10 Political Films To Help You Through 2020
TCM host Ben Mankiewicz weighs in on selection
Thursday, November 5, 2020
With a pandemic, political unrest and a contentious presidential election that may not be fully decided for days if not longer, perhaps you need some escape. Here is a list of the 10 best Hollywood films about politics.
Back in 2016, on the eve of the last presidential election, TCM host Ben Mankiewicz spoke with me for my Cinema Junkie Podcast about the political films the cable channel was airing. I thought it was fitting to revisit some of those films this election year for both escape and commentary about American politics.
Mankiewicz gets to tap into more than just his movie expertise in discussing these films. His family ties make him the perfect person to look at the convergence of Hollywood and politics since his grandfather, Herman J. Mankiewicz, wrote "Citizen Kane"; his great-uncle, Joe Mankiewicz, wrote and directed "All About Eve"; and his father, Frank Mankiewicz, was Robert Kennedy’s press secretary.
Here are the films we discussed that remain relevant and insightful.
"The Last Hurrah" (1958)
John Ford's portrait of an old school politician in an unnamed (but likely meant to be Boston) city. Spencer Tracy plays the incumbent mayor running for re-election. The film is multi-layered and complex because Tracy makes Frank Skeffington warm and likable yet the film does not shy away from the corruption that helps get him elected.
"The Candidate" (1972)
Michael Ritchie's scathing political satire looks to an idealistic, Kennedy-like character, Bill McKay (Robert Redford), who is asked to run for U.S. Senate against an incumbent conservative candidate that is assured victory. He's told he can do whatever he wants because there is no way he can win. But politics has a way of corrupting even the best person and the film still resonates in its criticism of the political process and the role of advertising and the media. Redford gives one of his best performances and the film feels almost like a documentary at times. Although from today's vantage point it feels more hopeful than I think most people now may feel about politics.
"The Great McGinty" (1940)
Cynicism about politics is nothing new. Even back in 1940, when America was about to enter World War II and confidence in leadership was strong, writer-director Preston Sturges crafted this savage comedy about the corruption at the heart of American politics. The film has a brilliant cast and rapid-fire dialogue. My favorite line may be from William Demarest: "If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition, jellyfish!" Yes, despite all the cynicism, Sturges does maintain a slim faith in the humanity of his main character.
"Fail Safe" (1964)
Sidney Lumet's bleak tale of accidental nuclear war and a president who has to deal with the situation provides Mankiewicz with his favorite onscreen president in Henry Fonda. The film is claustrophobic and tense and allows us to consider what we would want in a leader at a time of crisis. Just consider Fonda's handling of potential nuclear holocaust and think about how our current president might behave. Just food for thought and you could pair this with the documentary "#UNFIT" for a dose of reality.
"Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964)
Mankiewicz suggests "Fail Safe" and "Dr. Strangelove" for a double bill since both films came out in 1964 and both deal with potential nuclear war but in radically different ways. "Fail Safe" was somber and serious whereas "Dr. Strangelove" approaches the same themes through farce and satire. Stanley Kubrick's film remains as potent today as it was in 1964 and captures the absurdity of politics, war, and the capacity of people to just be stupid. This film is sheer perfection from the black and white photography to the pitch-perfect casting (especially noteworthy are George C. Scott, Peter Sellers in three roles, and Sterling Hayden).
My additional picks for this presidential election:
"Bob Roberts" (1992)
Just watched this film again and it proves surprisingly accurate in predicting some things about the current political landscape. Tim Robbins writes, stars, and directs this satire on a right-wing folk singer who runs for U.S. Senate against a liberal, long-time incumbent (played to perfection by Gore Vidal). Roberts is happy to use smear tactics, dirty tricks, and anything else he can muster to win. His crazed and devoted fan base may strike some as prescient in predicting some of Trump's core supporters. This film seemed absurd in 1992 and now it seems like it did not go far enough in predicting where politics would be in the new millennium. Look for a host of cameos in small supporting roles.
Mike Judge of "Beavis and Butthead" fame crafted this ridiculous comedy that now doesn't seem that absurd. It's essentially about the dumbing down of America and sometimes you laugh and then you realize there are some sad truths in the comedy.
"Tanner '88" (1988)
Robert Altman's mini-series gives a behind-the-scenes look at a former U.S. representative's campaign as he vies for his party's presidential nomination. Altman had his star, Michael Murphy, interact with real politicians as he hit the campaign trail in what was almost like a real campaign. Altman mixes cynicism with occasional moments of hope as well as genuine insights into modern politics.
Although not about politics as we generally think of it, Alexander Payne's comic look at a high school election provides a painfully funny look at some of the worst qualities human beings can display. The laughs come at a brutal cost but this film is just so wickedly good. Reese Witherspoon has never been better than as the ruthlessly ambitious Tracy Flick and Matthew Broderick is pathetically hilarious as the well-intentioned but woefully mismatched nemesis to Flick. Again, another film dripping with cynicism.
"Mr. Smith Goes To Washington" (1939)
I did not want to leave you with all doom and gloom and lack of faith in your fellow man, so make sure to also include Frank Capra's comedy-drama about a wide-eyed junior senator (the wonderful James Stewart) coming into conflict with the real world of Washington, DC politics. Jean Arthur shines as his weary, jaded and wisecracking secretary. Capra is not blind to the evils of the world but he maintains that goodness and morality will triumph. He believes America is truly a great country and the values it is founded on are inspirational and worth remembering. Do yourself a favor and watch this to uplift your spirits.
And a bonus, non-American pick is "Thick of It" and its feature film companion "In the Loop." Armando Iannucci's absolutely stellar and hilarious look at British politics. Watch is only for Peter Capaldi's Malcolm Tucker, a man who can use obscenity like no one else and who can tear people down with just a few choice words. One character says of Malcolm: "Yeah. I don't know which is worse, watching him slowly rumble towards you like a prostate cancer or him appearing suddenly out of nowhere like a severe stroke." Genius.
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