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

By TK Burton | Guides | October 10, 2012 |

By TK Burton | Guides | October 10, 2012 |

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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TK Burton is an Editorial Consultant. You may email him here or follow him on Twitter.