For the most part, politicians are like sausage makers — it’s probably better that we don’t watch the process. Politics, however, especially the peaks and valleys of a political campaign, can be intensely cinematic. Given that, it’s mildly mystifying that more movies about politics haven’t been made. Perhaps it’s because politics turns off so many people, or looked at from a philosophical point of view, maybe it’s due to the fact that politics already pervades so many aspects of life. In any event, even though political motion pictures are few, quite a few that do exist are exceptional.
10. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
“Idiots, morons and guinea pigs” — that’s what overnight sensation Lonesome Rhodes, played by Andy Griffith, calls his fans when he thinks they’re not listening. The inevitability of this moment is what makes the movie — coincidentally, one of two on this list directed by Elia Kazan — so prescient. In other words, the film was ahead of its time, which had a lot to do with why it wasn’t a hit when it came out. Rhodes is a country bumpkin, discovered by an Arkansas radio producer (Patricia Neal), who quickly becomes a radio star, then a celebrity on TV. When he gets involved in politics, matters turn serious. To some extent, this is a movie about a man’s rise and partial fall, a common tale. Its reputation has built over the years, however, because of the cautionary tale it tells, about the danger inherent in blindly getting behind a paper tiger.
9. Viva Zapata! (1952)
The politics here have to do with the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century, but the film’s central theme — that absolute power corrupts absolutely — is universal. That makes the movie accessible; what renders it exceptional is its pedigree. The picture, starring Marlon Brando as the revolutionary peasant Emiliano Zapata and Anthony Quinn (who received an Oscar) as his wild brother Eufemio, was directed by Elia Kazan, a former communist who went on to name names before the House Un-American Activities Committee. The filmmaker and his top actors did not get along during the shoot, which already had other political troubles. There was much handwringing over the appropriate skin tone for actress Jean Peters, and entire reels of the movie had to be altered to placate Mexican audiences obviously sensitive about the subject matter.
8. No Way Out (1987)
Technically, it’s not so much a movie about politics as it is a movie set in the political world. The storyline could work in any environment where the stakes are high. Film critics of the time called it a smart thriller, the unspoken assumption in that label being that many thrillers aren’t smart. No Way Out is the kind of movie you will want to immediately watch again to see if all the twists and turns check out. They do, but good luck keeping track of them all. Starring Kevin Costner as a naval officer — one of the best roles of his career — and Gene Hackman as the U.S. secretary of defense, the plot concerns the murder of a mistress (Sean Young). There is more than one suspect, and much of the film stakes out familiar terrain wherein our hero must prove his innocence. No Way Out doesn’t just spring surprises from beginning to end, it gives audiences characters worth caring about.
7. Election (1999)
This movie made actress Reese Witherspoon a name, before Legally Blonde made her a star, but it’s still arguably her best work. Although the satire is set in high school, the film is actually more concerned about politics, chiefly a campaign for student government president, a position Witherspoon’s uber-ambitious character, Tracy Flick, thinks she deserves simply because she wants it. Her teacher, played by Matthew Broderick, almost existentially frustrated by this overachiever, does everything in his power to see that that doesn’t happen, but in the world created by director Alexander Payne, people like Tracy Flick cannot be stopped. In fact, they will only graduate and come to occupy far more important offices as adults. In a clever touch, the race for student government president also includes a girl who promises to do away with student government if she wins.
6. Wag the Dog (1998)
By now, the reader may be noticing that nearly all the movies on this list are satirical in tone, even cynical. It comes with the territory. It may also be observed that Stanley Kubrick’s classic 1964 political satire Dr. Strangelove isn’t on this list. It’s the opinion of this writer that it’s a blindly praised, seldom-seen film that has not aged well. The best political satire is timely, as in Wag the Dog, clearly inspired by the Clinton administration. A fixer (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman, very tan) are brought in to cook up a fake war to distract the public from a problem the president is having with a young “Firefly Girl.” Wag the Dog is short and rapid-fire (the screenplay was co-written by David Mamet), as most high-wire acts like this need to be, and still flags a bit toward the end. But the movie stands up to repeated viewings because it feels so familiar.
5. Being There (1979)
There are layers of meaning in Hal Ashby’s film that catapult it beyond a simple political satire, but it’s on that level where it most readily resonates. Peter Sellers portrays a simple-minded gardener who readily impresses all who meet him because he dresses nicely and is well-mannered. He has the intellect of a 5-year-old, but his observations that “spring follows winter” and so forth are taken as wisdom because nobody sticks around to hear what else he has to say. Soon the political world takes notice of the man, whose brief, easy-to-grasp sentiments are perfect for television sound bites. When the gardener is asked questions he can’t answer he is simply silent, which his interlocutors mistake for cleverness. In today’s political environment, in which facts are often ignored when they’re inconvenient, the quietly persuasive Being There continues to speak to us.
4. The Candidate (1972)
It’s perhaps the gentlest of the political satires on this list, as if it wants to believe that an earnest, well-intentioned man — played by Robert Redford at the peak of his golden-boy years — can run a high-minded campaign for U.S. senator and then come out victorious because the voters share his ideals. Redford’s candidate does win, but the film’s final line — “what do we do now?” — is a reminder that running for office and serving in office are two very different things. The film perhaps should have been called “The Campaign,” since that’s what ultimately subsumes the title character. This is a fast-paced, frenetic picture that captures well the many surreal aspects of a political campaign, right down to an inexplicably furious voter asking Redford’s character what he will do for his dog. Is it all worth it? The Candidate isn’t so sure.
3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Political idealism isn’t dead. It’s still possible for an average American to find his way to Washington and work to make America a better place. That’s the message of Frank Capra’s ultimately optimistic film. It doesn’t start out that way. Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith is appointed to the U.S. Senate because crooked power brokers figure he’s too naive to do any damage. They’re half right. Smith is naive, to be sure, until his secretary clues him in on the corruption going on all around him — in front of the Lincoln Memorial, no less. The film peaks during the rookie senator’s filibuster speech about honesty and decency, which is so inspiring that a corrupt senator confesses right there on the Senate floor. That may not ring so true today, but during D.C. screenings of the film in 1939 angry politicians walked out, incensed by the cynicism of the movie.
2. All the King’s Men (1949)
It’s the mark of a superlative political motion picture when it can be found relevant in just about any time and place. The source work, a novel by Robert Penn Warren, is by far the best version of this story, although this film certainly does it justice, certainly more so than a sorry 2006 remake starring an overwrought Sean Penn. The story is a lightly glossed fictionalization of the rise and abrupt fall (by an assassin’s bullet) of Louisiana’s governor-turned-senator Huey Long. The film features two memorable performances, by Broderick Crawford at his very best and Mercedes McCambridge in her debut. Both won deserved Oscars, while the movie got the Academy Award for Best Picture. Crawford’s Willie Stark emerges from poor, rural origins to become a demagogue corrupted by power, while the film reminds us how easily the public can become seduced by such a figure.
1. All the President’s Men (1976)
First and foremost, it’s a film about journalism, and the pre-eminent one at that. The devil’s in the details. While the movie is focused on the process of investigative journalism, essentially losing itself in that process, as it peels back the layers of the Watergate conspiracy — its ending already common knowledge to all watching — it gradually drives home the message that our politicians must be held accountable. “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand,” a source known only as Deep Throat tells Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward (played by Robert Redford) in a shadowy parking garage. All The President’s Men ultimately serves as a reminder that the nation’s viability depends on the competency and honesty of elected officials, and that we the people are responsible for making sure things don’t get out of hand.