To a degree, every film is political. Some are political with a small p -- the insidious militarism in Michael Bay's "Transformers" films might go over the heads of many audience members, but it's there. Some are Political with a big P, setting out from the start to campaign on a certain issue, with even silly comedies like "The Other Guys" getting in on the act. And some are specifically about politics, getting into the nitty-gritty of elections, of glad-handing, of delegate counts and filibusters and bills and speeches.
The relationship between Hollywood and Washington has always been a tempestuous one, the movies as happy to point out the corruption in the political world as politicians are to point out the moral depravity of films, and the latest to get involved is George Clooney, whose new film, "The Ides Of March," opens today. Clooney's always been one of the most politically engaged movie stars of his generation, and after Oscar-nominated success for his period drama "Good Night and Good Luck," he's taken on a more contemporary look at the political world in 'Ides.' And the good news is, it's pretty terrific; a gripping, impeccably performed film that's as convincing a look at the spin and hypocrisy of modern politics as any in recent years.
In celebration of the film's release, we've gone back to look at some notable movies centered on the political world. As we've said, these films aren't just political ones, but about the political process itself, about how the sausages are made, as it were, so certain movies didn't quite qualify. But if Clooney's glimpse behind the curtain gives you a taste for this type of fare this weekend, the list below is a good primer of where to start. Check it out after the jump.
"The American President" (1995)
If you like Aaron Sorkin -- particularly his ace political drama “The West Wing” -- you’re likely to be charmed by the screenplay he wrote for “The American President” and its romantic, idealistic look at a president, his bid for reelection, and the woman he loves. However, if you don’t quote Josh Lyman and Isaac Jaffe at dinner parties (we 'West Wing' fans make awesome guests), then you’ll end up with your eyes exhausted by two hours of constant, ceiling-scraping rolling. Michael Douglas stars as President Andrew Shepherd, a widower who narrowly won office after the death of his wife. He meets environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), and their romance rattles the American people, dipping his approval numbers into Obama territory as he’s beginning to campaign for a second term. The biggest issue in “The American President” isn’t the cheesy direction of mid-‘90s-era Rob Reiner; instead it’s the demonization of Shepherd’s political rival, Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss, missing only a mustache to twirl). A mere 114 minutes isn’t a great deal of time to fully develop the relatively minor character, but a single moment allowing Rumson to be a human who cares about his country (rather than an egomanic intent on abolishing freedom) would’ve gone far in creating a more complex, interesting film. But the film isn’t about Rumson; he’s merely a character who pushes Shepherd into making stirring speeches that allow Sorkin’s wit, passion for politics and love of preaching to shine. With Shepherd and “The American President,” we get glimpses of the greatness to come with President Jed Bartlet (sigh) and “The West Wing,” and that’s enough to keep us engaged and wishing for a ballot to cast. [B]
"The Best Man" (1964)
Generally speaking, party conventions tend to serve as coronations for presidential candidates these days, rather than photo-finishes; the outcome of the nomination hasn't been in doubt at that point since Ronald Reagan nearly unsat Gerald Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention. But at one time, the conventions were home to backroom deals and breakneck negotiations, and no film better embodies that than "The Best Man." An adaptation of Gore Vidal's 1960s play, helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the undervalued director who went on to make "Planet of the Apes," "Patton" and "The Boys From Brazil," the film features two presidential candidates, intellectual William Russell (Henry Fonda) and the brash, Kennedy-esque Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), who are courting a dying ex-President (the Oscar-nominated Lee Grant) for his endorsement, one that is sure to clinch the nomination. An obvious precursor to, and inspiration for, "The Ides of March," it's an enjoyably nasty little dogfight of a movie, the two candidates seemingly prepared to go to any lengths to slander their opponent, and Vidal's zippy, acerbic script has no end of memorable exchanges. It risks feeling a little stagy in places, but Haskell Wexler's typically excellent camerawork mostly staves that off, while never letting the focus drift from the excellent performances. Indeed, Robertson has rarely had a better showcase, and it's one of Fonda's most interesting pre-Leone subversions of his persona, coming hot on the heels of the thematically similar "Advise and Consent," and in the same year as another presidential role, in Sidney Lumet's "Fail-Safe." [B]
"Bob Roberts" (1992)
Who is Bob Roberts? It's a testament to Tim Robbins’ directorial debut, a film that people still discuss today, that everyone has a different answer. Robbins plays Roberts, a “self-made” political candidate who develops a strong grassroots connection to “the people” by espousing anti-government, anti-liberal sentiment. Yep, Robbins saw the Tea Party coming a mile away. Sure the picture may take on a more insidious feel in 2011, but that ignores the ingratiating charm of Robbins’ Roberts, who sneers with a smile and smiles with a sneer as he strums his guitar and sings ditties about the lower class being lazy and full of complaints. “Bob Roberts” keeps the truth at bay with the structure of a mock-documentary, and aside from all the famous faces that appear, the illusion seems pretty airtight, with an uncomfortable ambiguity to the director’s lens that avoids, ahem, “gotcha” moments until the very last, disturbing gag. It’s “The Manchurian Candidate” as directed by Christopher Guest, at once wildly funny and incredibly plausible, with Robbins receiving great support from Giancarlo Esposito as an intrepid liberal reporter, Alan Rickman as a sleazy campaign manager, and loads of cameos that memorably include John Cusack as a fringe comedian who backs out of his own sketch comedy show when Roberts guest stars. Wildly funny and creepy in all the right ways. [A]
So guess what's firmly stuck in the 90s alongside America Online and Koosh Balls? That'd be the last picture by director Warren Beatty, a satire somewhat based on the political gadfly John Jay Hooker. The "Bonnie and Clyde" actor plays the titular senator, a former Democrat moving closer to the center and accepting buy-outs in order to gain popularity. But just as the movie opens, Bulworth's had it with the fakeness and decides to set-up his own assassination. That is until he decides to call out the entire game, immerse himself in urban African-American culture, and start rapping/rhyming most of his lines. If it sounds insane, it is, but it's unfortunately not particularly funny. Despite "Mad TV" probably wanting you to believe otherwise, was watching an older white male rapping ever funny? Perhaps a little more so at the time, but a rewatch more than a decade later isn't kind, showcasing production values akin to contemporary cop shows and obvious jokes and character interactions. It's a shame because the very beginning cracks and pops in an exciting, fiery fashion with actors supremely dedicated to their roles, without becoming overly showy. If it feels like Aaron Sorkin, that's because it is Aaron Sorkin, who happened to do some rewrites on the script, with James Toback. And despite its dated look and lack of laughs, the movie makes a number of good points about the political game that are still, unfortunately, relevant today -- look no further than Beatty's attack on the healthcare "business." Still, it's weird to see the director create a character who is blissfully ignorant in thinking he's hip, only to have that filmmaker himself show a similar lack of self-awareness, notably in shooting an African American church like it was a stadium concert with a gospel band. Those who love the actor might still get a kick out of it, the rest of us might not be able to stomach it. [C-]