Politics are never more cinematic than the months prior to a presidential election. The two contenders, having been set up for a showdown, meet in a series of staged skirmishes before the final battle in which only one can be victorious.There are false dawns, the rising under- estimated contender, and, as we may have seen with September’s jobs data, October surprises. It all ends with a party where the winner kisses the girl and triumphant music plays us out.
For this reason, politics and movies can be a natural fit, encompassing both the most tried and true sports movie cliché’s with the verbal thrust of a court room drama.
But Hollywood can also show the darker side of the legislative process. For every underdog that challenges the system and wins, there are 20 Fausts selling their soul for power, and Hollywood loves corruption every bit as much as redemption.
As we head into the climax of this election season, TFT takes a look at 17 of the best political films that still ring true today both in their ability to inspire our civic pride and to rattle our faith in the system.
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Many films on this list are cynical, so it's equally important to show the ideal. Though often thought of as syrupy and cloying, this film (much like Capra and Stewart's OTHER famous collaboration 'It's A Wonderful Life') is actually far darker than its reputation. Yes, the little guy triumphs over the political machine…but it's an ugly road to get there.
If 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' embodies the American idea that an everyman can stand up to the political machine, then this film is it's dark mirror…showing that that machine will in fact corrupt every decent man it touches.
The U.S. Congress, deadlocked by partisan infighting, refuses to confirm a presidential nominee. Political candidates are embarrassed by associations from their youth and past sexual indiscretions, while backroom deals and blackmail are used to promote agendas. You might be surprised to learn that this is not a description of our current government lawmakers, but rather this 1962 political potboiler. Mr. Decency himself, Henry Fonda, is the potential Secretary of State with communist associations, proving that in politics some things never change.
Forget all those years of 'Murder She Wrote,' Angela Lansbury is the most evil person in the world in this classic paranoid thriller. Rattled Korean War vet Frank Sinatra can't help but feel there is something wrong with the war hero formerly under his command. All of which leads back to a plot by the communists to put a puppet in the White House. Thrilling, trippy, tremendously compelling and just awesome…if you haven't seen this…you owe it to yourself.
Though also one of the greatest Westerns of the classic era, Liberty Valance is at heart about myth making in America. As politician Jimmy Stewart recounts his road to public office; he must also deal with the dark secret that the act of heroism upon which he built his career (see the title) was actually performed by another man (John Wayne, of course)…the film ends with both an indictment and a praise of political journalism, 'When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.'
The gold standard of cold-hearted political satire. While Peter Sellers' three roles are all rightfully praised, for me the real standout is 50's cop movie tough-guy Sterling Hayden. He shows an outstanding sense of humour as the bodily fluid obsessed general that drives the conflict.
If 'All The Kings Men' was the greatest generation wrestling with the unavoidable cynicism that comes with politics, then 'The Candidate' was the film that saw the boomers moving from their idealistic youth to a place of disenchantment. Pretty-boy idealist Robert Redford finds that the more he speaks in generalities the greater his popularity. When this proves a winning strategy, the idealist is left clueless as to how to use the power he has won.
Though the direction and the stellar cast deserve all of the plaudits they receive, the real star of this 70's political true-to-life thriller is the script by screenwriting legend William Goldman. Goldman somehow manages to take the convoluted and murky story of the Watergate break in, the cover up, and the journalistic investigation by Woodward and Bernstein and pack it all into a seamless, breakneck 138 minute film that stands as the best newspaper movie ever.
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