Wednesday, July 3, 2013

A Vote for American Political Films

In honor of Independence Day, I thought I'd say something about American Political Films, of which there are quite a number, and many of them are pretty good! 

My partner-in-crime at Dann & Raymond's Movie Club, Dann Gire (film critic of Chicago's Daily Herald) did a show on political films during our first season, back in 2007. We picked our favorite fifteen political films, listed chronologically below. Some of the runners-up (in no particular order) were: "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town," "Young Mr. Lincoln," "Gabriel Over the White House," "Sullivan's Travels," "Citizen Kane" (really more of a character study than a political film), "Yankee Doodle Dandy" (really more of a musical than a political film), "State of the Union," "Wilson," "Henry V," "On the Beach," "A Face in the Crowd," "Fail-Safe," "One, Two, Three," "Advise and Consent," "Seven Days in May," "The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming," "The Parallax View," "The Front," "Missing," "Red Dawn," "Born on the 4th of July," "The Milagro Beanfield War," "Mississippi Burning," "Talk Radio," "Nixon," "Primary Colors," "Dave," "The American President," "Bulworth," "Bob Roberts," "Malcolm X," "Munich," "The Constant Gardener," "Thank You for Smoking," and many more.

But here's the list of Favorite Political Films--

1.  "The Birth of a Nation" (1915) directed by D. W. Griffith; shamefully racist and offensive by today's standards, this was the first blockbuster ever and pioneered many new cinematic techniques. Its importance in cinema history can't be overlooked.

2.  "Duck Soup" (1933) directed by Leo McCarey; arguably the best film the Marx Brothers ever made, but curiously it didn't do well on release--audiences during the Great Depression were in no mood for political satire; but today it's one of the funniest films ever made... and it has a lot to say about politics, too!

3.  "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) directed by Frank Capra; it could be the ultimate political film, and for my money, it contains James Stewart's best performance.

4.  "The Great Dictator" (1940) directed by Charles Chaplin; Chaplin said later that he never would have made the film had he known about the horrors that Hitler had covertly unleashed (the film was made in 1938-39); nevertheless, Chaplin delivers a brilliant performance in two roles, and we also get to hear him speak for the first time.

5.  "All the King's Men" (1949) directed by Robert Rossen; another one for the history books, this was a scathing look at corruption in politics, starring Broderick Crawford in an Oscar-winning turn.

6.  "Dr. Strangelove" (1964) directed by Stanley Kubrick; arguably the best black comedy ever made; what could be more audacious than a comedy about nuclear war, released less than two years after the Cuban Missile Crisis?  Peter Sellers' finest moment.

7.  "The Candidate" (1972) directed by Michael Ritchie; Robert Redford presents one of his best performances as a guy who is talked into running for president without a clue of how he's going to do it.  Terrific stuff.

8.  "Nashville" (1975) directed by Robert Altman; yes, this is a *very* political film; the country and western music scene in Nashville served as a metaphor for American politics; and there's that assassination at the end that punched us in the gut...

9.  "All the President's Men" (1976) directed by Alan J. Pakula; in many ways, it's a detective story, clearly following Woodward and Bernstein's path of investigative reporting into the Watergate scandal. Brilliantly written and acted.

10.  "Reds" (1981) directed by Warren Beatty; an epic about the beginning of the Communist Party in America, featuring an all-star cast headed by Beatty, Diane Keaton, and Jack Nicholson; long but never boring.

11.  "The Killing Fields" (1948) directed by Roland Joffe; heartbreaking and horrific, and also a terrific buddy story about a journalist and his photographer in Cambodia during the Khmer Rouge.

12.  "Cry Freedom" (1987) directed by Richard Attenborough; Kevin Kline may have been the star, but it's Denzel Washington's movie--he plays anti-Apartheid activist Steven Biko--and he should have had more screen time!

13.  "JFK" (1991) directed by Oliver Stone; another of the filmmaker's "activist cinema" entries, it's controversial to boot, but also fascinating, brilliantly shot and edited, and compelling; it throws in every conspiracy theory and asks the audience to figure it out.

14.  "Wag the Dog" (1997) directed by Barry Levinson; need a war to help political polls? No problem!--get Hollywood to create one. Dustin Hoffman shines as a producer who agrees to do that very thing for a candidate's troubleshooter, Robert De Niro.

15.  "Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005) directed by George Clooney; beautifully shot in black and white, the story of taking down Joe McCarthy could be no other way; it perfectly captures the period and paranoia.

So, if you get tired of hot dogs, marching bands, and fireworks this weekend, grab one of these flicks and watch it!


  1. Raymond, thank you for this compilation.
    I also like Mr. Smith Goes To Washington.

  2. Dear Raymond,
    Excellent choices & superb writing.
    With admiration,
    Harry E. Northup

  3. Great list! ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN amazed me.

    I thought that Oliver Stone's 'W' had an interesting sympathetic view of George W. Bush. Not so sympathetic to Dick Cheney.And you feel for Colin Powell.

  4. Thanks for visiting, Gary. I agree with you about "W"- it was an underrated movie.