Last week I was flipping through the channels on TV when I came across Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention. I thought I’d stick around until it got stale and typical, but instead found my self glued to the tube for 45 minutes! After it was over, I realized: This is the kind of speech that you only see in the movies. You know the kind I’m talking about—where the fictional candidate says all the stuff you wish a real candidate for office would say and cuts through all the usual BS. Well, Obama certainly did that last Thursday, and it got me thinking about my favorite political movies. Next week we’ll have another user-submitted Top 10. If you have a Top 10 idea of your own and are ready to make the jump into writing one, email me at email@example.com. We’ve had two so far and they both kicked ass. By the way, they are really fun to write. Anyway, I’m noticing most of my choices are satirical (which may say something about my opinion of modern politics), so no “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” or “Dave,” and also this list excludes documentaries because that’s a whole different species. So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Political Movies.
10. Bob Roberts (1992)
Tim Robbins’ uneven but funny directorial debut gave him a chance to get all Stephen Colbert before Stephen Colbert did. The notorious Hollywood liberal cast himself as the exact opposite—a right wing conservative—in this movie, which he also wrote (based on a sketch he did for “Saturday Night Live” in 1986.) Being a big fan of “This is Spinal Tap” (and even referencing it directly in the movie when Roberts gets lost backstage), Robbins shot the film in the now-common mockumentary style. His plain-speakin’ folk singer running for Senate is against drug use and rebelliousness and pretty much everything early folkie Bob Dylan stood for, which makes him the most dangerous kind of conservative—one who masquerades as being “down with the kids,” but in reality is against every progressive idea there is. It’s a little hard to swallow sometimes, but Roberts’ songs are scarily believable and the cameos by every actor in town are fun. The movie also contains one of Jack Black’s earliest roles, as a Roberts stalkerazzi.
9. The Candidate (1972)
This one involves another Senate race, and for an actor as popular as Robert Redford at this time period, it was a pretty big risk for him to play such a jerk. He is perfect for the film, though, because at first any audience is going to root for Redford as Bill McKay, a candidate who sells out all of his own political ideals to win as many votes as possible. As an indictment of the election process, “The Candidate” is right on, especially since its writer Jeremy Larner was employed as a speechwriter on Eugene McCarthy’s unsuccessful 1968 bid to be the Democratic presidential nominee (he lost to Hubert Humphrey). Meant as a warning that spotlights the corruptive influences of elections, this satire was all lost on one future vice president. Clueless George H.W. Bush VP Dan Quayle apparently didn’t realize the movie wasn’t celebrating its pretty-boy lead character’s choices and admitted that the film was an inspiration to him. During the 1988 elections, Larner wrote an op-ed for the New York Times, saying, “Mr. Quayle, this was not a how-to movie, it was a watch-out movie. And you are what we should be watching out for!”
8. Gabriel Over the White House (1933)
Produced by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst and directed by Gregory La Cava (who also helmed the sparkling 1936 forgotten-man comedy “My Man Godfrey”), this movie makes the list because of its pure strangeness. I honestly can’t believe it ever got made. Walter Huston plays a U.S. President who is possessed by the Archangel Gabriel and begins to run the country as an authoritarian state, convincing Congress to give him complete executive power. Through his dictatorship, the President restores a stable economy, gets rid of crime, and secures nothing less than world peace. He repeals Prohibition and opens government liquor stores, executes gangsters without a full trial, and generally operates as a divine force that doesn’t need the government’s intended system of checks and balances (sound familiar?). Supposedly, Hearst meant the film as a textbook to FDR for his presidency during the Great Depression and Roosevelt even suggested changes to early scripts.
7. Wag the Dog (1997)
Just one month before the Monica Lewinsky story broke, this Barry Levinson satire was released. President Bill Clinton must have thought that screenwriter David Mamet knew something no one else knew, because Robert De Niro plays a Washington spin doctor who wants to distract the country from a presidential sex scandal. Dustin Hoffman plays the Hollywood producer that De Niro hires to create a “war” with Albania. Although the book it was based on clearly set the events during the George H.W. Bush presidency, the movie never names its sitting president. The movie took on added relevance when the White House launched a pair of missile strikes against suspected terrorist targets in Sudan and Afghanistan just three days after Clinton admitted in a nationally televised address that he had an “inappropriate relationship” with Lewinsky. All of a sudden, the premise of the film didn’t seem so far-fetched anymore. Doing his part to keep the movie based on fact, Hoffman modeled his character on “Chinatown” producer Robert Evans, who later would get his own movie—a documentary called “The Kid Stays in the Picture.”
6. Being There (1979)
Peter Sellers plays a simple, middle-aged gardener who knows only what he sees on his TV. After the death of his rich benefactor, he ventures out of his house for the first time and gets hit by a car driven by the U.S. president’s advisor. Before there was “Forrest Gump,” Chauncey Gardiner, as he is referred to due to a misunderstood dinner conversation, won America’s hearts in a less obviously comic and annoying fashion. He begins an unlikely ascent into insider Washington society, where his simple wisdom resonates with a crowd that seems trapped in their own introverted little world. Whenever he says something, it’s taken as a profound statement and he soon becomes a popular fixture on talk shows and at high society parties. What’s really happening is that the politicians are essentially putting whatever meaning they need to behind any number of generalities spoken by Chance. Sellers downplays everything in this film, the last movie he starred in to be released during his lifetime. Directed by Hal Ashby (“Harold and Maude,” “The Last Detail”), “Being There” also has a much-debated ending that seems to undermine the supposed randomness of Chance’s fate. See it for yourself and decide.
5. Duck Soup (1933)
The last film released by the Marx Brothers under the Paramount studio is also their best. The title was slang for “something that’s easy to do,” and in this case it refers to running a country and starting a war. Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) is appointed head of a small, bankrupt country called Freedonia who almost immediately declares war. A ridiculous send-up production number called “We’re Going to War” follows. There may not be any grand statement that adds up to much here, but there sure are a ton of little ones that whiz by during the movie’s short running time (about 68 minutes). The Marx Brothers anarchic disregard for all things political make this a more cynical movie than most of their catalog, and an easy one to laugh at these days. Perhaps the non-stop ribbing of a Marx Brothers comedy was too much for audiences to take when it originally came out. The film wasn’t exactly a flop, but it wasn’t the gigantic hit that was expected, coming off the heels of the boys’ previous monster hit, “Horse Feathers.”
4. Bulworth (1998)
Warren Beatty scored an Oscar nomination for writing this bizarre political satire where a liberal U.S. Senator (played by Beatty) takes a hit out on himself after selling out his core beliefs to get elected (see also #9 on this list). In 1998, everything was all about “family values,” and Bulworth goes right along with it in his ad campaigns, despite a wife that loathes him and vice versa. Miraculously, this frees up the senator to speak as freely as he wants to and, knowing his death is imminent, he starts to really have some fun. Of course, this is much to the chagrin of and at the expense of “big insurance” and other companies that have invested a lot of money in their candidate, provided he represents them well. The movie took a lot of flak at the time for Beatty’s apparent romance with a way younger character, played by Halle Berry, but it’s the point of the entire film. Without these old, stuck-in-their-ways politicians opening themselves up to new, younger viewpoints, the political system is stale and represents nobody. Did I mention that watching Beatty alienate all the people he’s not supposed to at every campaign stop is really funny? Not to mention the fact that he’s constantly trying to outrun the hitman he himslef hired. He also becomes obssessed with hip-hop subculture and begins to rap very poorly in public, culminating with a live CNN interview in which he looks ridiculous with a stocking cap, sunglasses, and long shorts and says “All we need is a voluntary, free-spirited, open-ended program of procreative racial deconstruction. Everybody just gotta keep f#*kin’ everybody ’til they’re all the same color.” Wow.
3. All the President’s Men (1976)
This movie is absolutely riveting, which is all the crazier considering everyone knows how it’s going to end anyway. Based on the book by Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), it chronicles the duo’s investigative reporting on the Watergate scandal, which brought down the Nixon administration. (Remember when people actually cared about stuff that mattered and an important scandal could actually do that?) It doesn’t necessarily follow politicians through their daily rounds like some of the movies on this list, but it’s almost more interesting to get these rare glimpses into a world we’re not supposed to see. The presidential abuse of power has never been documented this well, and the thrill of discovery is only more potent knowing that it all actually happened. Unlike the book it was based on, the movie only depicts the first seven months of the investigation—a shrewd move that allows director Alan J. Pakula to concentrate on the fast and the furious section of new developments and anonymous sources (such as Deep Throat, who I always previously associated with Hal Holbrook, and now we all know was actually former FBI associate director W. Mark Felt.) and not the slow, eventual political fallout.
2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Angela Lansbury as a cold-blooded, manipulative, powermad woman who turns her son into a brainwashed killer? Sign me up! This movie is about as far as you can get from Lansbury’s most famous role on octogenarian TV classic “Murder, She Wrote.” No—here, she manipulates the political system for her and her family’s own gain with the help of deep-rooted hypnosis and her own conscience-free ability to knock off anyone who gets in the way. Director John Frankenheimer took chances with his surrealistic storytelling, but the release of the movie also proved to be quite risky, coming as it did at the height of the Cuban Missle Crisis. Lansbury’s husband in “The Manchurian Candidate” is modeled after Red-baiting Senator Joseph McCarthy, which is all the more ironic considering that their characters in the movie are actually Communist agents themselves who are hell bent on landing the senator in the White House. The idea that all that anti-Commie blustery is coming from those who actually support the cause is pretty insane, but it’s a pretty direct criticism that was way ahead of its time. Ignore the senseless Jonathan Demme remake/update with Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington. This one is far superior as a suspense movie and political satire. It doesn’t need to be set in modern times to be scary and relevant.
1. Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
One of my favorite movies of all time, and one that will never be irrelevant as long as men in power love shooting off their big guns and dropping big bombs, Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece is as funny today as it was painful in 1964. Equating all warlike urges to the act of sex (check out the photo for the movie’s most famous visual metaphor), Kubrick also reduced military commanders and presidential advisors to incredibly silly heights (one who becomes obssessed with preserving our “precious bodily fluids” while he’s in the act and another whose has a Tourette’s-style ”sieg heil!” reflex). In fact, there’s hardly any women at all in “Dr. Strangelove;” the sole woman is the mistress and secretary of George C. Scott’s general. Thankfully, that’s the one comment that today seems pretty outdated. Peter Sellers plays three roles: the mysterious title character, a helpless RAF captain, and U.S. President Merkin Muffley; and if you didn’t know it ahead of time, you’d be hard pressed to tell it was the same person. Black comedies don’t get much better than this, and rarely is it such a rewarding experience to poke fun at our leaders and remind us that things could be a lot worse. The U.S.-Soviet Cold war may have thawed, but the threat of “mutaully assured destruction” still exists, so this movie will (unfortunately for the fate of the world) never be a relic. Sometimes ya just gotta laugh.