When President Bush responded to 9/11 and the subsequent economic downturn by ordering us to go shopping, many ignored him and instead went to the movies. That’s the reaction Hollywood depends on to make its pile — and the escapist impulse is nothing if not reliable. In five of the last seven recessions, box office sales have jumped. When the going gets tough, the tough watch films.

Today is no exception. Theaters are packed, as there is more craziness to flee from than ever. Not only do we face societal emergencies, but our culture is now consumed by a painfully grating and absurdly vapid election addressing none of them — a campaign of trivial non sequiturs that fetishizes flag pins, middle names and (most recently) Ludacris lyrics. Watching the kabuki dance between reporters and candidates that now passes for news causes an understandable urge to take a shower, a gun to one’s head or a trip to the movies.

Those looking for some comic relief this week will probably go see Kevin Costner’s just-released “Swing Vote.” But heed the advice I recently posted on the Films in Focus Web site: Rather than spend your dwindling paycheck on gas and a theater ticket, stay home, hit up Netflix or TNT, and watch these five classics.

— “Wag the Dog”: This dark comedy’s over-the-top machinations are both funny and sad because they parody what actually happens inside campaigns. In a political world where style trumps substance, visuals outweigh policy and mercenary consultants are celebrated as intellectual luminaries, writer/director David Mamet gives us characters like the Fad King and strategist Conrad Brean; manufactured sob stories created with blue screens; and songs like “Good Old Shoe”. This is satire at its most vicious — and accurate.

— “The Distinguished Gentleman”: From the moment Florida huckster Thomas Jefferson Johnson runs for Congress pretending to be a recently deceased incumbent with the same name, this movie is ridiculing Washington. Johnson wins his race solely on name recognition, and then puts his skills as a professional con man to work inside Congress. The story, though billed as fiction, could be relabeled “based on true stories” in the Jack Abramoff era.

— “Brewster’s Millions”: To inherit $300 million, Montgomery Brewster is charged with the near-impossible task of spending $30 million in 30 days without accruing an asset. How does he do it? He runs for office. The message that big-time elections have become a monumental waste of cash may be a subtext in this slapstick production, but Brewster’s outraged motto asking citizens to vote “none of the above” effectively harangues today’s money politics.

— “Can Mr. Smith Get to Washington Anymore?”: Twenty-nine-year-old neophyte Jeff Smith has a radical idea: He’s going to run for Congress in St. Louis against a machine politician backed by Missouri’s entire political Establishment. In this documentary of Smith’s 2004 campaign, we see how despite today’s idealistic rhetoric, corruption still runs both parties.

— “The Candidate”: The final line in this tale makes it a gem. After Senate candidate Bill McKay goes punchy parroting a meaningless (and eerily Obama-esque) “there’s got to be a better way” slogan, he wins in an upset. Standing among his exuberant supporters, the newly minted lawmaker is shown in the last seconds of the film asking his political guru, “What do we do now?”

Admittedly, there’s something grotesque about a nation immersing itself in celluloid during crises — something reminiscent of Rome’s fire-ignoring fiddlers or the Titanic’s iceberg-oblivious deckchair arrangers. But the real tragedy is that these films present more hard-edged political reality than most of today’s “reporting.” In that sense, the uptick in movie interest is altogether healthy. Amid the overpowering media noise and propaganda, the silver screen has become the nostrum keeping us sane.

David Sirota is a best-selling author whose newest book, “The Uprising,” was released in June. He is a fellow at the Campaign for America’s Future and a board member of the Progressive States Network, both nonpartisan organizations. His blog is at www.credoaction.com/sirota.

© 2008 Creators Syndicate Inc.

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