Wednesday, October 17, 2012

The Best Political Movies

So “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” was on cable early this morning – I had to watch it, Stewart is just terrific in it. But it got me thinking about the best movies about campaigns or politics I have seen. So I had to do the inevitable Top Ten thing. As I was thinking about the movies, it struck me that many on my list were not so much about campaigns but about unscrupulous activities related to gaining power, or influencing elections.

So, here they are in no particular order.

“All The President’s Men” - This is a terrific film and regardless of how many times I have seen it and that I know how it ends, it is spellbinding. I watch fascinated as Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) unravel the mysteries behind the Watergate break-in and cover up.

“The Candidate” – Redford is in this one too, as the idealistic candidate for U.S. Senate who is not supposed to win, but does. The great line at the end of the movie: Redford asks campaign manager Peter Boyle, after having won, “What do we do now?”
“Bulworth’ – Warren Beatty is terrific as the incumbent Senate candidate who is losing but then sort of goes off the deep end, gets drunk, speaks his mind and even raps. He becomes a media darling and his campaign seems to turn around.

“The Parallax View” – this also has Beatty as a journalist investigating a shadowy company called the Parallax Corporation. This is a political thriller about secret companies, organizations, and political assassination. This is one where you don’t know who the good guys or the bad guys are – nor does Beatty. Interestingly, this was directed by Alan Pakula who also directed “All the President’s Men”.

“Wag The Dog” – in this Dustin Hoffman also takes another turn on the List. He plays a Hollywood Producer who is charged by a Washington DC political operative to produce a war in Albania which doesn’t exist – it is all done with smoke and mirrors and a country song. The President’s reelection is in jeopardy because of a sex scandal, the ‘movie’ war is designed to distract voters from the scandal.

‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” – Jimmy Stewart as the idealistic head of the ‘Boy Rangers’ is appointed to fill a vacant US Senate seat. The theory is that the corrupt political bosses will be able to control him and follow through with a land and water deal that will make them money. It is full of great character actors including Guy Kibbee, Edward Arnold, Thomas Mitchell and Harry Carey. It also has the wonderful Jean Arthur. The filibuster scene is one of Stewart’s best, and of course it was directed by the master, Frank Capra.

‘All The Kings Men” (the original) – Broderick Crawford plays Willie Stark, a rough around the edges, rural populist who runs for governor railing against the corrupt interests. He wins, but then becomes just as corrupt as those he ran against. This is the best thing Crawford ever did, except perhaps for saying 10-4 repeatedly on Highway Patrol.

“Frost/Nixon” – I saw the play in London some years ago and was just astounded. Frank Langella as Nixon was the very embodiment of the disgraced President. The play was then made into a motion picture with Langella reprising Nixon. It is about the famous interviews, and the circumstances around putting them together, that David Frost did with Richard Nixon about his presidency, in particular the Watergate scandal. This is the second Watergate film on the list.

“The Best Man” – Henry Fonda against Cliff Robertson for the Presidency: idealist against win at any cost candidate. It is based on a Gore Vidal play. Vidal wrote the screenplay as well.

“The Manchurian Candidate” – Frank Sinatra has recurring nightmares about something that happened while he was fighting in Korea. It turns out that he and the rest of his unit had been captured, taken to China where they were brainwashed. The goal: to turn one of the men in the unit into a war hero (Congressional Medal of Honor) and a political assassin. His mother, played terrifically by Angela Lansbury, is the communist agent who is to be his controller. She did not know that it was her son that they were going make into the assassin. She is married to a buffoon-like Senator (patterned after Joe McCarthy and played by James Gregory) who rails on about communists in the State Department and is to be nominated as the Vice-Presidential candidate. The plan is that after the nomination is made, Harvey will kill the Presidential candidate with a rifle as he sits on the stage and Lansbury’s husband will become President in light of the tragedy. The Russians will own the American President. It falls to Sinatra to sort all this out and try to prevent the assassination. The film was also remade in 2004.

7 Days in May – I just love this film: big cast, with lots of name actors, a terrific plot and in glorious black and white. Kirk Douglas, a Marine officer working in the Pentagon uncovers what he thinks may be a plot by his friend, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – one William Mattoon Scot (what a terrific name), played evilly by Burt Lancaster - and some right-wing political types to overthrow the government. The plot unfolds over seven days in May, thus the title. The film, another political thriller, is based on a novel by Fletcher Kneibel and Charles Bailey.

Those two also wrote another political novel titled “The Dark Horse”, about an obscure highway commissioner from New Jersey, who is tapped by party bosses to run for President. They believe that their party has no hope of winning that year and they don’t want to use up one of their political bright lights in a failed campaign. Better to send someone else to the wolves and get ready for next time. The dark horse candidate knows that he is the sacrificial lamb and goes about campaigning as if he has nothing to lose, says what he wants and enjoys the process. Then all of a sudden, he starts to rise in the polls and it looks like he might actually have a shot at winning.

So, okay, the list is not ten, it is eleven. But hey, in this political year, numbers don’t seem to matter anyway.

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