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.