Now Streaming | Five Must-See Political Movies
Considering the near ubiquity of inflammatory rhetoric nowadays, you are probably already aware that we’re stuck in yet another election year, when presidential candidates try to incense their detractors and inspire their followers to put them in charge of one of the most powerful countries in the history of the world. It’s an exciting time, a scary time, and a pretty damned silly time if we’re being honest about it, and that strange alchemy of dead seriousness and absolutely insanity has been fodder for tons of great movies ever since the very birth of the medium.
This week on Now Streaming, we’re taking a look at the five very best political movies currently available at the click of a button, on instant streaming services like Netflix and HBO Go. If you are completely sick and tired of politics, we don’t blame you, but if you’re one of the many people who gets wrapped up in the political machine as an active participant and/or a fascinated audience member, these are all films you are going to want to see for one reason or another. Some are funny, some are sad, some are both, but they are all great films about politics.
Alexander Payne’s 1999 satire is so biting it draws blood. The story of a seemingly humdrum high school election for class president goes completely off the rails when the ambitious Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon, never better) winds up running against a charming but clueless patsy (Chris Klein) and his anarchic sister (Jessica Campbell). Caught in the middle is Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who manipulates all the events because he – like just about everyone else in Election – is a petty and selfish person with warped priorities.
Election is, like actual politics, just a convoluted mass of individuals. Some of them mean well, but everyone has an agenda. Our problems don’t start in the White House, they start early on, when people decide that they deserve to be in the White House. Election is vicious and tragic and probably more insightful than most of us would care to admit.
In the Loop (Netflix)
Politics are also complicated, probably too complicated for their own good. In Armando Iannucci’s scathing comedy In the Loop, spun off from his hit BBC sitcom The Thick of It, he tells the story of a group of hapless politicians and aides who accidentally say everything wrong to all the wrong people and start a war in the Middle East. Meanwhile, everyone is yelling at everyone else and every news story is a cataclysm.
Iannucci’s particular brand of wit – sometimes sweet, usually downright mean – would later be imported via the hit HBO series Veep. But more so than that popular show, In the Loop finds elements of farce in a very realistic portrayal of the political system, and finds all that foolishness dangerous and even terrifying. You’ll laugh, you’ll shake your head, you’ll vow to go into any other business than politics.
Milk (HBO Go)
But enough cynicism. Gus Van Sant’s inspiring drama about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, may end in tragedy (you should know what happened, and if not, you have all the more reason to watch this film) but it’s the journey that matters most. Milk, played by a Sean Penn in an Oscar-winning performance, has all the odds against him but manages to unify a base of disenfranchised voters amidst an environment that would – at best – prefer that he not make waves.
In some respects Milk is a highly conventional drama, and were it not for the incredibly human performances and down-to-earth direction of Gus Van Sant, it could have felt as pandering as The King’s Speech. Instead, it’s one of the great 21st century dramas about American politics, confronting the good and bad in fair measure, and illustrating just how far we’ve come… and how far we have to go.
Team America: World Police (Netflix)
One of the silliest political movies in history is also, if we’re being 100% honest, one of the smartest. South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone united to tell a Jerry Bruckheimer-esque action movie about a team of ass-kickers who destroy every xenophobic stereotype they can find and damn near destroy the world in the process. But rather than persecute these obvious avatars for post-9/11 foreign policy, Team America: World Police dares to suggest that they aren’t wrong.
They aren’t RIGHT of course, but Team America argues that world is a complicated place and it requires both speaking softly and big sticks to get anything done. Or, to put it in the exact words of the film, “Dicks fuck assholes.” You may not agree with the politics of this absurd marionette show, but you will probably be forced to think about them, and maybe even seriously consider that an opposing viewpoint has equal validity. All this and projectile vomiting too. Now THAT’S a great movie.
Young Abraham Lincoln (Netflix)
Most movies about great politicians are about politics. John Ford’s wonderful, partly fictionalized biopic about Abraham Lincoln takes an entirely different approach, and focuses instead on a meaningful court case that the Illinois lawyer tried in 1958, when he defended an accused murderer against overwhelming evidence of his client’s guilt. Henry Fonda plays Lincoln, and until Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning performance, he was for decades the quintessential movie version of the 16th President of the United States.
Young Mr. Lincoln is a corker of a crime movie, as pulpy as any John Grisham novel, but as a piece of political theater it’s a marvel. Ford can’t help but aggrandize Abraham Lincoln (the film even suggests, hilariously, that he wrote the song “Dixie”), but watching him fight for human rights in an entirely different context from which he became famous, and applying the principles of his future presidency in his day job, he tells a story that humanizes the historical figure and gives the audience something earthy to aspire to. It’s not a terribly accurate film, but Young Mr. Lincoln is a great one regardless.
Top Photo: IFC Films
William Bibbiani (everyone calls him ‘Bibbs’) is Crave’s film content editor and critic. You can hear him every week on The B-Movies Podcast and watch him on the weekly YouTube series Most Craved and What the Flick. Follow his rantings on Twitter at @WilliamBibbiani.