For political junkies, even a midterm election is like Christmas every day: You turn on cable news, you read The National Memo, the newspapers, and the political websites, and there are always new gifts. But sometimes, even political junkies need a break. So when the daily presents have been unwrapped and played with, take a moment and enjoy these movies — about politics. All of them are entertaining, thoughtful, and sometimes even fun. All illuminate corners of our process; what we are and how we got here. And all are available on disc or streaming services.
Gabriel Over The White House (1933)
The most startling Hollywood political film ever, Gabriel Over The White House is a fantasy about dictatorial liberalism at the nadir of the Depression. Walter Huston is newly inaugurated President Judson Hammond, a glad-handing, mildly corrupt party hack wholly unequal to the national crisis. But a near-death experience changes him; he becomes a mystical progressive tyrant who circumvents Congress to solve unemployment, militarizes the police to end gangsterism, and threatens to blow up the weapons of other nations to achieve world peace. Produced by William Randolph Hearst’s company for conservative MGM, the film is a jaw dropper. It was made before the 1932 election, but the release was delayed for months — and you’ll figure out why. (Did I mention there is also a love story?)
Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)
Yes, yes, that one — and if you haven’t seen it, you must. Frank Capra makes its two-hours-plus running time fly by with comedy, drama, sentiment, patriotism, James Stewart, Jean Arthur, and a gaggle of every character who ever appeared in a movie in the ’30s. A naïve young scout leader is appointed to fill a suddenly vacant Senate seat, and upends the Capitol by exposing corruption in the system.
Stewart’s climactic filibuster is legendary (his throat was injected with mercury to coarsen his voice), but the quiet and touching scene between him and Arthur at the Lincoln Memorial is likewise memorable.
Columbia premiered the film in Washington; politicians were so angered at its depiction of a Congress in thrall to the 1 percent that they threatened to regulate the movie industry.
State Of The Union (1948)
Capra’s less-remembered political film is an adaptation of a hit Broadway comedy and stars Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. He’s a noble business titan persuaded to enter the presidential race, she is the wife who fears he will be corrupted. And indeed, corruption abounds — no interest group is without sin. Tracy is that extinct species, a liberal Republican: Wait for the scene where he comes out in favor of a world government.
The film was shot while congressional red baiters were investigating Hollywood. Politics in real life spilled over onto the movie set: Adolphe Menjou had a major role in this film and in the investigations as a friendly witness for the right-wingers. He and the progressive Hepburn detested each other.
The Best Man (1964)
Gore Vidal’s scary-funny take on how we choose presidential candidates pits Henry Fonda’s combination of JFK and Adlai Stevenson’s principled intellectualism against Cliff Robertson’s Nixonism (the Nixon character claims that the Mafia is in cahoots with the Commies). At the party convention these characters vie for the nomination. Deals with the Devil are considered and made; marital infidelity, a nervous breakdown, and homosexuality are spotlighted; and Lee Tracy as a Trumanesque ex-president and kingmaker neatly steals every scene he is in.
Conventions have foregone outcomes today, but the destructive compromises forced upon candidates are still very much with us. Fun fact: John Henry Faulk, who plays a cheerful Southern segregationist, was in life a liberal broadcaster who spent a decade on the blacklist.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Cold War paranoia, McCarthyism, political assassination, and family drama are all wrapped up in one package starring Frank Sinatra and Janet Leigh. Laurence Harvey is Raymond, a chillingly unlikeable Korean War Army officer whose unit, including Sinatra, is captured by the North Koreans. The men are brainwashed by the Chinese and returned to the United States; Raymond is programmed to be an assassin. His control agent: his Wicked Witch mother (Angela Lansbury), the wife of an idiot senator whom the Communists are setting up as a presidential contender. Sinatra, his mind still blurred by the brainwashing, smells a rat and tries to save Raymond and America from the fiendish plot. The crazy fear is thick, the twists are thrilling and unpredictable, and director John Frankenheimer, a TV veteran, deftly shows the power of the new medium.
Seven Days In May (1964)
“You’re not a weak sister, Mr. President. You’re a criminally weak sister.” No, that’s not John McCain speaking to Barack Obama. That is Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. James Mattoon Scott addressing President Jordan Lyman in this taut, frightening tale about a coup by right-wingers in the American military. When the liberal president (Fredric March) makes a missile-reduction treaty with the Soviets, a group of hawkish senior Pentagon officers led by Scott (Burt Lancaster) secretly plots to kidnap the president and take over the government; only Kirk Douglas, Lancaster’s right-hand man, stands in the way.
Rod Serling’s script, from a bestseller by Fletcher Knebel, has flavorful Odets-meets-Sorkin dialogue, and once again director John Frankenheimer has TV front and center everywhere (including proto-Skype teleconferences). Watch for the screen debut of John Houseman in a pivotal role as an admiral.
A Face In The Crowd (1957)
See Andy Griffith as you’ve never seen him before: evil. Just three years before he became the beloved sheriff of Mayberry, Griffith scared the hell out of audiences as a gross, alcoholic, womanizing ex-con country singer who is built by the media into a dangerously powerful TV populist who can swing elections—for a price. Griffith’s character, Lonesome Rhodes, would be at home on Fox News. He’s a monster born of the electronic media age and allegedly based on Arthur Godfrey.
Budd Schulberg scripted it, Elia Kazan directed, Patricia Neal plays the radio executive who discovers Lonesome and comes to regret it, and Walter Matthau is the writer who catches on early to the horror.
The Candidate (1972)
See the modern political campaign in Ur-form: Robert Redford is Bill McKay, an idealistic liberal activist recruited to run a supposedly hopeless Democratic campaign against a popular Republican incumbent for a Senate seat from California. At first McKay is allowed to speak his mind and favor progressive values, but when the party sees he will be trounced, his handlers convince him to flatten out his message. The scheming amoral campaign manager, the vulture-like mass media, the canned debates—they are all here in comedy-drama form.
The film was inspired by the John Tunney campaign in California and directed by Michael Ritchie from a script by Jeremy Larner, who had been a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy. Its last line will haunt you on every election night.
Warren Beatty got Gulf & Western, the then-owners of Paramount, to make a $30 million film about real-life American communists (that’s almost $90 million in today’s money). Beatty stars as John Reed, a Harvard-educated journalist who becomes infatuated with the American left of the early 20th century; he travels to Russia to see Communist ideals fulfilled in the Russian revolution of 1917.
Reds may be the only mainstream Hollywood depiction of the internecine struggles of our political bohemians, the rise of labor in politics, and the infusion of progressivism into the arts. There is a lot of speechmaking and Greenwich Village late-night bull sessions but Beatty, who also directed, keeps it all moving entertainingly and edifyingly. Diane Keaton is his lover and political partner Louise Bryant, Jack Nicholson is Beatty’s romantic rival Eugene O’Neill, and Maureen Stapleton won a well-deserved Oscar for her portrayal of Emma Goldman
Out of scores of actors who have played Abraham Lincoln, three stand out: Henry Fonda in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, Raymond Massey in Abe Lincoln In Illinois (playwright George S. Kaufman quipped, “Massey won’t be satisfied until he’s assassinated”), and now Daniel Day-Lewis, a Lincoln for our time and all-time in Steven Spielberg’s inspiring political drama about the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment.
Spielberg and screenwriter Tony Kushner, with a script based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team Of Rivals, build suspense in a story whose ending we know. We see the political machinations, the deals, the bribes, the schmoozing, the greasing of the wheels, all done nobly and ignobly, in service of higher causes: the preservation of the Union and the end of its most malevolent institution. This is an old-fashioned great-man-of-history biography and filmmaking. The message to our current president is clear: work with Congress, don’t be afraid to get dirty in politics, stick to your guns, and do what you have to do to get the right thing done.