The Top 10 Political Movies

October 22, 2008

The presidential elections are almost upon us, and what better time to do a round-up of the best political movies around. As we boot the bums living in the White House out and usher in the next bandwagon of suits, the movies that best parodied or reflected the political reality of their times are the ones we go to now. They say you should never talk politics or religion unless you’re looking to get into a fight, but they never said nothin’ about talking politics in movies. So without further ado, here are our 10 favorite movies about politics.

10. Bulworth


This extremely strange political comedy takes weirdness up a few notches. Warren Beatty (who wrote, directed and starred in it) plays a liberal senator up for re-election, and he’s taken a hit out on himself so that his family can cash in on the life insurance. Realizing that he can now say whatever he feels like, he does so, and in the form of rapping. While his rapping admittedly gets really old really fast, Beatty definitely takes a risk with this film in speaking his mind the way he wants – just like the character he plays. This was also, for better or worse, the film that put Halle Berry on the map.

9. Wag the Dog


Whoever said Robert De Niro couldn’t be funny probably didn’t watch Wag the Dog. De Niro plays Conrad Brean, part of the president’s administration, and the man responsible for helping his president win an election – despite the scandal he’s become embroiled in after fondling a Girl Scout. He hires Hollywood producer Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman) to help him concoct a fake war in Albania to help distract the American public from thinking about how much they hate the president. Hmmm…why does this sound so familiar? One of director Barry Levinson’s better films, this political parody is still relevant eleven years later.

8. The Candidate


Robert Redford proved he had a knack for political films back in the '70s, and The Candidate is definitely one of the best around. Redford plays liberal lawyer Bill McKay, who gets approached by the Democratic political machine to challenge the Republican incumbent Senator for his seat in California. While at first he’s faithful to the issues he cares about and the causes he stands for, once it becomes apparent he actually has a chance at success his integrity starts to give way to the sweet siren song of power and glory. Redford expertly handles the absurdities and indignities that modern political competition entail, and he gives another one of his great performances from the '70s.

7. The American President


Rob Reiner directed The American President, which in my book is reason enough to see it. Despite some of the cheesier aspects of what is basically a high-falutin’ romantic comedy (emphasis on romantic), Michael Douglas and Annette Bening turn in solid performances, as do Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox. While this movie might not provide the most realistic depiction ever of life behind the Oval Office doors, it’s a nice little window into the political world of the '90s – and a reminder that the Clinton administration really defined that entire decade. Back then movies about the White House and politics weren’t in general as dark as they’ve become today. It’s crazy what an economy that’s not in a depression and entangled in two wars will do for a filmmaker’s world view.

6. The Manchurian Candidate


After Raymond Shaw returns from the Korean War with the Congressional Medal of Honor, two members of his platoon have disturbing dreams that suggest Shaw didn’t actually earn his medal. The dreams lead to an investigation of conspiracy that threatens to submerge Shaw’s mother and senator husband. This movie’s disturbing implications about our government and the wars it becomes involved in has remained with us to this day, and The Manchurian Candidate was even remade in 2004, starring Denzel Washington. If you’re not big on oldies, check out director Jonathan Demme’s remake.

 5. W.


Oliver Stone is certainly no stranger to the landscape of political films. The director of Platoon, Wall Street, JFK, Nixon and World Trade Center, he’s never been afraid to grapple with timely issues others deemed taboo. And seeing as it’s a couple months yet before the Bush administration packs up and heads out of the White House, releasing W. in October was a ballsy move.

That said, W. is one of Stone’s more moderate films. George W. Bush is not painted as a bloodthirsty megalomaniac, but rather the wounded prodigal son who spends his entire life trying to get back in his father’s good graces. He’s never the smartest or wisest or most talented man in the room, but neither is he the warmongering buffoon he’s frequently been made out to be.

The only problem with Stone’s portrayal of the president – its accuracy notwithstanding – is that, during the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression and one of the most unpopular wars in the last half-century, most Americans don’t hunger for a sympathetic picture of the man who’s headed the country in this direction. It’s highly likely W. will receive the praise it deserves in another four to eight years.

4. All the President’s Men


Robert Redford plays renowned journalist Bob Woodward in All the President’s Men, and Dustin Hoffman plays Carl Bernstein. The two journalists at the Washington Post first broke the Watergate scandal in 1972. The film resonated with audiences in 1976 as people realized, perhaps for the first time, the degree to which the government and its executives would lie to them in order to retain power. Redford and Hoffman made a good team, and audiences thrilled to see how what was possibly the biggest political scandal of the 20th century was uncovered. Nixon’s downfall became our entertainment – if you haven’t seen this movie yet, see it now.

3. JFK


Oliver Stone’s JFK may not be the most accurate explanation of the conspiracy behind president John F. Kennedy’s assassination, but it’s probably the most entertaining, and it’s definitely – seventeen years later – still the best narrative feature film on the subject.

Kevin Costner plays Jim Garrison, head of the investigation into JFK’s assassination. Stone comes to conclusions that I, as a layman, am not about to validate or refute, but he paints a large enough conspiracy picture that there’s a little something for everyone: the Cuban mob, the CIA, the armed forces, and the not-so-closeted J. Edgar Hoover all get a piece of the blame in this film. After you watch this movie you’ll be one of those guys who rattle off conspiracy theory facts and sounds a lot more informed than they probably are. To watch this movie is to get hooked on history. Do it.

2. Election


While not about real American politics, director Alexander Payne’s Election is one of the best recent film satires on American politics, youth culture and married life. The movie also features some of the funniest performances you will ever see from Matthew Broderick (who, ironically, a decade after his success in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off now plays a high school teacher), Reese Witherspoon and Chris Klein. I’m not a big fan of any of these actors, but all three of them are hilarious in Election.

Paul Metzler, Klein’s character, a football hero at his high school, breaks his leg and decides to compete against Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), a high-strung girl who’s spent her life making sure she gets elected class president and gains acceptance to Georgetown. But after Flick has an affair that goes pathetically wrong for Jim McAllister’s (Broderick) best friend, and after suffering the obnoxiousness of Flick for four years, McAllister wants nothing more than for her to crash and burn.

Regardless of whether or not you have any interest in politics whatsoever, this film is one of the funniest indictments of American culture filmed in the last twenty years. Be good to yourself and watch this movie if you haven’t already.

1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb


There’s a reason that 44 years after Stanley Kubrick made this masterpiece people still talk about it. And it’s because this movie is a masterpiece. Kubrick directed and co-wrote this movie, and Peter Sellers played three of the main characters: President Merkin Muffley, Captain Lionel Mandrake, and the mad German Dr. Strangelove.

A lot of people might take one look at this movie and say that "it’s old, it’s in black and white, and I’ve never heard of these Kubrick and Sellers guys." To which I would respond that it may be old, but it’s still hilarious; the black and white doesn’t make it any less funny (if anything it makes it more) and shame on you. Don’t ever admit in public you haven’t heard of Kubrick or Sellers.

After the insane General Jack D. Ripper (get it?) scrambles a squadron of bombers to drop nuclear bombs on Russian targets, President Muffley has to deal with situation to prevent a world war that will wipe out the planet. Unfortunately, the Russian premiere is batshit crazy, and the only man who seems to know what to do is an ex-Nazi adviser, Dr. Strangelove, whose indomitable loyalty to Hitler is betrayed by his demonic, gloved right hand. Sellers is side-splittingly funny as Strangelove, and you wouldn’t know he also plays Mandrake and the president if you weren’t already familiar with Sellers’ face. This comedy really is like a fine wine: it gets better with age. Political or no, this is one of the best comedies of the past century. Watch it if only for all the one-liners you’ll be able to quote and embarrass your friends with when they admit they don’t know what it’s from.