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The 20 Best Movies About Politicians

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist October 7, 2011 at 4:09AM

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.
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"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962)
What better way to tap into the nation's Cold War anxiety than with a political thriller about communists brainwashing American soldiers? John Frankenheimer's 1962 film follows Frank Sinatra as Major Bennett Marco, a man plagued by constant nightmares involving men of his platoon being killed by their Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey). After pursuing an investigation, it's revealed that the troops were brainwashed by communists, with Shaw poised to follow any orders so long as he is shown a Queen of Diamonds. The forever-old Angela Lansbury plays his mother (despite being only three years older than Harvey), a secret commie who hopes to execute a plan allowing her to influence the U.S. President with her ideology. It's a solid puzzle of a story chugging along with powerful forward momentum; incredibly absorbing even if both Soviet-paranoia and Sinatra-lead films usually find modern audiences uninterested. The 2004 update with Denzel Washington wasn't badly received, but the original stands head and shoulders above, thanks to its weirder passages: Marco and love interest Eugenie (Janet Leigh) have such an odd conversation about states, railroad lines and old Chinese men that many concocted a "brainwashing theory" over the scene. There's also the nightmare sequence, in which the soldiers are drugged to think that a presentation by Communists showing off new assassin Shaw is actually an informational meeting about hydrangeas, attended only by older housewives. The reality and dream images are cut together disturbingly, going back and forth in a dissonant, maniacal fashion. It's a pretty ingenious, expertly handled scene, and you can't really remake that. [A]

"Meet John Doe" (1941)
The creative cinematic marriage of Frank Capra and his screenwriter Robert Riskin ended in divorce after “Meet John Doe,” and on the evidence of this film it’s not difficult to imagine why. Here is an oddball, largely unpalatable hunk of Capra-corn, a cock-eyed anti-fascist parable pure and naked, which defies the comparatively comfortable trajectories of the director’s earlier “It’s A Wonderful Life” and “Mr Smith Goes to Washington.” With her journalistic career on the skids, Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) pens a pseudonymous farewell letter under the by-line “John Doe,” and has her creation spout missives about the dreariness of contemporary existence -- “I protest the state of civilization” – and concludes the column by declaring Doe intends to kill himself on Christmas Eve. Roping in a bumpkin who dreams of being a baseball player (Gary Cooper), Stanwyck’s wily scheme sprouts legs after a platitudinous radio speech made up of treacly homilies (“Wake up, John Doe. You’re the hope of the world!”) and we’re asked to believe a spontaneous political movement is born overnight; ready-made to be destroyed by the very people who created it. With Walter Brennan screaming about “healots” throughout the entire film’s running time, Cooper’s “yokel appeal” -- indicative of what critic Richard Corliss dubbed a streak of “rube psychosis” in Capra’s work – is key to the entire duplicitous shebang. But the ethical quandary is bunk (why should the people invest in a folk hero invented by a journalist, and a careerist one to boot?), even if the intent is admirable. “Meet John Doe” is a worthwhile film which, like Wilder’s “Ace in the Hole” after it, harkens back to a mythical age of journalism where reporters were expected to adhere to a set of ethical editorial standards. But it’s also an inescapably flawed, vaguely condescending one – though Stanwyck and Cooper are typically dependable, the sizzling chemistry between the pair on display in the same year’s “Ball of Fire” has mysteriously vanished. [C+]

"Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939)
James Stewart’s filibuster at the end of “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” is one of the finest scenes of his career and one of the most memorable moments in classic American cinema. And while it’s now considered by some to be somewhat quaint and naively idealistic, in the way that Frank Capra films generally are, it’s easy to forget that at the time politicians branded the film as anti-American and pro-Communist, and revisiting the movie now, it’s surprising just how affecting it still is. Marking the second collaboration between Stewart and Capra, following their charming “You Can’t Take It With You,” the story follows wide-eyed Jefferson, a Boy Rangers leader who is suddenly ushered into the U.S. Senate when his state representative dies. Crooked political boss Jim Taylor thinks the green Jefferson will be easily manipulated when he finds himself in over his head, but is surprised when Jefferson fights back when some proposed legislation will build a dam on the site of a campground. Backed up against a wall by the seasoned political power players and boxed in by a frame-up that his rivals hope will bounce him out of office, the film hinges on that last, great speech by Jefferson, and with Capra and Stewart working their magic it’s impossible to resist. With Jean Arthur cheering on from the gallery and Harry Carey’s seasoned mug as the President of the Senate smiling on, more than seven decades since it was first released, and in this era of deeply partisan and cynical government, you’ll wish there was someone as passionate and principled Jefferson Smith stomping the halls of Washington. “Will the Senator yield?” Hell, no. [A]

“Primary Colors” (1998)
Mike Nichols is an accomplished director who has enjoyed success since his debut screen effort in 1966, but he’s rarely acknowledged for his thematic versatility. Just as his first attempt to paint on such a broad political canvas (“Catch 22”) was scuppered by the more zeitgeitsy and straightforwardly anarchic “M*A*S*H” in the early 1970s, “Primary Colors” had the indignity of being superseded by true events that were happening around the time of its 1998 release, and were deemed more interesting than fiction (namely the salacious and beyond parodic real-life fall-out from the worst of Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions”: Monica Lewinsky). In a similar vein, though it came from a novel that positioned itself as a thinly-veiled attack/appraisal/exorcism of the Clinton Presidential bid of 1992, the mysterious luster around the source’s author “Anonymous” had dissipated with the unmasking of reporter Joe Klein some time before its Cannes premiere. All of these circumstances seemed to instantaneously render the film out-of-date and dead on arrival in the 1990s, but that's to overlook that it has a message bigger than the sum of its parts. Sure, John Travolta’s broadly drawn aw-shucks Bill Clinton impression suffers in comparison to Emma Thompson’s deft work as his spouse, and it’s slightly tough to buy the totality of Adrian Lester’s convenient journey from doe-eyed optimist through to done-with-the-system, disillusioned politico, but it’s nonetheless a big, drippy sap-fest that's unafraid to let it all hang out; and a film in serious need of reappraisal. Aging well with the distance of more than a decade, even Kathy Bates’ rambunctious performance that dips into speechifying at the conclusion can’t derail what’s preceded it – the metaphorical and literal death of political idealism. Nichols hasn’t managed anything comparable since. [B+]

This article is related to: Films, Actors, Feature, Ides Of March


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