Ah, politics. You know, what’s going on in Wisconsin isn’t about budget cutting. It’s about power. And the sniveling coward of a governor, Scott Walker, is a tool, in both senses of the word, of the craven politicos who want it. Why else would he suddenly change a week’s worth of willingness to compromise and suddenly send his minions into the capitol late at night to vote away union powers? Politics is never about mandates, ideology, or “the people”, it’s always about who has the power and thereby is in control of the narrative.
Hollywood understands that, and in its best politically themed movies, information is always the basis of power. Here then are my 10 favorite films ever made about politics. They are all about power and information. Who’s got it, who’s controlling it, and what those who have it are willing to do to keep it.
10.) IN THE LOOP (2009)
A Downing Street politico unwittingly suggests that war in the Middle East would be a good thing and suddenly his misstatement sends both the UK and the US careening towards invasion. As the inevitability of war escalates, hacks and flacks on both sides of the pond try desperately to control the information and stop it from triggering a real war. It’s a savage expose of how spin starts wars today, and more directly, of the Bush administration as it spun out of control. (Of particular note: Peter Capaldi’s hilarious performance as a foul-mouthed British policy wonk. Every obscenity-strewn line of his gets a laugh. Every c***sucking, motherf***ing last one of ‘em!)
9.) THE GHOST WRITER (2010)
Ewan McGregor is hired to ghost write the memoirs of Adam Lang, the former prime minister of Britain (Pierce Brosnan, doing a riff on Tony Blair). The previous ghostwriter washed up dead upon the shore near Lang’s residence, but McGregor proceeds earnestly nonetheless. It isn’t long before he discovers that Lang may be a front man for a global conspiracy. He methodically connects the dots and believes he will be able to get the information out to the public. But in the world of politics, let alone the movies of as fatalistic a director as Roman Polanski, naïf’s are doomed to be run down by those determined to keep their power.
8.) HIS GIRL FRIDAY (1940)
This is a riff on the classic play THE FRONT PAGE, albeit with a sex change. It’s still about corrupt politicians and the equally corrupt journalists covering them in 1920’s Chicago, but here the star newsman Hildy Johnson is a newswoman (played by Rosalind Russell.) Sexual politics gets added to the mix because her editor is also her ex (Cary Grant. Nice ex, huh?) The fun of this movie lies in its biting critique of the press, shown here to be as corrupt as any elected official. Even in Chicago. Now that’s saying something!
7.) JFK (1991)
District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) tries to solve “the crime of the century” – the murder of President John F. Kennedy. It’s a David vs. Goliath story, as he takes on the executive branch, the CIA and the military/industrial complex. And for his troubles, he receives death threats, has his reputation slurred by the left and the right, and is portrayed in the press as a crazy man. Gee, sounds like the exact same thing that happened to director Oliver Stone while making this movie! You may debate how accurate it is, but when Donald Sutherland’s mysterious CIA operative explains what it all means to Costner, and to us, you’ll either want to stand and applaud him for exposing the truth, or move to Canada. Or both.
6.) DR. STRANGELOVE, OR HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (1964)
An unhinged general named Jack D. Ripper takes it upon himself to start World War III by issuing the order for a nuclear attack on the Soviet Union. That’s the premise of Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy that looks even darker and more cynical by today’s snarky standards. How did this movie ever get made? The film portrays the powers that be as absolutely impotent to stop the inevitability of the destruction of the planet. And at the end, while the world explodes with one mushroom cloud after another, the song “We’ll Meet Again” plays over the damage. Do you laugh or do you cry? Probably cry, as the movie’s intent to rid the world of such weapons sadly never happened.
5.) ELECTION (1999)
Hardball politics comes to your typical American high school as over-achiever Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon in the film role she should’ve won her Academy Award for) marches to an assured victory in the election for student body president. That is, until teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) gets involved, and is determined to stop her. He despises her not only because she’s shallow and mean, a chirping harpy full of herself, but also because she uses her feminine wiles to get what she wants. She had an affair with a teaching colleague of his and when the relationship became public, his buddy lost his job and his wife divorced him, while Tracy got off scot-free. So McAllister sets out to bring her down. Richard Nixon would be proud of the sleazeballs at play here, clamoring for power, stuffing ballot boxes and bribing the electorate with homemade cupcakes.
4.) THREE DAYS OF THE CONDOR (1973)
A mild-mannered CIA employee, a nobody paid to read spy novels for ideas the agency can use, returns from a lunch run to find all of his co-workers dead, gunned down by nefarious forces. On the run, he’s both victim and suspect in the government’s eyes. Now even though Robert Redford plays him, this everyman has to use his brains to put the pieces of the puzzle together. And when he does, the games that Uncle Sam plays look pretty damn ugly. (Are you starting to see a pattern here? As Rod Serling used to always say, the enemy is us.) CONDOR is one of the 70’s best movies, and that’s saying a lot, considering the amount of brilliance put out by Hollywood in that decade.
3.) THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)
War hero Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home from a Korean POW camp, only to have his platoon buddy Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) discover that he’s been brainwashed into an assassin programmed to take out a presidential candidate. And this was a year before the Kennedy assassination! It was rumored that after JFK’s death, producer Frank Sinatra pulled this movie from the public because life tragically imitated art in its way. That story’s false, but it may have helped cement this film’s legend. I think the film earns that merit on its own because at the end of the day, like the best political movies, the good guy (Sinatra) doesn’t save the day here. The bad guy does, albeit in a good way.
2.) THE CANDIDATE (1972)
Robert Redford again, and no surprise, he’s probably film’s most politically-minded filmmaker other than Oliver Stone. Here, he plays Bill McKay, an earnest political novice asked to run as the Democratic nominee against the powerful Republican incumbent Senator Crocker Jarmon. He can’t possibly win so he’s free to say whatever he wants to advance his ideas and causes. But the race wears him down and it isn’t long before he’s changing positions and betraying his beliefs left and right. At the end, when he pulls off a surprising victory, he no longer knows what he stands for and ashamedly asks his campaign manager, “What do we do now?” This was considered a pungent commentary at the time. Today, it’s par for the course. When you have adulterers like Newt Gingrich and John Edwards espousing family values or John McCain changing his tune about being a maverick to appear more party-centric, you realize most politicians will say or do anything to get elected. Power is a drug. And you’ll sell your wife or wives or your reputation down the river to get it.
1.) ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN (1976)
Yet again, Mr. Redford. Riveting and suspenseful, this film tackles the complex tome by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein about their efforts to expose the Watergate conspiracy of President Richard Nixon. It’s a detective story where the private eyes are newspaper journalists piecing together the scene of the crime by an administration awash in dirty tricks and law breaking. You watch this movie and forget for a while that these guys actually prevailed. And that’s because we see them as fallible human beings, making mistake after mistake as they chase down bad leads and run into one dead end after another. The movie plays like a thriller, albeit one with words, not car chases and shoot-outs. The “action scenes” here are ones where they get a bookkeeper to spill what she overheard, or they catch the attorney general in a lie. Because of such cerebral attributes, I wonder whether a film like this could get made today. Probably not.
There’s a great shot in the movie that stunningly captures what these two reporters are up against. Woodward and Bernstein (played by Redford and Dustin Hoffman) sit at a desk sifting through hundreds and hundreds of cards from the Library of Congress’ card catalog. They’re looking for a shred of evidence, something that will get them back on the right track in their pursuit of the truth. The camera pulls back and back and back to reveal these men absolutely dwarfed by the room. They’re two little guys “fighting City Hall.” It’s a frightening image. And yet they won. And a corrupt president was forced to resign. It’s a rare instance where a political film ended with truth and justice prevailing.
There have been other wonderful movies of note like BEING THERE, A FACE IN THE CROWD, THE BEST MAN, THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT, DAVE, hell, DUCK SOUP, that's an inspired political film right there. And of course there will be other great political films coming down the pike. Perhaps some of the outrage in Wisconsin or the constant arguing in our national discourse will inspire a new slew of them and really stir the pot. The American film versions of the politically minded Stieg Larsson Millennium books certainly are something to look forward to. And HBO just announced that they’re making a TV-movie of the 2008 election bestseller Game Change. In fact, they’ve already announced that acclaimed actress Julianne Moore will be donning the rimless glasses and sneer/grin to play Sarah Palin. Now there’s a story about politics and power with a lead female who’s ridiculously shallow, a chirping harpy full of herself, and not above using her feminine wiles to get what she wants. (wink wink) Hey, wait a minute, I saw that movie already. It was the one with Reese Witherspoon!
Now I'd like to hear from you. Tell me your favorite political movie and why!