As Election Day draws near, millions of Americans are lining up across the nation to cast their ballots for the future of the country. After a long and arduous journey through primaries and debates, Americans have finally reached the finish line, so now seems as good a time as any to look back on a hundred years of film to find the 10 greatest movies made about American politics.
10. “The American President” (1995)
A modern political update on the breezy romantic comedies of its era, “The American President,” is a masterclass in low-stakes studio movie production, providing the maximum amount of joy with a minimum amount of effort required. From acclaimed screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, “The American President” feels like a fusion of the screwball comedy of Howard Hawks and the American idealism of Frank Capra, with both styles complementing each other, creating a delightful two hours.
9. “Lincoln” (2012)
In a jaw-dropping combination of talent, director Stephen Spielberg’s “Lincoln” overcomes the hurdles of a traditional biopic and excels. Based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book “Team of Rivals,” Spielgberg’s sentimentality merges perfectly with Goodwin and screenwriter Tony Kushner’s obsession with process and anachronism, creating a socially and historically important document that still manages to captivate an audience.
8. “Wag the Dog” (1997)
One of the most vicious political satires ever made, “Wag the Dog” follows Washington fixer Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) and movie producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman) as they manufacture a war with Albania to distract the American public from the president’s sexual misconduct in the leadup to an election. Behind David Mamet’s brutally beautiful script and director Barry Levinson’s complete evisceration of Hollywood, Washington and the American people at large, “Wag the Dog” continues to shock viewers with its prescient understanding of political horse trading and its glorious embrace of the absurd.
7. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)
The seminal movie when it comes to Hollywood’s understanding of politics, Frank Capra’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is easily one of the most important films in American history. Starring Jimmy Stewart as a political outsider fighting against the Washington establishment’s greed and corruption, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is the greatest manifestation of Capra’s underdog ethos, popularizing the idea of grassroots political movements in the eyes of film-going audiences. Behind Stewart’s charismatic performance and sporting an incredible final hour, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” remains an essential document for any fan attempting to understand American film history.
6. "Being There" (1979)
A biting satirical take on American power brokers and political doublespeak, “Being There” manages to effortlessly dissect the American political system. Starring Peter Sellers as mentally challenged gardener Chance, “Being There” is a brutal takedown of the upward failing nature of blank slate figures and the political power of mildly effective metaphor. As Chance accidentally rises through the ranks of governmental hierarchy, “Being There” never relents on embarrassing the establishment before finally arriving at an oddly sentimental crossroads, featuring one of the greatest final shots in movie history.
5. All The President’s Men (1976)
Telling the story of journalists Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) as they investigate President Richard Nixon’s involvement in the Watergate break-ins, “All The President’s Men” is an unassailable testament to the power of journalism while still sporting a style of cinematic beauty. Directed by Alan Pakula and featuring an all-time great screenplay from William Goldman, “All The President’s Men” maintains a strange alchemy, keeping an ideal balance between historical minutiae and pop entertainment.
4. "The Candidate" (1972)
Starring Robert Redford in his greatest performance as unlikely political idealist Bill McKay, “The Candidate” feels like director Michael Ritchie’s black-hearted attempt to counterbalance Capra’s sentimentality in “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.” As McKay rises in the political sphere, “The Candidate” attempts to understand how political movements become corrupted and why crusading progressives manage to lose their way in the grips of the political machine. When McKay asks his campaign adviser, “What do we do now?” the question reaches much further than simple matters of procedure and seems to haunt every viewer’s understanding of how politics operate.
3. "A Face In The Crowd" (1957)
From the brilliant mind of Elia Kazan, “A Face in the Crowd” is one of the more bleak and predictive documents of consumerism and media ever made. Following the story of folk-singing hero turned malignant political powerbroker Lonesome Rhodes (Andy Griffith), “A Face in the Crowd” interrogates American institutions and the idea of celebrity to an almost startling degree. Frequently used as a reference point to explain the rise of President Donald Trump, “A Face in The Crowd” consistently shocks the audience with its grasp of capitalist forces and the relationship between fame and the political system.
2. "Election" (1999)
A miraculous, jet-setting blend of MTV-style pop entertainment and Criterion-esque indie filmmaking, “Election” is filmmaker Alexander Payne’s parody of the 1992 presidential race told through the lens of a high school class president election. Featuring an iconic performance from Reese Witherspoon as type-A frontrunner Tracy Flick, “Election” succeeds by plumbing the depths of its own absurdist procedure and analyzing the empathetic stupidity and outright ruthlessness of each of its characters. As Flick and her counterparts battle, the American political machine plays out in microscopic fashion, forcing the viewer to wonder where we succeed and why we fail.
1. "Shampoo" (1975)
In what’s likely not a coincidence, the No. 1 film on this list, Hal Ashby’s 1975 film “Shampoo,” doesn’t exactly have any relationship to the American government or the political system. Taking place on Election Day in 1968, “Shampoo” follows hairdresser George Roundy (Warren Beatty) as he flails, balancing the multiple loves in his life and attempts to get a small business loan. Even without featuring the traditional electoral process, “Shampoo” understands better than any movie of its era how the free-love sect of 1960s culture gave way to the rise of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
While Roundy and his counterparts motorcycle through the Hollywood hills, the American political braintrust lies beneath their feet, exemplified in an extraordinary party sequence and embodied in a wonderful performance from Jack Warden as a California business titan. “Shampoo” allows Roundy and the rest of the cast their humanity while also recognizing them as another iteration of the problem America faces. That’s why it’s rather significant that with all of the newscasters droning on and the background and election parties galore, not a single character ever votes. Instead, they choose to drown in their own excesses, only to ultimately wonder what they’ve done to deserve them.
As the election winds to a close, these 10 movies serve as templates for politics at its most optimistic and at its most callous. Whether you are looking to escape to a political reality more ideal than this one or just want to experience the flawed, occasionally painful machinations of campaigns and governments, you can’t go wrong with any of these films.
Contact Chris Carr at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.