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From TV To Movies, How Corruption Plays Out On Our Screens


Here's a theme that seems to be set on repeat the last few years - corruption. Whether it's elected officials abusing the public trust, insiders working a system to their advantage, bribery, cover-ups, manipulation, it's in our news feeds, on our screens and on our minds. It's also one of Hollywood's favorite subjects.

Linda Holmes and Glen Weldon routinely watch a lot of movies and TV and talk about it regularly on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour, which they record here in historic Studio 44. Guys, thanks for having me.



WELDON: Welcome.

CORNISH: So we are actually going to start with one major benchmark Hollywood corruption story. And that is Watergate, right? They really gravitated towards this story. Glen Weldon, how did they tell it?

WELDON: Well, in 1976, they made "All The President's Men" based on the Woodward and Bernstein book. And that of course is one way to tackle it. You're still reeling from the events, so you create a very dark, grounded movie that's kind of a tick-tock on how it all played out. The seminal scene, the scene that everybody remembers, is the scene in the garage where Bob Woodward is meeting his informant.


HAL HOLBROOK: (As Deep Throat) Forget the myths that the media's created about the White House. The truth is these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.

ROBERT REDFORD: (As Bob Woodward) Hunt's come in from the cold. Supposedly he's got a lawyer with $25,000 in a brown paper bag.

HOLBROOK: (As Deep Throat) Follow the money.

HOLMES: Twenty-plus years later of course you have the movie "Dick," which is a comedy starring Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst as two 15-year-old girls who kind of stumble into the White House and in this sort of fantastic retelling accidentally get tangled up with Watergate. And it turns out that they are the informants. And here is the scene where they meet Bob Woodward, who this time is played by Will Ferrell.


WILL FERRELL: (As Bob Woodward) You're Deep Throat?

KIRSTEN DUNST: (As Betsy Jobs) Yeah, we both are.

FERRELL: (As Bob Woodward) How old are you?

DUNST: (As Betsy Jobs) Twenty-three.

FERRELL: (As Bob Woodward) Is that your combined ages?

DUNST: (As Betsy Jobs) There's no need to be snotty.

FERRELL: (As Bob Woodward) I'm just trying to imagine here. What exactly is your connection with the White House?

MICHELLE WILLIAMS: (As Arlene Lorenzo) We were the secret youth advisers.

DUNST: (As Betsy Jobs) And we walked the dog. And Arlene was in love with Dick.

FERRELL: (As Bob Woodward) OK, I don't need to hear any more of that, really.

WELDON: So you see; what happens a generation later is that this thing that was a giant wound on the American psyche becomes funny. And we can laugh at Nixon and all the people around him by creating this very funny, very good comedy.

CORNISH: There's also this idea that you're either telling someone's kind of individual story or, like, the system - right? - in sentence caps. Linda, can you talk about that?

HOLMES: Yeah. Well, one thing that Glen and I have talked about is it's kind of very American...


HOLMES: ...To tell it as a story that is one person against a corrupt body. So you'll get not only, you know, "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" or even, like, the John Grisham books where Tom Cruise in the firm takes down the corrupt organization. Those are really individual hero books. If you take something more complicated and sometimes less obviously commercially dramatic, like "The Wire" for example - "The Wire" is really about an entire complicated system that turns only like a gigantic battleship and therefore is very hard to change. That doesn't tend to be the way you get most of your corruption stories, whether they be dramatic like "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" or comedic like "Trading Places" or something like that.

CORNISH: And then speaking of "The Wire," does TV do this better than the movies? Am I just saying that 'cause I'm past the, like, prestige age of television - right? - which "The Wire" now belatedly people believe ushered in.


WELDON: Well, compare "House Of Cards" - right? - where it's kind of like "The Wire" in that the system corrupts everybody because they bring their corruption to it, and that's just the way it is - compare that to "The West Wing" where nobody's corrupt, where there is nothing but uplift, there is nothing but noble-minded people...

CORNISH: With the best of intentions (laughter).

WELDON: With the best of intentions who are devoted to the American experiment. And the only villains in that piece are the people who don't believe, who are lazy and cynical, where cynicism is the villain.

CORNISH: Of course now that my mind is totally, like, subsumed by the news cycle...

HOLMES: Oh, mine, too.

WELDON: (Laughter).

CORNISH: ...All I can think about is the news right now and what that means going forward. Glen, I don't know. What are your ideas about kind of what the future will hold in terms of how Hollywood is going to tackle corruption?

WELDON: I see one of two possibilities. The first is, as we've been talking about, the arts and entertainment world digests what's been going on and starts churning out based on true story and sort of tick-tocks on exactly how this happened. But there's another way it could happen, which is that everybody is so sick of this and we get a giant wave of escapist entertainment that has nothing to do with anything that's been going on in the news.

HOLMES: And I think everything Glen's talking about could go in a variety of different ways. You could have things that are kind of allegorical. You could have this in the same way that we had a lot of sci-fi that was very concerned with the atomic age that wasn't technically about that. You could have things that are fairly literal interpretations of real-life events where people are concerned about official or private corruption. And it just depends. You really have to see how a culture plays out something like this. It's one of the things that makes it interesting to watch.

CORNISH: Linda Holmes, thank you so much.

HOLMES: Thank you, Audie.

CORNISH: Glen Weldon, thank you.

WELDON: Thank you.

CORNISH: You can hear them talk about this and other things on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. You guys, thanks for letting me come down to the studio.

HOLMES: Oh, thanks, Audie. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.