The Big List | The 50 Best Political Movies Ever
20. Milk (dir. Gus Van Sant, 2008)
To be outspokenly gay in the 1970s was no small feat. To be outspokenly gay and responsible for organizing people toward political goals was almost unthinkable. But San Francisco City Supervisor Harvey Milk pushed gay rights as an inevitable outcome of a just and reasonable world. For this, he was rewarded with assassination, yet Gus Van Sant’s fairly by-the-book biopic focuses on the work and the vision of the man (played here by an uncharacteristically warm Sean Penn), rather than the tragedy, to fine effect.
19. Duck Soup (dir. Leo McCarey, 1933)
The Marx Bros. were jazz musicians, and reality was their instrument. No element of common conversational decency was left un-riffed upon by their cheery anarchic sensibilities. In what is often called their best film, Duck Soup, the Brothers tackle the language and construction of warfare by flattening it into an absurd joke. Why is Freedonia going to war with Sylvania? Rufus T. Firefly’s bare-faced childish greed, of course. This is some of the finer slapstick you’ll ever see, and a necessary goose to the seriousness of war.
18. Zero Dark Thirty (dir. Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
The tale of the CIA’s efforts to track down and kill Osama bin Laden faced more real-life political controversy than the actual mission did. Anti-Obama administration advocates believed that the film’s release date in October 2012 was ploy to influence the election. Sony denied this, and even pushed back the release date by several months so as not to appear to have a political agenda. In addition, Republican sources had accused the Obama administration for allowing director Kathryn Bigelow access to classified documents, though no proof of this was ever found, and after the election cycle, this complaint seemed to fizzle out.
Interestingly, Zero Dark Thirty has been attacked for its portrayal of “enhanced interrogation techniques” from both ideological sides. Some say it shows the true horror of torture; others say it proves that the CIA would not have gotten bin Laden without enhanced interrogation.
17. Advise & Consent (dir. Otto Preminger, 1962)
With House and Senate Republicans refusing even to consider any of President Obama’s nominations to fill Antonin Scalia’s Supreme Court seat, this potboiler feels as relevant as ever. Based on the novel by Allen Drury, Otto Preminger’s drama examines the political machinations at play when dying president Franchot Tone nominates Henry Fonda to be his new Secretary of State. Notable for including Hollywood cinema’s first on-screen gay bar, where a congressman realizes he’s about to be smeared for an old same-sex fling from his Army days.
16. The Act of Killing (dirs. Joshua Oppenheimer, Christine Cynn and Anonymous, 2012)
Those in positions of high political power tend to think of themselves as heroes. They see powerful men in movies and shape themselves – in their minds – to match that. The perpetrators of a horrid genocide in Indonesia are, in Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary, unrepentant of their crimes, coming across as affable grandpas. When asked to recreate their crimes on film, they come up with bizarre dream-like bouts of self-praise. Is there guilt in that blackness, or were those million murders just a day of good, hard, satisfying work for you? Chilling stuff.
15. The Conformist (dir. Bernardo Bertolucci, 1970)
In The Conformist an Italian government flunky (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is assigned to assassinate his former professor for political dissidence. Fascism has been brought up a number of times on this list, but largely in terms of the use of troops and nationalism. In Bernardo Bertolucci’s gorgeously layered masterpiece we observe how fascism crushes individual impulses. Watch closely in The Conformist and you’ll see people whose glances and pauses reveal their real feelings, and their actions always counter them—for fear of being found out.
Look even closer and you’ll see the most influential film of the 70s.
14. Malcolm X (dir. Spike Lee, 1992)
Only Spike Lee could do justice to the legacy of Malcolm X. The director rides the line between solid biopic structure and his own idiosyncratic practices as a filmmaker to create a moving, frustrating, complicated portrait of the slain civil rights leader. And his thoroughly serious-minded approach finds its center with Denzel Washington, whose passionate portrayal of X earned him an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. That he won years later for Training Day instead is another example of The Oscar As Belated Apology approach so beloved by that organization.
13. W. (dir. Oliver Stone, 2008)
Oliver Stone directed damning dramas that exposed the dark hearts of American politicians, but when the time came for him to tell the story of George W. Bush he made his most controversial creative decision: he decided that he kinda liked him. Josh Brolin plays a sympathetic, pained, sometimes pathetic version of the 43rd president, prone to mistakes and constantly seeking approval from his father, losing sight of the ball even as he finally seemed to win the game. W. won’t convince anybody that Bush was a great president, but it succeeds in reminding us all that he’s not a figurehead, not a demagogue, not a cartoon and not a hero: he’s just a guy.
12. They Live (dir. John Carpenter, 1988)
Capitalism ran amok in Reagan’s America, and wealth-obsessed yuppies were everywhere. Meanwhile, the rest of us couldn’t seem to catch a break. Homelessness was at an all time high, and “trickle-down” economics were the word of the day. In John Carpenter’s sci-fi film They Live, it is posited that the populace cannot succeed because they are being subliminally manipulated by raw-faced space aliens who have been planting secret messages in media and on money. Stay asleep. Obey. Looking back on the 1980s, it’s not so farfetched.
11. Dave (dir. Ivan Reitman, 1993)
It’s tempting to view Ivan Reitman’s mistaken identity story, about a man who looks just like the President taking over after the real-life POTUS has a stroke, as a naïve fantasy, flirting with significance but falling back on simple charm. Sure enough, Kevin Kline has never been more charming, but this sly comedy lingers in our consciousness because of its rather insidious idea: that the only person dignified enough to be a great politician is someone who hasn’t been sullied by the realities of politics. Doing the right thing, regardless of opinion polls and party affiliations, is a revolutionary act in this smartly written, splendidly acted political fairy tale.