There May Be Honor Among Thieves, But There's None In Politicians: Our Favorite Political Films
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There May Be Honor Among Thieves, But There's None In Politicians: Our Favorite Political Films

By TK | Guides | October 10, 2012 | Comments ()

Election 2.jpeg

As we edge closer to another Election Day, a day that some will have you believe is the most important day in our republic's history, and some believe is just another day, one can't help but reflect on the concept of politics in general. Politicians are a strange breed of people -- some are self-aggrandizing bastards, some are genuinely selfless idealists, some are flat-out sociopaths, and most are somewhere in-between.

It's those dichotomies that make films about politics so compelling. It allows us to see the extremes without suffering the consequences, and thereby perhaps explore our own views a little more deeply. A well done political film can be utterly and completely engaging, compelling, and often a little terrifying. But here at Pajiba we love our political movies, just like we love our politics. So with that said, here are the staff picks for Our Favorite Political Films:

Dave (1993) has an absolute charm to it that never pales, even as the idealism of politics fades. Dave is an ordinary guy that happens to look like the president of the United States, and so is asked to stand in for the president at a function, but when the president falls into a coma, Dave must assume the role indefinitely, and most importantly -- keep it a secret. What a cast! Kevin Kline, Frank Langella, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Charles Grodin? Amazing. Kevin Kline as Dave is the perfect mixture of goofy and wonderful, charming and effortless, sensible and kind, the sort of man that everyone wishes could be president. His ardent attempts to repair the country and the relationship between the president and his wife are so enjoyable to watch, this film is a must-see simply because they don't make 'em like this anymore.

Dave has it all, goofy mix-ups, heartfelt romance and plenty of attempts to do the right thing in politics. Dated and borderline ridiculous at times, yes, but Dave remains magical and a real lesson in character, acting and the power of an individual in the right place and time. Check out Bonnie Hunt in the role of a White House tour guide ("We're walking, we're walking...") and Sigourney Weaver singing "Tomorrow." --Amanda Mae Meyncke

Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939): Truth be told, I don't usually seek out political films, but when asked to pick a favorite there is no contest. Give me Jimmy Stewart's Jefferson Smith, or give me death. Frank Capra presents us this wonderfully earnest slant on government, even as he delves into its corruption. From the sweet Boy Ranger who gives him a new briefcase to carry to Washington, to secretary Clarissa (the magnificent Jean Arthur), who must coach her boss through the Senate process, no one can resist Smith's naive charm. Not even Claude Rains' dirty Senator Paine can go through with his dastardly plan when faced with the idealistic, enthusiastic, thoroughly delightful Mr. Smith. I could listen to this filibuster scene on a loop all day. --Cindy Davis

The Contender (2000): I fell in love with Joan Allen when I saw The Contender, because she, like Martin Sheen's Jed Bartlett, felt like what I wanted in a politician, even if it's rarely what we actually get. The great political films should either force you to question authority, or inspire you, and The Contender does both. Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman get a ton of credit for their performances in this film, and they absolutely deserve those accolades. Bridges is the stalwart defender, a noble man surrounded by a collection of clean and dirty fighters and little distinction between the two. Oldman is brilliant as the self-righteous, misogynistic senator who ignores not just the rule of law in his single-minded pursuit, but the very rule of the God he supports so steadfastly. But Allen (who lost the Academy Awards to Julia friggin' Roberts that year) is a stunning, rock-solid, unflinching and uncompromising force in the film, the kind of woman you want your daughter to become. In the midst of a torrent of vulgar accusations, she defends herself not by addressing the accusations, but by affirming their irrelevance and instead focusing on her character.

The film is particularly relevant today as we see women's issues coming to the forefront of American politics, and witness women's rights hanging so precariously before us. The Contender is more than a political movie, it's a clear statement of everything that is so wonderfully right and what is so terribly wrong with our country. One final note: Jeff Bridges gets a great deal of credit for his fiery speech at the film's climax, but the film's true most powerful moment is Vice Presidential nominee Laine Hanson's statement before Congress where she stands unwavering before them, a minute and forty-eight seconds of quiet, solemn strength and honesty. --TK

Election (1999): In May of 1999, The Matrix had been out in U.S. theaters for well over a month and I had yet to see it. Perhaps due to a residual Phantom Menace hangover, my 16 year-old self was in no mood for more sci-fi shenanigans. Finally, after every single person I knew told me what I was missing, I went up to the local multiplex to buy a ticket for a Sunday mid-afternoon screening. But even seven weeks after its release, The Matrix was still sold out. I could have simply waited until the next show, but there was a much smaller movie that I was far more excited to see that was just about to start. That movie was Election, starring a young Reese Witherspoon, an old Matthew Broderick, and that one kid who would go on to star in American Pie. I was only just becoming politically aware at that time and was, admittedly, more interested in seeing what Ferris Bueller might be like as a fantasy-shattered adult than any sort of political parable. Once the movie began, however, I was enthralled by the internal machinations of the political process, as I had never really considered that the people running for office, any political office, might not be deserving of leading several hundred -- or hundreds of millions of -- people, much less not be qualified to do so. Alexander Payne, the director, and Tom Perotta, the screenwriter and novelist, brought that obvious truth to life in such a matter-of-fact way that there's never any opposing argument worth making. But the best joke in the movie (and the equally excellent book of the same name) isn't that the politicians we vote for are selfishly and secretly pursuing their own goals rather than those of their constituents. No, it's that their constituents are very well aware of that fact and simply don't care, no matter how much they're told that they should. The joke isn't on us, it's on the blustering pols who take elections far more seriously than governing. It's a good lesson to remember during a Presidential election year, even if we feel the existence of the country is at stake, and it's why I'll never regret failing to see The Matrix in the theater. I got to see Election there instead. --Rob Payne

Z (1969): In the thick of an election season, the ubiquitous complaints about how our political process only offers the "lesser of two evils" can be frustrating and even persuade disenchanted voters to avoid the polls altogether. Costa-Gavras' Z is an excellent reminder that the state of affairs could be much worse.

Based on the oppressive military rule in Greece that occurred during the late 1960s and early 1970s, Z focuses on a government magistrate's investigation of a political assassination (inspired by the real assassination of Greek politician Grigoris Lambrakis in 1963) and its subsequent cover-up. The film opens with a pointed disclaimer: "Any resemblance to real events, to persons dead or living, is not accidental. It is INTENTIONAL." Not surprisingly, Costa-Gavras' widely acknowledged masterpiece, along with many other freedoms we take for granted, was banned in Greece at the time of its release.

Z achieved the noted distinction of being a foreign-language film that also earned a Best Picture nomination, and that was what first put it on my radar. I was just out of college, and I was scrambling to see as many of the classic cinematic greats as I could. This one stands out above many of the others in my viewing splurge. I sat alone in a darkened living room on a late Saturday night for that first viewing, and the ending hit me like a punch in the gut. Sometimes films are escapist, sometimes they give you a limited empathy for experiences foreign to yours, and sometimes they can go a step beyond even that, shifting your perspective with their verisimilitude. For a naive kid living a relatively charmed life and blessed with many freedoms, Z fell into that last category.

By the way, if you do not know the meaning of the title and have not seen the movie, try to avoid it. (Unfortunately, I think it's in the first sentence of the DVD box description.) It makes that concluding gut punch all the more resonant. --C. Robert Dimitri

Bulworth (1998) -- Maybe a better movie in theory than in execution, there was nevertheless something hilariously refreshing about the idea of a suicidal politician who decided one day to say, "F*ck it," and be honest with his constituents. Why should I care about black people, "you don't contribute any money to my campaign." Warren Beaty -- who wrote, starred, and directed in Bulworth -- disguises his own political rage, his frustration with the political system, and his disgust underneath a more palatable satire with some astounding bite. Warren Beatty -- attempting to work himself into the black community, where he falls in love with a character played by Halle Berry -- could not be more perfect for the role of a awkward, unhip rich white guy spitting out hip-hop riffs. It was a shrewd film that seemed to come at a perfect time -- around Clinton's impeachment scandal -- though little did we know that our political cynicism still had a long ways to go and may still travel further before it reaches bottom. -- Dustin Rowles

The Candidate (1972) is a darkly comic, beautifully cynical product of its era, and one of the most honest movies ever made about American politics. Hitting theaters in June 1972 -- a year after the Pentagon Papers were released and mere months before Nixon's reelection -- the film is an honest portrayal of politics as pure horse race. The goal isn't to help people, and it's not even really to win: it's to beat the other guy. Even the debate between the candidates is shown to be a gimmick designed just for the media to spin. Robert Redford is perfect as a young, mostly disillusioned senatorial candidate pressured into running for office by his party's higher powers. He gets into the race just to get his message out there, but he finds himself willing to water it down as he gets closer to actually winning the election. It's a bracing, very 1970s way of looking at things, which is to say it's alternately realistic and depressing. Yet 40 years on, the film holds up for its examination of what it means to sell out, and how low your price might be. --Daniel Carlson

In The Loop (2009): To say that the political world can contain a series of unfortunate events, muddled communication and ceaseless spin cycles, desperate to save face or ruin someone else's face is a major understatement. Politics, as a rule, is ridiculous. That's what makes it such a ripe realm for comedy. And never more, in the humble opinion of me, who has had a haircut not unlike "the woman from The Crying Game, than in In the Loop. What we see of politics is such a small, filtered part of what really goes on. If we were only privy to the scrambling, the backpedal planning, the chaos of effective bullshitting. The backstage is the fun part--and this movie is fun. Fun like a Nazi Julie Andrews. Fun like alphabet spaghetti. Fun like PWIP PIP. And, needless to say, infinitely quotable, with more pop culture references than any Abed-heavy episode of "Community" could dream. Sometimes it's hard to laugh at real-world government. But it's nice to see a side that we can enjoy. Because, at the end of the day, it would all be nonstop hilarity if only, you know, these people didn't get to decide the very fates of our nations. Fuckity bye. --Courtney Enlow

V for Vendetta (2005): During law school, I got to spend a semester working as a legislative aide for a state senator. Getting to participate in the political discussion of important issues, even in this small way, was awesome and fascinating. And perhaps as a result of this experience, while I'm incredibly cynical about the political machine, I remain hopelessly optimistic about the political process. Which is why a movie like V hits me so hard for me, beautifully capturing both the depths of State corruptibility as well as the heights of Civil activism. While the film can easily be politicized, it's not really about political parties, or about any one type of governance being the best type of governance. It's about the need for the People, in whatever form of government they live within, to be more than sheep. The film may handle its important political themes with admittedly broad strokes painted over by big explosions and fancy knife throwing, but this doesn't lessen or undermine the message's import. And the final moment of civil rebellion isn't a true civil rebellion, as it's primarily the act of a lone terrorist acting from a place of revenge. But Evey's statement that V "was all of us" gets to the heart of it -- in order to remain free, we none of us must be complacent, we all must remain skeptical and we together must be vigilant. And for me, the real key to the film is actually talk show host Gordon Deitrich. Not merely because he's played by Stephen Fry (though all things are better when played by Fry), but because of the way his character, a homosexual forced to live in secrecy, quietly tries to subvert the system while remaining apparently complacent. He ultimately dies for this, but he stands to remind us that in whatever way possible, we each of us need to remember what it means to be free and to continually do our part to maintain that freedom. --Seth Freilich

1984 (1984): It's when you get to room 101 that you realize what true dictatorship is, what the totalitarian mindset leads to. Most dictators do not particularly care if their subjects are unhappy; if anything they would prefer happy citizens so as to minimize the chance of revolution. Ah, but the totalitarian sees a deeper truth. To repress is not enough, to prevent uprising is not enough. The only thing that can be enough is to control thought itself, to inflict such terror that there is joy in subservience. Room 101 is the perfection of totalitarianism, such that the dictator can see into the mind of every citizen and pluck out the one thing that cannot be withstood, to grind every thinker's face in the particular primal fear that breaks all thought. It is easy to stamp someone out, and somehow more honest. But to crush them just so that they love you, so that they worship you for your power over them, therein is the nightmare. The state become god. Steven Lloyd Wilson

The American President (1995): Before Aaron Sorkin perfected his brand of liberal porn in "The West Wing," he gave us The American President, a very '90s, very optimistic look at the highest office in the land that contains one of the more rousing political speeches in film. Like the early years of his hit TV drama, here is a Sorkin world you want to make a reality -- one in which the politicians are genuinely good people with good intentions, and where the president comes out swinging against his opponents and take stands on issues most pollsters would tell him to sidestep. (See: Advocating the right to burn the U.S. flag; banning assault weapons and handguns; believing global warming is real, etc.) It may not be a Serious Film, with director Rob Reiner keeping things light and moving and much of the focus being on the sweet love story between President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) and lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), but it presents as possible something people are serious about: truth in politics. To borrow a "West Wing" phrase, Shepherd has to fight his demons from shouting down his better angels. That kind of courage always is inspiring -- even if it's too often found only in works of fiction. --Sarah Carlson

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Pajiba_Pragmatist

    Bullworth is a horrible political movie, making me question if any of you have any clue about the political process. Thankfully a bunch of your other picks redeem. That said, you all should know that the first 2/3 of "Distinguished Gentleman" is one of the most accurate movies about Congress you will see. The scene with the sugar lobbyist is close enough to have been transcribed from any number of conversations at the beginning of every new Congress. Also, the room selection scene where he ends up in the 5th floor of Cannon with chicken wire fencing for walls is real. It's slightly better up there now, but not a whole lot.

    Political movies that have moments of "real" real truth:

    Bob Roberts - sure it's over the top, but many of the conversations are real
    Primary Colors - an odd pastiche of reality and over the top BS
    Wag the Dog - again, moments of truth, but just gets goofy
    In the Loop - Represents what everyone is always thinking, but never says.

    Oh, and that's one real truth - no one in Washington ever tells anyone the whole truth when disagreeing, ever. You constantly hedge your bets because you never know when you might need something down the road.

    Here's a real story from my life today that illustrates why: Recently a Bill was submitted by a Member of Congress. The bill has several provisions that are, at best, disruptive to a segment of the industry involved. It can be argued either way with regards to the value of the provisions. Suffice to say the provisions pick winners and losers, but it can't be said that one side is definitely "right".

    Well, it turns out that the staff person who drafted those provisions has an axe to grind with the "loser" in this bill. Turns out that several years ago, this staff person said some unkind things about actions and legislation another person was supporting. This insulted person took umbrage, and quickly ratted out the staff to his then-boss. A few days later, staff person is fired.

    Now, all these years later, that staffer is back in a position of power, and able to wreak havok with the person who ratted him out all those years before. Needless to say no one is shocked that this bill's loser is represented by... you guessed it, the person who ratted him out.

    Because no one ever leaves Washington, no one can ever afford to tell the whole truth.

  • Undeclared

    Nevermind just saw it at the bottom. I'm stupid. Sorry

  • Undeclared

    Am I the only one who liked Primary Colors?

  • Idle Primate

    nothing to add, that's a great list. i have an awfully awfully soft spot for mr smith goes to washington. but then, i'm pretty damn soft on Capra in general.

  • polly

    I can't believe you didn't list Bob Roberts -- one of the greats

  • Jeremy Carrier

    The Contender has THE BEST GARY OLDMAN PERFORMANCE. DA BEST. If you don't agree, you just haven't seen it yet, and you should correct that mistake.

    and it has maybe the best Jeff Bridges performance as well, as a bonus!

  • pumpkin

    Being There

  • Brite

    'Words never lose their power' . Read Orwell's 1984.... And then read it again....and again ....and again.

  • Pnnylne

    No All the Presidents Men?

  • Blake

    All the Presidents Men and Dr. Strangelove should be on here.

  • Devin McMusters

    Welcome to Mooseport...solely because I'm a Maura Tierney stalker.

  • BierceAmbrose

    I can relate.

  • PDamian

    Finally, some good words for The Contender, a vastly underrated film that should have done better at the box office. And while I loved the speeches you referenced, my favorite part was watching Gary Oldman's character, Shelly Runyon, tell his wife how he was going to crush Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) with public revelations of her alleged "deviant" sex life, only to have his wife turn to him and say, "You could have been someone great ... Now no-one will remember you as anything but a second-rate sexual McCarthy." (I paraphrased a bit; it's been a while since I've seen the film.)

  • Love "In the Loop." You're right, it's fucking hilarious, until you realize it's probably not far from the truth.

  • appwitch

    I can't hear "Hail to the chief" without thinking about the words James Garner's ex-president sings.

  • "You're very good, but she needs work."

    Also, I love the shot of Martin Sheen in The American President, just scouting the place out. Ah, Sorkin porn!

  • RocksEaglesHats

    Wag The Dog is a staggering omission.

    Also... I have to believe that All The President's Men is omitted only because it's more a film about journalism than politics. But still..

  • KV

    Where is "A Distinguished Gentleman"?

  • Jennifer Schmennifer

    Thanks to "Dave" I can never hear "Hail the to Chief" without thinking of the lyrics Kevin Kline sings in the shower. That alone is a good reason to watch that movie.

  • lowercase_ryan

    I love when you guys do these group lists. Thank you.

  • Arran

    Damn good list, actually. I'd have included Primary Colors. I'm not sure if everyone likes it as much as I do, but it's worth it just for Kathy Bates' performance.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Is the movie as much a bore as the book?

  • BierceAmbrose

    Oh, another brilliant one. Brilliant, brilliant, brilliant.

    Surprisingly watchable, too.

  • RJ

    Libby's final speech to the Stantons, where you can see all her hopes shot to hell still breaks my heart.

  • Arran

    All of Libby's final stretch in the movie is just heartbreaking. Bates should have won the Oscar.

    I went into the movie expecting it to make me dislike Clinton (I hadn't read the book), but if anything it actually made me like him MORE. The Stanton character was a heavily flawed individual and a typical politician in so many ways, but he genuinely seemed to CARE above all else.

  • the other courtney

    Oh hell yes. Re-watched it recently. I have to give Travolta some love too, I was able to forget it was him playing that part and I can't stand that man.

  • KatSings

    So, I just purged my remaining VHS tapes, and am slowly replacing them with whatever DVD edition appeals to me the most. One of these tapes was The American President, which is a film I adore. I popped onto Amazon to see what editions there were and discovered they sell a boxed set of The American President and Dave as a double feature.

    I WILL own this.

  • AudioSuede

    Forgetting Wag the Dog. Tough day.

    Also, 1984 is to modern political discussions as Dave Matthews Band is to modern musical discussions.

  • Someone claimed Wag the Dog, or I would have snatched it up. Unfortunately, it didn't end up on the list. Anyway, gone but not forgotten!

  • BierceAmbrose

    Well, good on you.

    Didn't make the list, or something? What there;'s a vote and you can't post your review if you don't pick well enough?

  • TK

    Exactly. Because that's what we do. We sit around and collectively judge each other.

    I'm kidding. We only do that about commenters. No, the writer in question just wasn't able to make the deadline.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Well, yeah. I imagined an inquisition thing with Brit-wigs, big furniture and a spotlight on the subject. That's why I'm here. Most places that costs extra.

    I like the articles made of sections from different folks, kind of like a sampler. PITA to coordinate, I imagine.

    Me, I never miss a deadline. I rethink deadlines. Better.

  • Samantha Klein

    DAAAAAVE. Still, I think you might've included The Manchurian Candidate.

  • $27019454

    DAVE!!! You know that list...that list of movies you watch over and over again and never tire of them? Dave is on that list. You can show it to your kids (well...) and it's OK. You can show it to your mom and it's funny. It's adorable. Kevin Kline wins all the prizes and Sigourney Weaver can do ANYTHING and this movie proves it.

    "I once caught a fish THIS BIG!"

  • the other courtney

    I always liked Wag the Dog. A good tongue-in-cheek "behind the scenes" look at how a government could fake out the world and how the media could lead everyone by the nose. LOVED Woody Harrelson's glassy-eyed simmering psychopath role.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Wag The Dog is genius.

    The slogans ...
    "You Don't Change Horses in Mid-Stream."
    "Courage mom. He got the message through. Courage mom."

    And god, the music ...

    "Half black, half leopard,
    You wear it on your head.
    Half black, half leopard ..."

    Why is this, perhaps most relevant & funny of the modern political movies on the frakking list? (One could speculate that it cuts a tad too close to the bone in the current election.)

  • zeke_the_pig

    Mark Knopfler is an admiral of awesome

  • BierceAmbrose

    Sultan of swing, I'd say, but the best music from that film wasn't his (IMO.)

  • zeke_the_pig

    Sure, that works too...
    You know what, it's been years since I've seen it so I can't even remember the other music. Must re-watch soon methinks. Might be good hangover viewing this weekend.

  • BierceAmbrose

    Might be good hangover viewing this weekend.

    Well, now I'm envious.

  • Three_nineteen

    I was in Paris for the 2004 election, and this movie was on TV there. I always wondered if that was some sort of commentary.

    By the way, my friends and I didn't lie and say we were Canadian or something. Everywhere we went in France, we got the same reaction: "We love America! Don't you hate Bush?"

  • ,

    Ooo, good call.

    I was waiting to see if "Bob Roberts" was going to pop up on this list too.

    And now it has.

  • JoannaRobinson

    That was mine. I didn't get my sh*t together in time. Blame me. And Tim Robbins.

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