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Film Feature: Politics on Film

Some Pre-Election Suggested Viewing

Above: This is one of my favorite movie posters of all time, Robert Redford as "The Candidate."


Aired 10/27/10

KPBS film critic takes a look at films about politics.


With the election just around the corner here are a few films you might want to watch to put you in the political mood.

Here's a clip from a political campaign spot.

Campaign spot: The determination to put some action back into the United States Senate. The energy to fight the special interests on behalf of all the people of California. For a better way, Bill McKay.

If you haven't heard of Bill McKay that's because he isn't running for senate in Tuesday's election. He's a character created by filmmaker Michael Ritchie and actor Robert Redford in the 1972 film "The Candidate." (Check out the great trailer for the film.) Redford plays McKay, an idealistic lawyer who begins his senatorial campaign by saying what he believes. But slowly he allows his handlers to turn his strong opinions into hollow soundbites to ensure victory.

Man: Mr. McKay, what do you feel about legalized abortion?

McKay: I'm for it I think every woman should have that right.

Manager: Wait a minute Bill you can't put it that way.

McKay: That's what I think.

Manager: Well it won't be understood without a hell of a long explanation. How about this for the time being, just say it's worth studying.

"The Candidate" is one of the best films on modern politics. Some three decades later its satire still has bite. It shows how the political process can prompt even a well-intentioned candidate to stray from his ideals in pursuit of victory. This notion is echoed sixteen years later in the Robert Altman-Gary Trudeau collaboration "Tanner '88."

Michael Murphy in the Robert Altman-Gary Trudeau cable series "Tanner '88."


Above: Michael Murphy in the Robert Altman-Gary Trudeau cable series "Tanner '88."

Tanner: I feel like I'm becoming an innocent bystander in my own campaign. Every day I give up a little bit of my dignity, a little bit of my soul and deal with some guy I would have walked away from a few months ago.

In that sharp made for cable satire, Altman places his fictional candidate, Jack Tanner, in real situations during the 1988 presidential race. Tanner chats with Bob Dole during the primaries and appears on the floor of the Democratic national convention. In this scene Bruce Babbitt offers the presidential hopeful some advice.

Bruce Babbitt: What you wanna do in a campaign is say I ran, I made a difference. I'll risk losing but I just might win and in any event I'll make a difference.

Babbitt took that chance and as he says in the show, he "got blown out of the water." So his dialogue might have been scripted or it might reflect his own views. That's the fun of Altman's film; you never quite know where the line between truth and fiction is drawn. The show offers a fascinating look at the packaging of a candidate and offers a savage attack on politics in the age of television. But Altman, like Ritchie, doesn't leave you with a very positive view of the political process. The current mood of voter apathy is well conveyed in the teen satire, "Election." It looks to a high school presidential race and one candidate with a "Who Cares" slogan.

Jessica Campbell as the "Who Cares" candidate and Chris Klein as her jock brother in the brilliant satire "Election."

Paramount Pictures

Above: Jessica Campbell as the "Who Cares" candidate and Chris Klein as her jock brother in the brilliant satire "Election."

Tammy: We all know it doesn't matter who gets elected president of Carver. Do you really think it will change anything around here? The same pathetic charade happens every year and everyone makes the same pathetic promises. So vote for me and as president, I won't do anything.

If all these films leave you feeling a little deflated there is one filmmaker who lets idealism triumph: Frank Capra. In 1939, "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" gave us a classic Capra hero in James Stewart's wide-eyed junior senator. Capra's films have moments of biting cynicism. His heroes undergo a loss of innocence but they ultimately prove that the system works. Stewart's final plea to the corrupt senator sums up Capra's idealism.

Claude Rains as the corrupt senior senator and James Stewart as the idealistic junior one in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Columbia Pictures

Above: Claude Rains as the corrupt senior senator and James Stewart as the idealistic junior one in Frank Capra's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."

Mr. Smith: You know that you fight for the lost causes harder than for any others, yes you even die for them. You all think I'm licked, well I'm not licked.

Whether these films prompt you to question the current political system or reignite your idealism, any of them would make appropriate viewing before casting your ballot next week.

Groucho: The last man nearly ruined this place, he didn't know what to do with it. If you think this country's bad off now just wait till I get through with it...

Here's an extended list of films that deal with politics and political issues.

Candidates and the political process:

"Bob Roberts"


"The Contender"

"The Great McGinty" (Preston Sturges' comedy and highly recommended)

"The Last Hurrah"

"Advise and Consent"

"The Best Man"

"All the King's Men"


"The War Room"

"The Perfect Candidate"


"Fahrenheit 9/11"

Bios, Historical, and Real Life:

"Malcolm X"

"Give Em Hell Harry"



"Abe Lincoln in Illinois"

"Edward II"

"Richard III"



"Thirteen Days"

"Secret Honor"

Comedies and satires:

"Dr. Strangelove"

"Wag the Dog"


"Primary Colors"

"State of the Union"

"Duck Soup"

"American President"


"Great Man Votes"


"Inherit the Wind"

"Wild in the Streets"

"All the President’s Men"

"Billy Jack Goes to Washington"

"Citizen Kane"

"City Hall"

"Face in the Crowd"

"Fail Safe"

"Manchurian Candidate"


"Seduction of Joe Tynan"

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Avatar for user 'Missionaccomplished'

Missionaccomplished | October 28, 2010 at 12:14 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Hi, Beth. I think it is a constrictive view to define political films as such that they must be about formal politics or have an overt political statement. See Dan Peary's CULT MOVIES (Dell, 1981) for an excellent definition of political film Probably the best film on power-politics that I have seen is ELECTRA GLIDE IN BLUE--which most would not think of as political film. And THE GODFATHER has some political things to say which are also fact-based.

In the docu category I don't know WHY on earth you have Maher's smug resentful RELIGULOUS and not the devastating HEARTS AND MINDS or THE FOG OF WAR? And I would pick Gibney's more powerful TAXI TO THE DARK SIDE rather than Moore's self-congratulatory FARENHEIT.

You are also missing MISSING (pun intended) which says more about our sorry policies in Latin America than any other US film I can think of--UNDER SEIGE included.

FAIL-SAFE is a definate great choice which was all but lost in the hoopla of STRANGLOVE.

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Avatar for user 'Beth Accomando'

Beth Accomando, KPBS Staff | October 28, 2010 at 11:48 p.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Oh don't get me started on all the films I left out. The ones you mentioned are all good additions. There are a bunch more presidential bio pics, documentaries, satires, and one of my favorite groups -- paranoid thrillers like The Parallax View and Winter Kills. Then there are films that touch on politic issues like racism, gay rights, women's rights, the environment... well you get the idea. I had to stop somewhere. I know it's not a perfect list but I think it gives a sense of the diverse films out there to choose from.

But thank you for your excellent suggestions. Electra Glide in Blue is a film I have always liked and Robert Blake was great.

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Avatar for user 'jv333'

jv333 | November 1, 2010 at 9:27 a.m. ― 6 years, 5 months ago

Endorsing "Bob Roberts" .... I saw this 1992 film only recently and this terrific work written, directed and starring Tim Robbins was brilliantly prophetic about our last ten years of political history. On top of this, the music is excellent...also written by Robbins and his brother. Not to mention, the movie has a good mix of laughs and deadly serious moments. Cleverly done and highly recommended.

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