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Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader TV review: a formulaic, misty-eyed love-in

A person sits in the back of a car, gazing through the window at the world outside. It is a blur of motion and activity. Perhaps they look quizzical, or concerned, or introspective, or forlorn. Perhaps they are old, a staid and weathered face implying the wisdom of years – contrasted with the busy, thoughtless universe on the other side of the glass. This shot is a cliché in documentary filmmaking because it is highly efficient, communicating a lot in a short amount of time.

It is how ABC TV’s two-part series Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader begins. Beams of sunlight flood the inside of the car. The former Prime Minister can be seen in the foreground; Sydney Harbour Bridge through the window in the background. This opening is more than a little cut-and-dried, but the program gets worse before it gets better – giving way to a gushing love-in.

Narrator Richard Roxburgh explains to us that “Australians have never been so distrusting of politicians, but there was a time when things were different.” Cut to footage of Hawke walking onto the stage in his heyday, in front of an adoring crowd. Compliments arrive from various voices. We are told “Bob was always a leader.” He “had a sense of destiny” and “self-belief, utter self-belief.” And that “his government produced modern Australia.”

Continuing this slab of schmaltz – the political documentary’s equivalent of dripping cheese – Roxburgh chimes in: “Bob Hawke was one of them, but he was also one of us.” Cue vision of Hawke on the cricket pitch, then drinking a beer. We return to the car, the subject looking long-faced – for a touch of pathos. Then onto the next part of the love-in. This bit is about Hawke the hottie (“Australian women liked him very much”).

Nobody can say director Bruce Permezel, whose misty-eyed style was better suited to 2007’s Choir of Hard Knocks, didn’t have his eye on the clock. All of this transpires in less than 90 seconds. The opening of The Larrikin and the Leader was designed with a pedantic, television sensibility. Hit the audience hard and fast, and make the opening scene a commercial for the series itself.

Some faux balance is thrown in for good measure. Former Labor minister and apparatchik-cum-media commentator, Graham Richardson, says Bob “did some appalling things. Shocking. Just plain bloody shocking.”

Instead of seriously contemplating his subject’s flaws, the director rewrites vices as virtues.

What were these bloody shocking things? Richo keeps mum, playing the role of the annoying person who says ‘I have this great secret, but I can’t tell you about it’. You get the sense Permezel wouldn’t have pushed him, and may not have been interested in a genuinely confronting response. That would spoil the vibe.

The Larrikin and the Leader purports to be a warts-and-all picture of Hawke, personal and professional. But instead of seriously contemplating his subject’s flaws, the director rewrites vices as virtues. We all are – or should be – people who learn from our mistakes. Thus the segment about Hawke’s drinking, is not really about alcoholism – it’s about the strength of character required to take the highest office of the land seriously.

Perhaps some critical distance to the subject might have helped. The filmmakers join Hawke in his home, where he regales them with stories, and a husky rendition of Solidarity Forever. He talks about how the ordinary people of Australia aren’t fools: “They know, and they can sense, when a politician’s dinkum.”

Is this series dinkum? When subjects and circumstances cannot be seen clearly, because the director’s breath is steaming up the lens, it has a negative effect on virtuous and questionable behaviour alike, placing them in the same kind of fog – through which a vision of the truth always feels elusive.

Last year’s Howard on Menzies: Building Modern Australia, with John Howard in front of the camera drooling over the legacy of his hero, was similarly shameless. But at least then the partisan could be understood by the personal; our expectations of Howard are rather different to our expectations of a documentary filmmaker.

The Larrikin and the Leader works best as a formulaic, talking heads, ‘good old days’ account of Hawke’s political career, albeit dry and affected by nostalgia. The other side of it, the study of the larrikin (i.e. the real person) plays like an elongated This is Your Life special, or a long, estate-monitored Wikipedia page.

That opening vision of Hawke in the back of the car, watching the world go by, is returned to throughout the running time. As if imbuing the production with pathos were as simple as flicking a switch.

Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader airs Sunday 11 February and Monday 12 February

17 responses to “Hawke: The Larrikin and the Leader TV review: a formulaic, misty-eyed love-in

  1. Hawke PM was a vindictive little bugger.
    He was always ready to shoot the messenger. His feud with the ABC started with his anger at Richard Carleton’s very pertinent,”blood on your hands” question after he had rolled Hayden. His anger at the Four Corners expose of his “god-father” and favoured plutocrat Sir Peter Ables saw him delivering virtual death threats via funding cuts… He felt happier dealing with his mates at Nine and that little love affair continues with 60 Minutes reporter Charles Wooley’s horatory treatments in recent times. It will be interesting to see how the critique of Hawke’s personal and political reputation and “legacy” evolves once he pops his clogs and is no longer able to use the defamation laws to punish any who raise their pens against him.

  2. I also had the opportunity to watch and meet Hawke and met Hazel too. She was delightful, extremely sociable and pleasant. He was as you say a little narcissistic (goes with the territory) but also a consummate influencer and an outstanding chairman of Cabinet. I never saw be nasty to anyone, unlike Keating or Howard. As for Richardson’s innuendo he needs to put up or shut up; a very nasty piece of work.

  3. Perhaps the illuminating thing about this program is Australians are drawn to abysmal politicians, and by default rotten PMs. Bruce, God’s Englishman. Menzies, British to the bootstraps. Harold Holt, amiable but limited. Billy McMahon, wingnut and vedy vedy poisonous. Bob Hawke, Australia wins a boat race and he tells the electorate to stay away from work for the day. It is this dreadful love of the inferior that gets us down. Paul Keating and Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser were not inferior. John Howard, definately inferior.

    If this is not enough, it takes a dreadful little man called John Howard to define Bob Hawke as Australia’s most loved PM. John Howard, you wouldn’t even know what constitutes a fine PM.

    If the 5 stinkers mentioned above were bad, a new and stellar performer has emerged from-of all places-the Country Party that was. Barnaby Joyce, no hay peor. A Spanish saying which means gutters don’t come any lower. But this is a different topic today.

    1. With the use of the old and tired cliche “a larrikin and a leader” it immediately brought to mind Barnaby Joyce. It shows that too many Australians remain juvenile in their politics, just like those who resist becoming a republic:
      “And always keep a-hold of Nurse
      For fear of finding something worse.”

      I am grateful for this doco because I was living o/s throughout the whole Hawke-Keating-earlyHoward era, so I always wondered what it was that I must have been missing to not find Hawke anything like the hero-politician everyone claims him to be. (Incidentally I only had to see Howard proclaiming Hawke to be Labor’s best-ever, to know I was correct!) I was around for Whitlam (in fact my first vote) but didn’t know about the invidious, indeed traitorous, role played by Hawke. And if the sleazy detestable Richo is claiming Hawke did some utterly awful things, then I am willing to believe him on this (not many other things). Engineering a wages blowout as part of a 6-year path to his own prime ministership is about as low as it gets (quite possibly lower than Fraser … whose ascension route Hawke was in effect greasing). I also believe Hayden that a drover’s dog could have won that election (same history the public fall into time and again; like with Rudd’s win over Howard). Given Hayden’s role in reshaping Whitlam’s treasury (if not for Fraser …) one can certainly give creedence that a Hayden-Keating government would have been better than Hawke. But of course there is one proviso: just as with that other malignant narcisisst Rudd did to Gillard, Hawke would have continued undermining his own side for both spite and his ultimate selfish goal. (This is the only real argument to say Hawke was indispensable for Labor; he was the epochal bastard you needed inside the tent.)

      Incidentally, some commenters continue to confuse arrogance with toxic narcissm. Whitlam, Keating and almost anyone aspiring to such national leadership has to be arrogant (if anything Gillard didn’t possess enough of this quality; trying too hard to please too many) but they weren’t classic narcissists.

      The extremely limited commentary by Hawke after he retired, compared to Keating’s continued flair and wisdom, proves it to me: beyond his own ego he really had little to contribute.

  4. Very arrogant like most successful politicians and business people but did run a successful cabinet that got worthwhile things done. Reputedly sleazy particularly when on the piss but not Robinson Crusoe in that regard. Too many unsavoury mates and too keen to live the good life but when all is said and done one of the best PMs we have had.

  5. Hawke set in place so much and from a trade union negotiating background (as in realistic)- you say he was indecent – I say that compared to the ethical horrors we live through today with unspeakable scumbag Lib pollies. His era was golden – I shed a tear watching for what once was Australia a unique country – a country I once loved and respected like no other.

  6. I saw him walking to Bourke’s in Melbourne just after the unions acquired it. He was followed by henchmen. I thought immediately: gangster.

  7. Peter Abeles instead of Gina Rinehart; Blanche D’Alpuget instead of Vicki Campion; best retail politician in the country … Hmmm? Who does he remind me of?

  8. Loads of soapy , syrupy bullshit and adulation and that’s about all. I din’t think much of present and past politicians. And even 30 seconds of that slimy little b _ _ _ _ _ d, Blewett is 30 seconds too much.

    Hope Part 2 is more objective and less adulatory garbage.

    1. No Labor PM has had the support he had and what did he do with it? Keating was PM for much of Bob’s term. Complete narcissist and who can forget the white towelling dressing gown episode?

  9. Hawke did deals , when he was ACTU president that were not in the best interests of the members ? He used to come out of closed meetings with employers and say “There is nothing we can do here!” I think it might have been the same when he was PM ? I liked Keating and still do he often pops up with a little bit of vocal wisdom !! Out of all the PMs he to me stands tall above them all . When you look at what we have now Abbott ,Turnbull< Howard < and the deputy Pm what a blockhead !! All crap the lot of them .

  10. One of my friends worked fairly high in the Public service in Canberra and had the following to say (worth noting he was a Labor voter), not what you think mate. Hawke plays the genial everyman, but he is an arrogant prick behind the scenes, Keating was cranky and nasty in his apparent persona, but thoughtful and good to deal with out of the light. I believed in Hawke policy wise until he proved he was a better mate of Peter Abeles than the workers. I was pretty fond of Hazel as a public figure and despised the little bastard and Blanche d’Alpuget over the betrayal. Hazel Hawke stood by him, he did not. To quaote the famous Jack Gibson “Politician…shifty bugger!”

    1. Sounds about right. I was a reporter for The Australian when Hawke was PM and what I saw of him and heard about him from a couple of high profile women, plus watching him (OK through a telescopic lens) swanning about with a woman on a millionaire’s yacht on the Great Barrier Reef while keeping his best asset, Hazel, back in the Lodge, made me dislike the little man intensely. Keating was a totally different human being and a decent one to deal with.

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