Barry McNamara  |  Published January 03, 2024

Film and Politics

Robin Johnson’s popular course returns this spring, just in time to give his students perspective in an election year.

FILM AND POLITICS: One of the movies that Robin Johnson will discuss with his class is Wag the Dog, which stars... FILM AND POLITICS: One of the movies that Robin Johnson will discuss with his class is "Wag the Dog," which stars Robert DeNiro and Dustin Hoffman. MONMOUTH, Ill. – A Monmouth College political science class will be back by popular demand this semester.

For the second time, the department’s Robin Johnson will teach “Film and Politics,” a course that examines both the politics of moviemaking and politics in the movies.


From Chaplin to Brando to Hoffman

Professors who find a method of instruction that works tend to stick with it, and that applies to Johnson, who said students are even drawn to films that are a century old.

“I’ve included a couple of silent movies by Charlie Chaplin with political themes,” he said. “I was pleasantly surprised that, in this age of constant smartphone distractions, students paid close attention while viewing.”

Johnson also uses longer films for the class, and he was surprised that one he chose for last spring’s class, Fred Zinnemann’s 1952 High Noon, was a hit.

ROBIN JOHNSON: I've included a couple of silent movies by Charlie Chaplin with political themes. I was plea... ROBIN JOHNSON: "I've included a couple of silent movies by Charlie Chaplin with political themes. I was pleasantly surprised that, in this age of constant smartphone distractions, students paid close attention while viewing.”“More than just a romantic Western, High Noon was perceived as an anti-Hollywood blacklisting film in the ’50s,” he said. “It was a surprise favorite of my students.”

The text Johnson uses for the “Film and Politics” class is divided into decades and explores major political events and people that shaped culture and the movies.

“For example,” said Johnson, “the Great Depression in the ’30s, World War II in the ’40s and Reaganism in the ’80s. The title of the text is Projecting Politics: Political Messages in Political Films. It also helps to guide my choice of the films.”

Two of Johnson’s favorite political films are Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, a 1964 Stanley Kubrick-directed movie starring Peter Sellers and George C. Scott, and 1997’s Barry Levinson-directed Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro.

Dr. Strangelove is a comical parody of the Cold War era of the ’50s and ’60s, and Wag the Dog is a hilarious 1990s satire on how consultants, TV, spin and fabrication have captured our politics,” he said. “I’ll likely add On the Waterfront for an opposite symbolic side of the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.”

“It combines two of my passions – politics and film. I had not planned to teach it again this year but changed my mind after many students from last year urged me to reconsider.” – Robin Johnson

The latter movie, directed by Elia Kazan in 1954, has Marlon Brando in the starring role.

Johnson took over the course after longtime faculty member Farhat Haq retired in 2020.

“This will be the second time I’ve taught this course – the first being last spring,” said Johnson, who hosts the Heartland Politics weekly radio show on WVIK-FM. “I requested the opportunity to teach it after Farhat’s retirement. It combines two of my passions – politics and film. I had not planned to teach it again this year but changed my mind after many students from last year urged me to reconsider.”

Other films that Johnson might show include The Immigrant, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Citizen Kane, The Candidate, Bulworth and Lincoln.

Monmouth President Clarence Wyatt served as a guest lecturer the last time Johnson taught the course and may do so again. He spoke on films related to the Vietnam War, including The Green Berets, Coming Home, Platoon and We Were Soldiers.

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