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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"Recount" (2008)
Director Jay Roach (responsible for the "Austin Powers" trilogy and the first two "Meet The Parents" films) showed an aptitude for the political genre with 2008's "Recount," commanding an impressive cast including Kevin Spacey, Denis Leary, Laura Dern, Tom Wilkinson, and John Hurt, as they squabble and seethe amidst 2000's controversial Florida recount. We have our heroes - Democratic strategist Ron Klain (Spacey) and our villainess, Dern's Katherine Harris, Florida's Secretary of State and a co-chair on the Bush campaign. Roach lets the film play at the heightened pace of a thriller, which makes the ridiculousness of it all positively laughable. It's a fleet-footed film that filters its politics through simple lenses - good Democrats, bad Republicans, leaders and followers, and lots of news coverage that needs to be watched diligently. The resulting product is accessible and humorous, but also deadly serious in depicting (albeit with a slight bias) the actual events that got us here. It's no wonder Roach is back to politics again with "Game Change", working again with "Recount" writer Danny Strong. The two know how to make the potentially terrifying reality seem strangely funny in retrospect. [B]

"Seven Days In May" (1964)
They just don't make 'em like they used to. Save for the occasional, unlikely adult drama like "The Ides Of March," or "The Social Network," Hollywood doesn't make pictures like John Frankenheimer's simmering political drama, "Seven Days In May" anymore. If you want to see an example of a riveting drama wherein people only talk, argue or debate, this is it. Starring Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, Fredric March, Ava Gardner, Martin Balsam and an Oscar-nominated Edmond O'Brien, this simmering pot-boiler focuses on hubris-filled American General Scott (Lancaster), sick to death of the bureaucracy and politicking of Washington. After the President (March) ratifies a disarmament treaty with Russia, the militant and aggressive Scott reaches his breaking point with what he perceives to be the spineless figures in D.C. His aide, Colonel Casey (Douglas) accidentally comes across a strange, secret plan he eventually believes is a military coup to overthrow the government. Torn by his loyalty to his General and his duty to his country, the Colonel makes the heavy decision to inform the President and his aides. Risking his name and career on what could be perceived as a wild claim, Casey then becomes part of a time-ticking group of White House loyalists who try and uncover the treasonous subterfuge. Simple, straightforward, but searingly effective in its depiction of the point when patriotism curdles into fascism, Frankenheimer contructs an urgent, suspenseful timebomb of a picture that is classic filmmaking to a tee. [A-]

"State of the Union" (1948)
Nearly a decade after “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington,” it turned out Frank Capra had even more to say about the American political system in “State Of The Union,” albeit with a different twist. Where ‘Washington’ explored a pure man who comes up against a corrupt system, ‘State’ revisits that corrupted political sphere and watches what happens when it corrupts a decent man. The always reliable Spencer Tracy plays that man, Grant Matthews, an aircraft tycoon who is encouraged to run for the President of the United States by newspaper titan Kay Thorndyke (a ravishingly beautiful Angela Lansbury), who promises to use her papers to help push his candidacy. A savvy political machine assembles around him (including a memorable Van Johnson as his campaign manager) and even Grant’s estranged wife (Katherine Hepburn, of course) agrees to keep up appearances though their relationship is on the rocks. So yes, you know where this is going. As the battle for the Republican candidacy gets fiercer, Grant continues to compromise his ideals until he no longer is the man who first decided to try and take the biggest house in the land. And following the template of ‘Washington’ it all culminates in a final speech in which the ideals of the American people are raised up as something that politicians should aspire to uphold, not circumvent. This time around, the power of Capra’s tale is less potent. It’s not that the message isn’t important or even prescient, but it’s hard to sympathize with a rich Republican who finally learns a lesson versus a small town kid who refuses to play the Washington game. But again, the ingredients here at least individually still make this a worthwhile watch. It’s kind of amazing to see Lansbury play such a coldly calculating character so long before "The Manchurian Candidate," and as we said, Johnson is a pure ball of energetic delight. Needless to say, Tracy and Hepburn are one of the greatest on-screen pairs of all time, and while this isn’t their brightest moment, if you have any affinity for the duo, the third act will still tug at those heartstrings. So yes, running for political office causes even the most strong willed to fold -- what else is new? But if you can get the girl in the end, it seems you can still come out of it smelling like roses. [B-]

"Wag The Dog" (1997)
Barry Levinson’s satire "Wag the Dog" was not necessarily supposed to be a hold-up-the-mirror reflection of present-day American society. However, it is hard to watch without remembering weeks after the release how much it did just that. It was really intended to be about the Gulf War, the first Bush Administration (before we had to call it that) and the idea that he could have easily made the whole thing up. In fact, in retrospect, the notion that the poor-quality videos from the Gulf War could have been fabricated feels nauseatingly plausible, and the fact that such a war would boost polls is a no-brainer. These ideas sourced from Larry Beinhart’s ’93 wacky satirical novel “American Hero” were worked into “Wag the Dog” by screenwriter and dialogue master, David Mamet and director Barry Levinson , who also included the idea that the war was not only to get votes but to distract from a sex scandal. The fact that soon after the movie’s release a politically struggling, Lewinski-snuggling Bill Clinton bombed Kosovo, showed that reality can also imitate art, more often than we care to consider. The impact of the media post-9/11, and Bush’s willingness for photo-ops during his ‘War on Terror,’ even at the most inappropriate of times, left the satirical love of all things flag-waving in “Wag the Dog” in the dust. Robert DeNiro plays the political fix-it guy to Anne Heche’s Presidential Gal Friday, together with Dustin Hoffman, the Hollywood producer, they make the diversionary fake-war happen. Woody Harrelson is their ‘hero’ who instead turns out to be criminally insane (not ideal) and Kirsten Dunst is their fake Albanian orphan with only a bag of Tostitos (which are later, with green-screen, magically turned into a kitten) to keep her company in the war. “Wag the Dog” is still a surprisingly likable film considering it confirms every worst fear you might have had about the U.S. Government, its people and its media in the '90s. This is due in no small part to Mamet’s fantastically paced and effortlessly delivered dialogue, with every quip landing feet first, as well it should in any political satire worth its weight in “Yes, Minister!” DVDs. However over 10 years and a second Bush later, it also feels slightly dated and less dark then it did. [B+]

Honorable Mentions: We've covered a few bases here (bar things like "J.F.K." and "Dr. Strangelove" which didn't quite seem to fit our remit), but there are a couple of other ones that we didn't quite have time or space to look at. Aspects of "Syriana" sort of apply, namely Jeffrey Wright's storyline, but it's not quite enough, and it's arguably the film's weakest bit of plot, thanks to an unnecessary father/son relationship that feels truncated. Documentary-wise, 1993's "The War Room" is a pretty amazing look behind the scenes at the Clinton campaign, and one that has clearly informed many of the subsequent political films.

One such movie? Surprisingly, the romantic-comedy "Definitely Maybe," which has a political sub-plot running throughout, with Ryan Reynolds as an aspiring speech-writer/campaign manager. It's a decent enough entry in the genre, as far as rom-coms go, but it's not exactly the most incisive look at the political world that you'll find. There were some internal debates as to whether Robert Altman's masterpiece "Nashville" qualified, and we ultimately decided that it didn't, although it does take place against the backdrop of a political rally.

We didn't have enough time to track down the original, Oscar-winning 1949 version of "All The King's Men," the veiled story of charismatic Louisiana governor Huey Long, but by all accounts it's better than the 2006 Sean Penn remake, although that probably wouldn't be very hard. Finally, we've heard good things about 1979's "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," written by and starring Alan Alda (with a cast also including Meryl Streep and Rip Torn), but didn't find the time to fit it in. And of course, "Citizen Kane" is partly about a politician, but that's a little obvious... Any others we've missed? Sound off below.

-- Erik McClanahan, RP, Sam Price, Oliver Lyttelton, Kevin Jagernauth, Samantha Chater, Christopher Bell, Matthew Newlin, Gabe Toro, Kimber Myers, Mark Zhuravsky

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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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