A Vote for Engaging Political Movies

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by Rick Bretz

Every two years the voting public absorbs the wave of political commercials, email voting reminders, and US Postal Service flyers about getting to the polls to do their civic duty.   After election day is over and we all come up for air, we can only hope that we did not make a mistake that we can’t correct for another 2, 4 or 6 years, whichever the case may be.

Why should the movie industry be any different? The cinema has its collective lenses on all the social issues including politics.  Among the movie industry’s favorite genres is the political or election themed movie.  What follows is a list of political movies that make you think.  The Founding Fathers certainly did the movie industry a favor when they gathered in Philadelphia and engineered our representative government. So here’s my vote for a few of the best.

 

1. The Candidate- 1972-Starring Robert Redford, Peter Boyle, and Melvyn Douglas

Robert Redford portrays Bill McKay, a somewhat naive political candidate, that gets in the race for a California Senate seat for noble reasons.  He starts out the campaign without any chance of unseating the incumbent but soon momentum grows.  His political handlers want to control him, but he fights to be his own person.  Melvyn Douglas, who plays Redford’s father, a former governor of California, is a favorite character.  He is cynical, politically savvy, and opportunistic. He is not fully involved with his son’s campaign until he determines he has a viable chance to win the thing.

In a televised debate near the end of the campaign, he breaks away from the predetermined closing statement, stunning his staff, and delivers his own message.  It’s a brilliant movie about the trajectory of a campaign and of a candidate as the election cycle moves fast towards election day.  It’s has one of the best closing lines in movie ever put on screen.  After winning the election and beating the incumbent, Redford is with Peter Boyle, in a small room as he is ready to meet the adoring crowd.  Redford says to Boyle, his campaign manager, “What do we do now.”

Good Story about the Bill McKay effect

http://www.governing.com/topics/politics/Bill-Mckay-Effect.html

Quotes: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068334/quotes

 

2. Ghandi-1982-Starring Ben Kingsley, John Gielgud, Rohini Hattangadi, Roshan Seth

When thinking of this movie, a viewer might say, “well this is a good autobiography of Ghandi.”  This is an incisive, penetrating study on the politics of getting what you want through public opinion.  Ghandi’s struggle for independence from British control over India and what is now Pakistan glued the biopic together.  Ghandi’s tactic, played brilliantly by Ben Kingsley, of fighting bad laws and oppression with non-violence, boycotts and media outrage was adopted by Martin Luther King to fight racism in the 1960s.  Ghandi studied law in England and practiced law in South Africa before returning to London and then British controlled India in in the early 1900s.

Ghandi’s ability, through out the movie, to understand the British ruling group, with their class mentality and preconceived notions of intellectual aptitude, enabled him to outmaneuver authorities.   His nonviolent strategy and willingness to sacrifice prison time made the ruling government impatient.  This led to many mistakes that turned public opinion.

About Dr. King’s trip to India

https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/india-trip

https://www.biography.com/people/mahatma-gandhi-9305898

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0083987/?ref_=ttls_li_tt

3. Being There-1979-Peter Sellers, Shirley MacClaine and Melvyn Douglas

Melvyn Douglas seems to be in the most perceptive movies about politics.  Sellers’ character is a an intellectually challenged gardener whose rich boss has died and he doesn’t have anywhere to go when the lawyers kick him out of the house.  He walks around until he is taken in eventually by Shirley MacClaine’s character Eve Rand.  She is married to Melvyn Douglas’ character, Benjamin Rand, who knows the President of the United States.  Sellers answers questions in terms of gardening or what he has seen on television.

For example, when the President, played by Jack Warden, asks Sellers a question about the economy and temporary incentives he responds.

“As long as the roots are not severed, all is well in the garden. And all will be well in the garden.”

“In the Garden,” says the President.

Sellers responds with, “ Yes. In the garden, growth has its seasons. First comes spring and summer, but then we have fall and winter. And then we get spring and summer again.”

The President looks puzzled but Melvyn Douglas steps in and interprets the statement in economic terms.  After the meeting, everyone thinks Sellers’ character Chance the Gardener is a genius. 

It’s a statement about how simplistic someone can make an issue and the political environment, in their zeal to find a new idea, accepts it. Sellers is brilliant because he plays his character in calm, tightly controlled manner so it keeps everyone guessing.  But as soon as gets confirmation from the President and other political leaders, he is accepted.  The movie is also interesting in how people communicate and interpret messages and words into a deeper meaning.

Story about the ending of Being There

http://screenprism.com/insights/article/what-are-the-interpretations-of-chance-walking-on-water-at-the-end-of-being

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0078841/quotes/?tab=qt&ref_=tt_trv_qu

 

4. The Contender-2000-Starring Joan Allen and Jeff Bridges and Advise and Consent-1962-Starring Franchot Tone, Walter Pidgeon and Henry Fonda

In today’s heated political world, these two movies capture the vendetta climate perfectly.  Both movies involve  a President’s selecting a choice for public office and then the political process of trying to destroy the candidate’s reputation by his opposing political group.  Joan Allen is the target in the Contender while Henry Fonda receives the smear campaign in the form of a communist sympathizer in Advise and Consent.  Both Presidents dig in and back their choice through the process but both outcomes at the end are less than satisfying.  Each movie analyzes how far the process will go toward achieving their goal of ousting a candidate for office. In today’s climate, both movies dive into themes the public should be rethinking.  How much is enough and how far will we go to win against the other side.  Will both political parties work with each other or will there always be a chasm from now on, with the in-power pendulum swinging back and forth between the left and the right.

Article on the confirmation process

http://themoderatevoice.com/the-broken-confirmation-process/

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0055728/?ref_=ttls_li_tt

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0208874/?ref_=ttls_li_tt

 

5. All the Kings Men-1949-Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru and Mercedes McCambridge

Based on the Robert Penn Warren book, “All The Kings Men”, the movie and the book is based on Louisiana 1920s and 1930s politician Huey P. Long’s rise to power and ultimate death.  He was the state’s governor and later a US Senator who was shot in Baton Rouge, LA, on September 8, 1935, and died two days later.  The movie’s title refers to Huey Long’s share-the-wealth motto, “Every Man A King.” Broderick Crawford delivers an award  winning performance as a populist, fighter for the poor and disenfranchised citizens of Louisiana.  He quickly falls into a power trap of intimidating enemies, with plenty of corruption and blackmail to achieve his goals. It asks the question are Machiavellian ways justified as long as the outcome is righteous.  Crawford’s performance hit all the personality traits that first endears someone to the people and then how absolute power poisons the relationships close to a person.  This movie mirrors another that explores the idea that power reveals a personality deep within a soul.  Power doesn’t change a person but reveals the true self.   That movie starred Andy Griffith in the movie that predicted the future titled, “ A Face in the Crowd.”

PBS article on Huey Long

https://www.pbs.org/kenburns/hueylong/educators/

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Huey-Long-American-politician

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0041113/?ref_=ttls_li_tt

Henry Fonda's Lincoln

6. Lincoln-2012-Starring Daniel Day-Lewis——-Abe Lincoln in Illinois-1940-Starring Raymond Massey and Ruth Gordon——Young Mr. Lincoln-1939-Starring Henry Fonda and Marjorie Weaver

These 3 movies together capture the substance of our 16th President.  What they all capture with performances by Daniel Day Lewis, Raymond Massey and Henry Fonda is his ability to understand people and react to the moment.  His gift for moving people to his side on a political issue aided him as he moved through the political ladder.   The earlier movies with Massey and Fonda gives the audience a window into how his personality worked for him.   Massey’s interpretation of Lincoln reflects Lincoln’s moodiness in addition to his sense of humor.  Fonda’s portrayal highlights his sense of humor but also his intellectual ability to handle professional challenges with poise.

In Lincoln, Daniel Day-Lewis shows the President’s ability to command a room and work with people. In fact, most of his cabinet was composed of people who ran against him for the Republican nomination for President, Secretary of State William Seward being one who ended up being a strong support and friend after the 1960 election.

Website about Lincoln’s personality and other aspects of his life

http://www.abrahamlincolnsclassroom.org/abraham-lincoln-in-depth/abraham-lincolns-personality/

7. The Manchurian Candidate-1962-Starring Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Lawrence Harvey and Janet Leigh

This is a film noir thriller about McCarthyism, communist sympathizers, assassinations, and brainwashing and psychological control.  The most politically motivated and strategically ruthless personality jumping off the screen is Angela Lansbury’s portrayal of the controlling mother to Lawrence Harvey.  The movie is released during the height of the cold war when espionage, the nuclear arms race and the domino theory concerning Vietnam, North Korea, China, Cuba, the Soviet Union and their motivations to spread Marxist and Communist ideology.

Article on the Manchurian Candidate

https://www.realclearhistory.com/articles/2012/10/30/manchurian_candidate_was_no_mere_fiction.html

8. All the President’s Men-1976=Starring Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman, Jason Robards, and Hal Holbrook

No movie list about politics is legitimate without the inclusion of this movie based on the Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward book of he same name.  In addition to the Watergate break in and the election slush funds and cover up, the movie is an excellent demonstration about how journalist work and the decisions that lead to printing a story.  The scenes where Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman put in the leg work to confirm facts and get additional sources for the details make the movie authentic.   The movies shows the audience is behind the front page story and headline so when government officials denounce the story, the newspaper or television news program can fight back.

Story about the source behind the Watergate story and why he became a source

https://slate.com/culture/2013/04/robert-redford-watergate-documentary-all-the-presidents-men-revisited.html

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0074119/

9. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington-1939-Starring James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and Claude Rains

Stewart’s Mr. Smith fills a US Senate position and gets an education in how some of Washington’s power players work the system.  His reality check sours him on the whole system but Jean Arthur coaches him parliamentary procedures as he fights his way toward a dramatic conclusion.  This is another movie that is required for any movie list about the nature of politics.

Article about the making of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

http://www.tcm.com/this-month/article/133569%7C0/Behind-the-Camera.html

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0031679/

10. The Mortal Storm-1940-Starring James Stewart, Margaret Sullivan, and Robert Young

Another movie with James Stewart that is not at top of most James Stewart movie lists, This is a story about politics dividing a family and the slow disintegration of civility and rational thought.  The Roth family is caught up in the pre-war Nazi hype.  Nazi policies and propaganda divide the family as the country moves toward inevitable war. James Stewart is against the Nazi ideology and it pits him against his former Roth family friends.   The movie is a study in how a cult of personality can poison a whole country and divide a family living in a small village in the Alps.  It leads to a heartbreaking conclusion.

Article on the rise of Nazism and the power of propaganda 

https://www.facinghistory.org/resource-library/teaching-holocaust-and-human-behavior/power-propaganda

https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0032811/

Considered: Nixon, Frost/Nixon, American President, Dave

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