The Big List | The 50 Best Political Movies Ever
5. The Candidate (dir. Michael Ritchie, 1972)
In the California Senate campaign, Republican incumbent Crocker Jarman seems a shoo-in to win. Political strategist Marvin Lucas needs a Democrat to run. With no big-name Democrats willing to enter what is clearly a losing race, Lucas selects Bill McKay, the son of a former governor. Since McKay isn’t expected to win, he says whatever he wants on the campaign trail (a liberal ideology) – until the gap between the candidates turns into an embarrassment. Then McKay changes his speeches to the generic, pandering topics that soothe voters and the gap closes.
Released in 1972, The Candidate is a satire on the real-life campaign of Senator John V. Tunney. Screenwriter Jeremy Larner was Tunney’s former speechwriter. Up until a few years ago, the formula of The Candidate was quite close to how campaigns are run. In today’s political climate, with the so-called Republican front runner saying whatever flits through his mind, The Candidate kind of makes me long for those simpler times of following the status quo.
4. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (dir. Frank Capra, 1939)
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is of its time, a simple parable about hope and the American Dream, and it is of our time, cynical as all hell. Frank Capra’s story is about a handpicked U.S. senate replacement, a naive reformer played by James Stewart, who believes in the ideals of democracy only to discover, just moments too late, that the system can be manipulated, and that not all politicians have the public’s best interest at heart.
Like all many of the better Capra films, Mr. Smith takes audiences to the brink of despair before reeling us back into safe, comforting territory. Our hero is impossibly screwed, and embarks on a crazy journey to filibuster his way out of the darkness, leading to an iconic finale that drives even an evil man insane with guilt. Mr. Smith is the ultimate fantasy of American politics. It’s bold enough to acknowledge the country’s failings even as it praises our ideals, and it succeeds in inspiring audiences one generation after another. It really does feel like, if the government had just a few more Mr. Smiths in it, anything could be possible.
3. The Manchurian Candidate (dir. John Frankenheimer, 1962)
This daring satire – written by George Axelrod, based on the novel by Richard Condon, and directed by John Frankenheimer – dared to suggest that America’s frothing-at-the-mouth anti-Communists might have more allegiances than differences with their rivals at the Kremlin. (Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake would have worked, had it implied that Dick Cheney and Osama bin Laden were in cahoots.)
Laurence Harvey plays a decorated Korean War veteran who’s been brainwashed, as though he hadn’t enough problems being the son of monster mommy Angela Lansbury, who’s orchestrating her Joe McCarthy–esque husband’s political rise. Suspenseful, unsettling and often darkly funny, this is a blistering peek into America’s heart of darkness.
2. All the President’s Men (dir. Alan J. Pakula, 1976)
The 1970s were, politically speaking, America’s fall from grace. The Vietnam War had changed a generation of hopeful patriots into cynical, distrustful citizens. America was shaking off the halcyon haze of post-WWII plenty, and nosediving into economic and social hardship. The White House was now a symbol of corruption and distrust, and, president Richard Nixon – to many, the face of the fall – was embroiled in one of the most horrendous scandals this nation has seen.
The lid was blown off of the Watergate break-in by a pair of naif reporters, and the nation shifted. In Alan J. Pakula’s All the President’s Men, we’re treated to a fresh reminder of all the cynicism and confusion about the break-in, mere years after it had taken place.