There are some wonderful idealistic films about American politics, warm with optimism and belief in Washington’s system. None of them resemble this election season.
Yet for a presidential campaign that has felt more like “Mad Max: Fury Road” than “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” there are still plenty of films that suit the moment and may just offer a desperately needed break from television news in the final days before Tuesday.
There are a lot of ways one could program a pre-election movie night, some of them drawn along party lines. Supporters of Hillary Clinton, for instance, might enjoy screening Mike Judge’s prescient “Idiocracy” or, to see a less-than-presidential cameo from Donald Trump, Ben Stiller’s “Zoolander.” Voters for Trump, on the other hand, might want to, with tongues in cheek, turn on “You’ve Got Mail.”
But before the real ballots are in, let’s cast votes for 10 of the best political films, many of which shine all the brighter with relevance these days:
- “Weiner.” In many ways the movie of the year is Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s documentary about Anthony Weiner, the woebegone former New York congressman who has proven an unexpectedly central figure ahead of the election. “Weiner” chronicles his initially promising but ultimately doomed 2013 mayoral campaign, with his wife and top Clinton aide, Huma Abedin, by his side. Beware: This is politics as horror film. Watch with your eyes half-covered.
- “A Face in the Crowd.” Elia Kazan’s 1957 classic about a populist fraud has proven salient in more elections than one. In arguably his greatest performance, Andy Griffith stars as an Arkansas drifter, Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, who rises from a small radio station to great heights of national television and power, only to be brought down by his womanizing and disgust for common people. “I’m not just an entertainer,” he declares. “I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force!”
- “Election.” An ambitious, uber-prepared blonde woman running for president is nearly thwarted by those who innately detest her. No, Reese Witherspoon’s high school president-to-be Tracy Flick isn’t Clinton. But in Alexander Payne’s darkly comic satire, there are some similarities between the two, and the extreme reactions they provoke.
- “All the President’s Men.” The keystrokes are sounded with the oomph of cannon blasts in Alan Pakula’s Fourth Estate classic, with Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. The excellent “Spotlight” drew deserved comparisons to this 1976 film, but “All the President’s Men” reigns supreme as a procedural portrait of journalism and American democracy.
- “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.” Who should have their finger on the button? In Stanley Kubrick’s classic farce, not only were the fears of nuclear command and control satirically undressed, so was a war-crazy, sex-obsessed all-male government.
- “Bulworth.” Warren Beatty is now returning with his first film as writer-director since this 1998 comedy. Still fresh today, it’s about a disillusioned California senator (Beatty) who, with plans to commit suicide, decides to tell the truth. The political system, as if coming in contact with a toxic foreign substance for the first time, recoils in disgust.
- “Advise and Consent.” The title, pulled from the clause in the Constitution, refers to the nomination process of Supreme Court judges and other president-appointed positions. Otto Preminger’s dense and dark 1962 film set on Capitol Hill is about a Secretary of State nominee (Henry Fonda) with a hidden past. Of course, Congress’s advising and consenting of such positions, like Supreme Court judges, has ever since gone absolutely smoothly and has had little bearing on the election. OK, maybe not.
- “In the Loop.” Before there was “Veep,” there was “In the Loop” (and the equally sharp BBC series “The Thick of It”). No one has pulled back the curtain on politics quite like Armando Iannucci, whose foul-mouthed, aide-surrounded officials sway — comically, desperately — with the winds of daily news cycles.
- “Lincoln.” The biopic-like title, in a way, distracts from the point of Steven Spielberg’s 2012 drama. No other film has more fully captured the dirty, horse-trading business of the legislative process, in all its colorful and compromising sweep. To get anything done, a politician must say one thing to one set of people, and another to another set. “Two-faced,” that common slur of elected officials, is the nature of the business.
- “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” There’s perhaps no greater political truth in all of movies than that famous line from John Ford’s 1962 film: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ford’s film was a Western, the genre in which we work out what America is, plus horses. In “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” a more complicated truth lies behind the rise of James Stewart’s respected senator. The newspaper of the film might not print it, but Ford does.
Honorable mentions: “Wag the Dog,” “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Milk,” “Charlie Wilson’s War,” “The Great McGinty,” “No.”