With the U.S. presidential election looming large, we thought we'd look at the best 10 movies focusing on politics. Many of these films are quite old, but that's not a huge detriment. Writing and acting play huge roles in politics, and political films rely on the same fundamentals. The stories all involve the basic elements of human character, integrity, morality, honesty--and the complete lack of any of those traits.
Politics is an awfully touchy subject, because it involves people's core concepts and beliefs on how a nation should be run, how its citizens should be treated, and who's fit to control all that. These films remind us of the incredible power of political offices, and that people who acquire those offices aren't always the best-qualified, most moral, or even law-abiding candidates. Vote, people. Seriously. (Was that preachy enough?)
10. Bulworth (1998)
Warren Beatty, who also wrote and directed, plays Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth: a typical white, 60-year-old politician. He realizes his political ambitions are basically dead, so he takes out an insurance policy and contract on his life. He then behaves so crazily that he makes his own campaign team insane but garners adoration from the nation. He raps his speeches on national television, brazenly addresses race and socioeconomic issues, hooks up with a beautiful young African-American woman (Halle Berry), smokes weed, et al. But he doesn't lie. And even though his messages are wrapped in cartoonish mannerisms, the truth behind the statements still resonates.
9. The Candidate (1972)
Robert Redford plays a lawyer from California, Bill McKay, who's recruited to run for Senate. But he doesn't actually believe he'll win (and he doesn't really care). Although McKay is inexperienced, he learns to garner goodwill--and votes--by using charismatic honesty. But eventually, the prospect of winning is too appealing, and he begins playing traditional political games. The Academy-Award-winning script was written by Jeremy Larner, who wrote speeches for Eugene McCarthy, so its political veracity is quite high.
8. Wag the Dog (1998)
Shortly before the election, the president gets caught up in a sex scandal involving an underage girl. The president's team foresees the election going seriously south, so they hire a spin doctor (Robert De Niro), who hires a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to create an imaginary war overseas, thereby distracting the public. Because the film's release date was so close to the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, the film's story seemed almost prescient and became quite controversial (Clinton ordered strikes on Afghanistan and Sudan shortly after admitting to inappropriate relations with Lewinsky).
7. Nixon (1995)
This dark and disturbing film explores the strict and impoverished childhood of Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins), his budding political career, strange interactions with his wife, presidency and severe paranoia that eventually caused his disastrous downfall. The runtime on director Oliver Stone's cut is 212 minutes, and because it's packed with details, it forces you to stay mentally alert. By the end, it almost seems longer than Nixon's time in office--and just as darkly compelling.
6. The Best Man (1964)
Set in a political convention, this film explores the two extremes of stereotypical politicians--the dirty one who does whatever it takes to win (Cliff Robertson), and the one who relies on integrity and respectful tactics (Henry Fonda). Gore Vidal wrote this film that contains deplorable political maneuvers, infidelity and attacks on personal lives. It shows that even 50 years ago, politics were just as nasty as they are now (although people smoked a lot more).
5. The War Room (1993)
This documentary explores Bill Clinton's 1992 election campaign. Clinton isn't seen as often as you'd assume; the film's true stars are two members of the Clinton campaign, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. It's an engaging investigation into the inner-workings of politics, specifically the masters of spin who so expertly manipulate and craft messages at the expense of, well, truth.
4. Meet John Doe (1941)
Columnist Ann Mitchell (Barbara Stanwyck) fabricates a 'John Doe' letter, in which a depressed man says he'll commit suicide after becoming so tired of America's ills. To satisfy the public and appease the critics, the newspaper is forced to hire 'Long John' Willoughby (Gary Cooper) to play the real John Doe. He sparks a grass-roots political campaign that eventually gets threatened by a financier (Edward Arnold), who's looking for his own political gain. One line, delivered by Stanwyck, is especially memorable and is captured expertly by director Frank Capra ('If it's worth dying for, then it's worth living for').
3. Election (1999)
Okay, so it's not a film about governmental politics, but what's a better setting for political satire than a high school? Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is running for head of student council. But civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) despises her and desperately wants to derail her progress, so he convinces football player (Chris Klein) to run against her. Shallow, power-hungry, selfish people do whatever it takes to get their way, including destroying others, proving that high school and politics are scarily similar (and frequently funny).
2. All the King's Men (1949)
Even though the film's in black-and-white, it expertly explores shades of gray in politics and human nature (yep, that pun sucked). Broderick Crawford plays Willie Stark, a Southern lawyer who has grand ideas for helping his state but no political experience. The opposition hires him to simply split the vote, but he wins, retains power, and (from his perspective) makes everything better -- by toying with populist emotions and engaging in illegal, corrupt, and immoral behavior. It's an engrossing look at the malignant influence of power and ambition, and how their acquisition often impels disreputable actions.
1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Similar to All The King's Men (and not just because it's incredibly old), this film chronicles the tale of Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart). He's the leader of a boy-scout troop before being recruited to the Senate by a team that believes he'll do whatever he's told--specifically, allow the building of a dam that will make said team rich. But unlike All The King's Men, the main character isn't corrupted by politics, but rather defies and decries the corruption. Another film directed by the iconic Frank Capra, who's responsible for a bunch of film classics (It's A Wonderful Life, No. 6 Meet John Doe), Mr. Smith has major sentimental overtones and desire for a fantastical world, as Stewart's character displays a fortitude and integrity we wish all politicians had. It's old, but it's still incredibly good.
Originally appeared in Paste Magazine, September 27, 2012. All rights reserved.