Bulworth (United States, 1998)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

I'd like to say that Bulworth is the best political satire in years, but the truth is that is has tough competition from Barry Levinson's corrosive Wag the Dog in that department. Both films succeed admirably, but, although each takes aim at the sorry state of current-day politics, they have slightly different agendas and approaches. Wag the Dog dissects the showmanship aspect of Washington, while simultaneously firing a few shots at Hollywood. Bulworth, on the other hand, is a full-frontal assault on the shallowness of the political campaign process. It has the audacity that Primary Colors should have displayed, but was afraid to. Bulworth is willing to openly offend to get its point across. That's something that Primary Colors was nervous about doing.

In one sense, the film, put out by Warren Beatty with little concern for whose toes might get stepped on, can be summed up as an attack on the growing conservatism of the Democratic party, which is becoming increasingly more difficult to distinguish from its Republican rival. Bulworth is unrepentantly cynical in its view that all politicians are in the back pockets of big business and that every elected official, whether Democrat or Republican, is a member of an exclusive club. Hypocrisy, self-interest, and greed are the three forces that drive every campaign, and Senator Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) has had enough.

It's mid-March 1996, and Bulworth, an incumbent Senator from California, is running for re-election. However, like the Michael Douglas character in Falling Down, he has reached the breaking point. After taking out a $10 million life insurance policy with his 17-year old daughter as the sole beneficiary, he puts out a contract on his own life, then goes on the warpath against special interest groups. Discarding a prepared speech about the country standing "on the doorstep of a new millennium," he tells an African-American audience that the government doesn't care about them because they don't contribute enough money to re-election campaigns. Later, at a black tie dinner attended by Hollywood types, he launches into a tirade about the poor quality of movies. To a mostly-Jewish crowd, he declares, "My guys are not stupid. They always put the big Jews on my schedule." Suddenly, Bulworth's "tell it like it is" philosophy is a national sensation, attracting the attention of millions, including a young black woman named Nina (Halle Berry), who is determined to show the Senator what life is like for those who live in South Central L.A. Right in the middle of everything, Bulworth suddenly decides that he wants to live, but learns that calling off a hit isn't as easy as setting one up.

Bulworth's only real weakness (and it's more in the nature of a minor inconvenience than a significant flaw) is the backstory, which, with its disguised hit men, car chases, and bungled assassination attempts, takes up a little too much time. The political satire, on the other hand, is brilliant. Not only is it honed to a viciously sharp edge, but it's frequently hilarious. Beatty manages to lampoon controversial issues, like kids selling drugs for dealers because they're too young to go to prison, while simultaneously making serious points. In addition to the political material, there are other targets, including the easy marks of tabloid reporters and TV news programs. There's also a funny bit involving George Hamilton.

Beatty has assembled a solid, diverse cast. As the title figure, the co-writer/director sets himself up as a sitting duck. Beatty is tremendous in this role, even going so far as to poke fun at how his increasing age has affected his legendary sex appeal. He takes Bulworth from business suits to sweatpants and sunglasses, and transforms his campaign speeches into angry rap songs, all without missing a beat. Bulworth may not always be a three-dimensional character, but he's consistently fun and completely unpredictable. The supporting players include Oliver Platt as Bulworth's campaign manager, Paul Sorvino as the head of an insurance corporation that wants Bulworth to stall a bill in committee, Don Cheadle as a drug dealer, and black playwright Amiri Baraka as a mysterious homeless man.

Bulworth is an angry movie, but Beatty is savvy enough to recognize that people respond better to comedies than serious "issue films," so he has camouflaged his message beneath the surface of this original, incisive satire. Like Wag the Dog and Primary Colors, Bulworth may not have widespread mainstream appeal, but anyone with an interest in American politics should see this movie, not only because it promises to tickle the funny bone, but because so many of its shots hit the bulls-eye. It's worth noting that Bulworth occasionally reminded me of Network, Sidney Lumet's 1976 shredding of the TV news industry, both in terms of plot points and spirit. Each movie has a take-no-prisoners attitude, and in today's climate of suffocating political correctness, that's a welcome trait.

Bulworth (United States, 1998)

Director: Warren Beatty
Cast: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry, Oliver Platt, Don Cheadle, Paul Sorvino, Jack Warden
Screenplay: Warren Beatty, Jeremy Pikser
Cinematography: Vittorio Storaro
Music: Ennio Morricone
U.S. Distributor: 20th Century Fox
Run Time: 1:48
U.S. Release Date: 1998-05-15
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1