The 20 Best Movies About Politicians

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by Oliver Lyttelton
October 7, 2011 4:09 AM
6 Comments
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"Election" (1999)
1999 was an amazing year for film, one of the reasons being films like “Election” that seemingly came out of nowhere and lodged in the public consciousness. This darkly comic film from Alexander Payne tells the allegorical story of a simple high school election for senior class president. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is that obnoxious over-achiever that we all knew in high school: she’s involved in way too many clubs and activities, she has perfect grades and organizes an insanely intense campaign even though she’s running unopposed. It’s this last part that really irks one of her teachers, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), which leads him to encourage (read: force) naïve and brainless jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) into running against Tracy. Payne’s film is clearly a microcosm of bigger political campaigns and how the candidates are rarely the ones pulling the strings, and like his previous film “Citizen Ruth,” “Election” kept the audience a little off-balance and wondering “Should I be laughing at this?” The answer is yes. The film is almost perfect in every way. The performances, especially Broderick and Witherspoon, are dead-on and the screenplay, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (“Little Children”), is filled with brilliant dialogue and an overabundance of voiceovers from each of the main characters, which reflects the crowded field of candidates and lack of certainty regarding which character we should be rooting for. Required viewing for any true film buff, “Election” is that rare creation that will, without a doubt, stand the test of time. [A]

"Gabriel Over The White House" (1933)
A corrupt president gets into a car accident, believes he's been visited by the Angel Gabriel, and becomes a totalitarian dictator who's able to arrest and execute people at will. He's the bad guy, right? Some villainous type eventually taken down by the hero? Not in Gregory La Cava's "Gabriel Over The White House," one of the most out-there political films ever made, a one-of-a-kind advocation of benevolent fascism that would give the Tea Party a collective heart attack if made today. Backed by William Randolph Hearst, and timed to the election of, and approved by, Franklin Roosevelt, it stars Walter Huston (father of John, grandfather of Danny and Angelica) as President Judd Hammond, a corrupt president who sees the light, gets rid of most of his cabinet, dissolves Congress when they impeach him and goes about tackling the depression, nationalizing the alcohol trade and executing the gangsters that have become the scourge of the country. Finally, he uses a new secret weapon to blackmail the world into peace, and is eventually acclaimed as a hero. It's an unashamed piece of liberal propaganda, but a disturbing one; the imagery, particularly that of Hammond's secret police, borders on fascist (bear in mind, this is the same year that Hitler came to power). It's like a reactionary, militant version of "The West Wing," but really it's just an interesting time capsule/bonkers curio, led by a very strong performance from Huston (only a few years after taking the title role of another president, in D.W. Griffith's "Abraham Lincoln."). [C]

"The Great McGinty" (1940)
With his directorial debut, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, Preston Sturges' kicked off his career with a bang (legend has it, he sold the idea for 'McGinty' to Paramount under the condition he direct it). A diverting and ironic little political satire by way of cautionary tale, the picture stars Brian Donlevy as the titular "hero" -- a bum on the breadline with a thuggish streak. When he hears that a group of corrupt politicos are paying $2 per vote for a figurehead patsy mayor, he votes a whopping 37 times and catches the attention of these gangsters. Tickled by his clueless, brutish approach as he mouths off to them and everyone around him, the boss (Akim Tamiroff) hires him to collect past-due protection money. McGinty passes every test with flying colors, and eventually becomes his political protege, graduating to alderman, mayor and eventually governor -- all the while being the puppet on the end of the mob's strings. But when he falls in love with his secretary/fake wife Catherine (a charming Muriel Angelus) -- the sham wedding only occurred so he could get the female vote when he was running for mayor -- things begin to change. She and her children awaken a caring, compassionate side in McGinty and press him to quit being the stooge for his crooked bosses. Refusing to bend to their wishes and erect expensive monuments that line their pockets, McGinty is headed for a fall from grace. Whipsmart, engaging and funny, "The Great McGinty" is an entertaining parable and a sign of only greater things to come from Preston Sturges [B+]

"In The Loop" (2009)
Writer/director Armando Iannucci’s scathing political satire, loosely based on/spun-off of his BBC television series “The Thick of It,” which ran for six half-hour episodes and two specials from 2005 to 2007 (and has since had another series, with another on the way in 2012), is so on-the-money and realistic that we’re able to forgive its biggest flaw: it's shot in the handheld, zoom-intensive documentary style we’ve all grown overly familiar with. Think “The Office,” except there is no acknowledgment of the camera here, so it’s more like a fly-on-the-wall approach to the material. But shooting style aside, it’s the vicious, vitriolic black humor that shines through. The jokes, one-liners and visual gags spew forth at a rapid rate; like those strobe-heavy anime cartoons known to induce fits of epileptic seizures to the viewer, so does “In The Loop” with guffaws. An endless barrage of pop culture references (we recall nods to “The Shining,” “The Omen,” “Eraserhead,” “The Crying Game,” ‘Harry Potter’ and many more we missed while in hysterical bouts of laughter) and a ridiculously high joke quotient, are reminiscent of “Airplane!” but with a realistic story. While “In the Loop” is apocryphal, it’s impossible to not draw comparisons to political events of this decade. We don’t see the highest government officials, we see the people who work behind the scenes where everyone is looking to gain an edge for their next career hurdle. Semantics is everything in this world. This is a sapid, smart, dark and mean-spirited comedy in the vein of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece "Dr. Strangelove," with an ending that feels almost as apocalyptic, at least for the characters. Further proof of the film’s Kubrickian style is evident in ‘Loop’’s trailer as well, using the sped-up version of the William Tell Overture in a direct homage to “A Clockwork Orange.” But this film truly belongs to Peter Capaldi (“Local Hero”) as Malcolm Tucker (the only recurring character from "The Thick of It”), giving such a believable performance you’d swear he was this guy in real life, not a fantastic satirical creation. Every character he comes across falls in his wake of mean-spirited barbs. The rest of the cast is top-notch as well; all of them create fully-realized characters, and more importantly, avoid any semblance of caricature, which would’ve happened in the hands of less-capable filmmakers. [A-]

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More: Films, Actors, Feature, Ides Of March

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6 Comments

  • Adam Scott Thompson | March 16, 2014 7:50 PMReply

    "The Distinguished Gentleman" is my shiiiiiiiit. Very funny. I own "Primary Colors." I especially love Emma Thompson's performance.

  • Adam Pellman | March 16, 2014 6:21 PMReply

    No Advise and Consent? For shame. Otherwise, a great list.

  • Edward Davis | October 7, 2011 4:44 AMReply

    Such insight Sheldon!

  • Sheldon Ashcroft | October 7, 2011 4:40 AMReply

    Being a film about politics, The Ides Of March will be a very important movie.
    Tom Cruise and Johnny Depp should be doing movies about politics.

  • Oliver Lyttelton | October 7, 2011 4:25 AMReply

    I'd say that All The President's Men is about journalists more than its about politicians, although it's obviously got that world as a backdrop.

  • weetiger3 | October 7, 2011 4:20 AMReply

    Great list. Was amazed to discover I'd seen all but Gabriel Over the White House. (How sad you have to explain Walter Huston's pedigree) I've even see the Honorable Mentions. Did I miss it or does All the President's Men not appear anywhere?

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