A Great Line, Taken Badly Out of Context

Thane Rosenbaum in The New York Times, October 21, 2010

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By CLYDE HABERMAN
That public figures can be influenced by movies is an old story.

Richard M. Nixon identified hugely with the audacious, rough-and-ready (and somewhat nuts) World War II general who is the title character in “Patton.” John F. Kennedy had a thing for James Bond and his creator, Ian Fleming, though he didn’t live beyond the first couple of 007 films. Ronald Reagan channeled the “make my day” Clint Eastwood, and now and then confused some of his own Hollywood roles with reality. A few people who dismiss Darwin’s theories as a lot of hooey seem to believe that “The Flintstones” is a documentary.

Certified bad guys, too, take their cues from film. Salvatore Gravano, the mob hit man better known to some by his nom de whack, Sammy the Bull, once said that “The Godfather” had an effect on how he went about his craft. “It made our life, I don’t know, it made our life seem honorable,” he said. “I would use lines in real life like ‘I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.’ ”

It is not surprising that Hollywood continues to cast its influence. Nowhere is this more vividly displayed than in the political campaigns of some Tea Party types, including their leading light in New York, the imploding Republican and Conservative candidate for governor, Carl P. Paladino.

As has been amply noted in this column and elsewhere, the battle cry of the Paladino campaign is “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” It’s from the 1976 film “Network,” and it ranks No. 19 on the American Film Institute’s roster of the 100 top movie quotations of all time. For some, it practically amounts to a philosophy.

But you have to wonder if any of the “mad as hell” men and women running for high office have ever seen “Network.” The line is screamed not by a mad man but by a madman.

Its shortcoming as political theory was neatly dissected this week by Ben McGrath in The New Yorker. Anyone familiar with the film might well ask if Mr. Paladino “has thought this one through,” Mr. McGrath says.

“ ‘Network’ is not a story of redemption through anger,” he writes. Rather, “mad as hell” is the rant of a character, Howard Beale, who is having a nervous breakdown — “a delusional tool of corporate interests who ends up getting shot on live television when he has outlived his usefulness to them.”

Small wonder, then, that Mr. Paladino barely registers a pulse in a new batch of opinion polls released this week. His all-too-literal rendition of Quotation No. 19 has put him in grave danger of soon hearing a line from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” that landed in 76th place on the film institute’s list: “Hasta la vista, baby.”

UNDER far less volatile circumstances, Hollywood’s influence on public life was underscored the other day by the Bronx’s own Supreme Court justice, Sonia M. Sotomayor.

Justice Sotomayor selected a movie that was shown at the Fordham University School of Law, part of an annual law-focused film festival that ended Thursday evening. Her choice was Sidney Lumet’s “12 Angry Men,” from 1957. It set her on a law career, the justice said. The reverence for the jury system expressed by one of the film’s jurors inspired her. “It sold me that I was on the right path,” she told the festival audience.

But in a sense this movie is an odd inspiration, even if it is not nearly as off the charts as “Network.” Justice Sotomayor herself allowed that reality takes a pounding in “12 Angry Men” as the jurors indulge in speculation that goes way beyond the courtroom testimony.

“Her very first comment was, ‘You do know how absurd this all is,’ ” said Thane Rosenbaum, a writer and law professor who is director of the film festival. A more profound cinematic influence for would-be lawyers, he said, is Atticus Finch, that symbol of moral rectitude in “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

“More people in their law school applications cite the movie’s Atticus Finch — not the novel’s but Gregory Peck’s portrayal — as a reason they want to become lawyers,” Mr. Rosenbaum said.

“What’s great about that character,” he said, “is he basically tells you that you can’t just be a professional from nine to five. You have to be a mensch all 24 hours. Honor is something that is on all the time.”

Hmm, honor as a 24/7 pursuit. Maybe that’s why you never hear political candidates invoke Atticus Finch on the campaign trail, only Howard Beale.