his men out on a suicide mission during the First World War, and when they ultimately retreat, selects three soldiers at random to face charges of cowardice, for which the sentence is death. Guilt-ridden and seething with injustice, the soldiers' commander (Kirk Douglas) defends his men in the court martial proceedings. Few films expose war's insanity more starkly, contrasting the all-powerful, remote armchair generals with young recruits, mere pawns in an obscene political game, who get slaughtered on the front line of the war to end all wars. We share Douglas' righteous fury at the plight of his men as the rushed sham of a trial progresses. One of Stanley Kubrick's earlier, less self-indulgent gems, this stark, disturbing anti-war film hasn't aged a bit.
Point Of Order (1964)- Emile de Antonio's searing documentary is an expertly edited compilation of 1954's televised Army-McCarthy hearings, which were famous for bringing down the nefarious junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph McCarthy, after his long, corrosive Communist witch-hunt ruined scores of lives. This invaluable piece of visual history places the fall of McCarthy-ism in lucid, dramatic context. While most of us have seen Boston lawyer (and Army counsel) Joseph Welch's pivotal repudiation of McCarthy ("At long last, Senator... ") few remember what led up to it, which only heightens its history-making impact. It's fascinating to see smarmy McCarthy counsel Roy Cohn go up against Welch and Senator Stuart Symington on charges of currying blatant favoritism for Army enlistee G. David Schine (Cohn's lover). Watching McCarthy himself is spooky, as we have to wonder anew how a man like this could amass such destructive power.
All The President's Men (1974)- A true-life detective tale about a pair of intrepid reporters, this film follows Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) as they uncover a possible connection between the 1972 Watergate burglary and a White House staffer. With the blessing of executive editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) and inside dope from Woodward's ultra-secret source, "Deep Throat" (Hal Holbrook), they "follow the money" all the way to the top. Although you never glimpse anyone playing Nixon, this Oscar-nominated film documents how the power of the press and determination of two young journalists brought down this president, who two years prior had won re-election by the widest margin in history. Faithfully adapted from the Pulitzer Prize-winning book authored by these reporters, the movie is more exciting than fiction, and the starring triumvirate of Redford, Hoffman, and Robards merge seamlessly with their real-life counterparts.
Roger and Me (1989)- Saddened and angered by the closing of an auto plant in his once-thriving hometown of Flint, Michigan, documentarian Michael Moore sets out to interview publicity-shy General Motors chairman Roger Smith about the decision to abandon the town. Along the way, he revisits Flint's glory days, handles rude rebuffs from the corporate office, meets colorful locals, and has a few salty encounters with celebs like Anita Bryant, Pat Boone, and Bob Eubanks. With his hilarious first feature, America's most celebrated wise-guy pundit created the basic template for his iconoclastic mix of populist humor and confrontational filmmaking. Armed only with a microphone and his folksy, working-class wit, the portly filmmaker relentlessly pursues Smith, highlighting the gulf between GM's carefully groomed public image as an all-American company dedicated to hometown values, and the cut-throat reality of their business practices. Moore's revealing chats with clueless GM boosters like Bryant and the surprisingly foul-mouthed Eubanks are alone worth the price of admission.
The Insider (1999)-Based on a well-publicized true story, Dr. Jeffrey Wigand (Russell Crowe), an embittered tobacco company employee, decides to blow the whistle on mammoth employer Brown & Williamson's deceptive practices. He enlists the help of Lowell Bergman, senior producer on 60 Minutes (Al Pacino), to get the story out. The process quickly becomes dangerous, however, and both men's lives are nearly destroyed. Carrying the imprimatur of reality-and courtesy of Michael Mann's tense, semi-documentary shooting style- the shocking events of the Big Tobacco scandal get brought into close proximity, holding you breathless. "The Insider" represents a cautionary tale wrapped up in a top-notch thriller. Watching the byplay between Pacino and Crowe, viewers get to witness two consummate actors at the top of their respective games. Crowe is particularly impressive playing against type.
Downfall (2004)- This German language feature chronicles the last days of World War II in a shattered and encircled Berlin, from the vantage point of the ever-tightening circle around a broken down, delusional Adolf Hitler (Bruno Ganz). Seen mainly through the eyes of his young secretary Traudl Junge (Alexandra Maria Lara), "Downfall" faithfully recreates events leading to Germany's unconditional surrender, while painting a vivid character study of Hitler and his small but faithful retinue. A palpable sense of dread and claustrophobia builds throughout the film, as the day of reckoning approaches when the once proud Fuhrer must admit to the utter failure of his twisted vision. Intense and intimate, with the crazy, nightmarish feel of a Bosch painting, "Downfall" is an astounding film experience for those with the stomach for it. Ganz renders Hitler so expertly that the effect is spooky, as if the dead had been brought back to life. Other searing performances come from Juliane Kohler as a curiously cheery, detached Eva Braun; also both Ulrich Matthes and Corinna Harfouch make your blood run cold playing the ever loyal Josef and Magda Goebbels. Finally, the delicate, wide-eyed Lara beguiles as Traudl, a mostly innocent lamb placed by fate right in the center of the wolf's lair. This was nominated for 2004's Best Foreign Film Oscar, and with good reason.
Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room (2005)-Alex Gibney's award-winning film profiles the astounding tale of corporate larceny and greed known as the Enron scandal. One of the most outrageous, outsize examples of big business hubris on record, the film focuses on the three players who loomed largest in the debacle: Chairman Kenneth Lay, CEO Jeffrey Skilling, and CFO Andrew Fastow. Needless to say, none of the three comes out smelling like a rose. This riveting documentary reviews in minute detail one company's spectacular rise and fall, delving into the labyrinthine schemes and self-deceptions that helped line the pockets of Enron's top management, while hoodwinking Wall Street with impressive short-term results essentially built on an elaborate Ponzi scheme. When this accounting house of cards fell, so did a lot of innocent (and not-so-innocent) employees, along with a company that only recently had been the darling of investors. A jaw-dropping tale, all the more scary and fascinating because it's true.
The Last King Of Scotland (2006)- In the early 1970s, looking for adventure after medical school, young Scottish physician Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy) travels to Uganda to join a rural medical team. During a roadside crisis involving General Idi Amin (Forest Whitaker), Garrigan impresses the new president with a brazen act and is hand-picked to become Amin's personal physician and adviser. Slowly, Garrigan comes to understand that Amin, though charismatic, is a savage and genocidal dictator responsible for butchering everyone who opposes his will. The next question is: how to get out from under? Anchored by Whitaker's fearsome, Oscar-winning performance as the charming yet volatile tyrant, Kevin MacDonald's searing adaptation of Giles Foden's novel contrasts Garrigan's freewheeling youthfulness with the harsh realities of Amin's beleaguered Uganda. McAvoy's doctor is cheeky and reckless, bedding Amin's wife when he feels trapped, but Nicholas is also ill-served by his own political naiveté. Great support from Simon McBurney and Gillian Anderson lend further complexity to this stylishly directed and phenomenally well-acted dramatic thriller, based on a true story.
No End In Sight (2007)- What went wrong in Iraq? Why did the country devolve into a deadly, seemingly endless civil war after the U.S. invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in March 2003? Interviewing numerous key figures in the postwar planning and interim coalition government, this sobering doc exposes the shocking ineptitude and bungling of Bush administration appointees that led to the collapse of security in Iraq-and fanned the flames of sectarian hostilities. Filmmaker Charles Ferguson, a former Brookings Institution fellow, takes a hard look not just at the administration's reasons for going to war, but what we did-and didn't do- in the aftermath. As he interviews State Department honchos like Richard Armitage, senior military commanders, foreign ambassadors, and veteran journalists, what becomes frighteningly apparent is the obvious lack of any postwar strategy at all, and the systematic undermining of advice from military and governing officials on the ground in Iraq. Clear, concise, and free of polemics, "No End in Sight" is a gripping look at an appalling-and costly- lack of leadership.
Follow John Farr on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jfarr02