The “Reel” World of the US PresidencyPosted on: October 10, 2012 in People & Places in Creativity & The Arts
At the University of Arizona, a fascinating class on the pursuit of the presidency takes a cinematic angle on our nation’s highest office. As part of the course “Struggle for the Presidency,” students are watching election-related movies the Loft Cinema, Tucson’s nonprofit movie theater and a community partner of the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
For about half of the cost of a ticket to today’s mainstream releases, community members are invited attend the films and engage in the discussions.
The course, taught by Kate Kenski, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Communication and the School of Government and Public Policy, examines the campaign strategies and tactics of presidential hopefuls from 1960 to the present. The course sheds light on how our country makes political decisions and how candidates attempt to influence the vote.
In this election year, the course promises to be filled with timely, thought-provoking content.
An Opportunity to Engage
This is a wonderful moment for students and community members alike, as Kenski is an internationally known scholar and author of "The Obama Victory: How Media, Money and Message Shaped the 2008 Election.” The book won several awards, including the International Communication Association’s Outstanding Book Award for 2011. Kenski’s current research includes tracking the message consistency of the presidential candidates and examining how that consistency is related to the candidates' standings in the polls.
“It will be interesting to see whether frequent explanations for wins and losses in previous campaigns hold true for the 2012 campaign,” says Kenski. “Will the economy be the determining factor? Or will candidate personality or message strategy tip the campaign in one candidate's direction over the other's?
“While campaign strategies have evolved over the course of the modern presidency, many concerns about today's campaigns are similar to concerns that the nation faced or felt in the past,” Kenski added. “One goal of the course is to encourage people to think about the political process, to assess their satisfaction with it, and to identify what works well and what would make the process better for our society.”
With the community being invited to the classes, a whole new opportunity to engage and learn opens up for both students as well as community members.
According to Bethany Conway, a former journalist and PhD student in communications enrolled in the class, lots of people from the Tucson community are taking up the opportunity and coming to the series. “I’ve seen a lot of community folks in there,” she says. “What’s really interesting is that some of the greatest comments have been from the Tucson community and some of the older folks who were around for some of these historical elections. They give some really humorous, intelligent comments. Things that we would never have known.”
Movies as Teaching Tools
Each film selected provides commentary about the political process that is relevant beyond the time period in which the film was produced. After each screening, community members are invited to participate alongside students in a discussion of the movie’s lessons that can be applied to campaigns today.
The films Kenski selected include: Wag the Dog; Welcome to Mooseport; The Best Man; The Candidate; All the President’s Men; Bob Roberts; Primary Colors; W.; Ides of March; and The American President.
“The films we’re seeing coincide with the historical readings that we’re doing in class,” she says Conway. “We watched the 1964 film The Best Man, and at the same time we’re reading about the 1950s and 1960s elections. Stevenson ran three times, and many say that the Fonda character is based on him. So we’re reading about the historical elections and watching something that portrays that. That way, we can really tie in the story of the movie to the history of the time.”
This is exactly the kind of connections that Kenski is striving to make. “Movies are an excellent way for people with different levels of political understanding to have a conversation with each other about the values, issues and problems facing the nation,” she says. “Fiction via films has the potential to stimulate engagement in the political process.”