Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) It’s not a stretch to say Barack Obama is the closest we’ve come to Jimmy Stewart’s Smith in some time. Our archetype for all congressmen (and senators) was shaped when we saw this Frank Capra classic for the first time. The movie’s message of hope and decency lives on, and if you’re not drained of tears at the end of the filibuster scene, call a plumber.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece is the mother of all conspiracy thrillers, made all the more chilling by the many political assassinations that have followed its release. Plus, there’s that loopy scene between Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh on the train … One of the most hallucinogenic movies to ever come out of Hollywood, and that’s saying something.
The Candidate (1972) Barack Obama supporters, take note: This story of what happens when a genuinely good man runs for office is sobering and insightful, cynical about politics while allowing for occasional small slivers of hope. Its ending leaves open the question of whether winning a political race is inherently corrupting, but the outlook is not particularly positive.
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- W. (2008)
Nashville (1975) Arguably the most prescient political film of the 1970s. Robert Altman’s free-for-all surrounding a political convention was considered radical at the time, but notions such as rewriting the national anthem don’t seem so far-fetched anymore. And the movie’s climax—the birth of a country star overlapped with an assassination—has a refrain that today’s society might find all too accurate: “People say that I ain’t free/But it don’t worry me.”
All the President’s Men (1976) Based on our vast experience in newsrooms, there have never been print reporters as dashing and handsome as Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. But that may be the only false note in this account of Woodward and Bernstein’s aikido takedown of Nixon’s corrupt presidency.
Reds (1981) Warren Beatty’s sweeping account of John Reed, the radical American journalist seduced, and possibly (despite being buried in the Kremlin) disillusioned, by Soviet communism, requires stamina: It’s three-plus hours long. But it’s terrific at capturing, as the New York Times reviewer put it, “the excitement of being young, idealistic and foolish in a time when everything still seemed possible.” Then, as now, optimism was a political act.
JFK (1991) Before Oliver Stone became certifiably over-the-top, this sprawling account of the Kennedy assassination was notable for its ambition and for making political subject matter relevant in a Hollywood movie. Forget Kevin Costner’s shaky New Orleans accent, the dubious source material, even the over-deification of JFK. Look instead beneath its conspiracies—brilliantly captured in a mash-up-style collage way ahead of its time—to find the heart of a filmmaker who still believes his country can makes things right.
The American President (1995) Michael Douglas’ Andrew Shepard was the fantasy Bill Clinton, a stout liberal who might be sidetracked by love—not humiliated by lust—and the need to win, but who finally rejects cynical triangulation politics, busting out an inspiring speech reaffirming his liberal principles. Like we said, a fantasy (including Annette Bening as a good-hearted lobbyist, LOL), but, after eight Bush-Doctrined years, a soothing one.
Election (1999) Earlier this year, comparisons of Hillary Clinton to Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick were a little unfair, but Election does effectively satirize political contests in its microcosm of a high-school election, complete with ruthless dirty tricks and manufactured scandal. It’s also a hilarious character study of frustrated suburbanites who never quite understand the depth of their own unimportance.
The Fog of War (2003) Errol Morris’ documentary about former defense secretary Robert McNamara, one of JFK’s best and brightest and one of the architects of the Vietnam War, is a fascinating glimpse—past the spin and soundbites—into the heart and mind of a man trying to come to terms with the decisions he’s made.