Are These the Best Movies About Politics?
Politics is a difficult, long and painful process. With pure ideals often corrupted by the realities of the real world, it can be hard to believe that those in power will make a change in any meaningful way. This is often reflected in the large swathes of people who don’t vote, often making up nearly half of the electorate in many ostensible democracies. Why do anything, if everything always seems to stay the same?
Ahead of the most fraught election in recent USA history — with the possibility of the final decision going all the way to the supreme court — we have compiled a list of films that revel in the darkest side of political life. Ranging from conspiracist thrillers to well-oiled Washington exposés to full-on satires, see just how cynical films can be about the possibility of political change.
Just don’t get too cynical, and, if you are based in the USA, vote on Tuesday!
10 Great Movies About Politics
The Parallax View (1974)
The 1970s — reflecting the Nixon era — was a goldmine for conspiracist political thrillers, ranging from the fantasy of Three Days of the Condor (starring Robert Redford as a CIA researcher who discovers all his colleagues have been murdered) to the reality of All The President’s Men (starring Robert Redford as a journalist uncovering the Watergate scandal) to the no-holds-barred free-firing Network (which sadly didn’t star Robert Redford).
Our personal favourite is Alan Pakula’s The Parallax View, the middle film in his political paranoia trilogy, which stars Warren Beatty as a reporter uncovering a deep state organization that assassinates politicians. Shot in a cooly removed style, it imagines something far more nefarious than mere governments pulling the strings.
Oliver Stone is no stranger to outlandish provocation, especially when it comes to politics. With the epic three hour JFK, he tells the story of lawyer Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner) attempts to bring Clay Shaw to trial for conspiracy to murder John F. Kennedy. Shot in a variety of styles, aspect ratios, cameras, and moods, the skittish nature of the film reflects the competing theories of who may have finally been responsible for the president’s death.
While the overall message of JFK, imploring individuals to scrutinize the government narrative and to really think about American history is a somewhat uplifting one, its bitter conclusion that the assassination of Kennedy was perhaps covered up by the government leaves us wondering what countless other secrets politicians and governments haven’t told us.
Dr Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
The blackest of black comedies, ending with complete nuclear annihilation, Dr. Strangelove is a riot while containing a deeply serious message. With lines like “You can’t fight in here. This is the war room!” and “the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost if you keep it a secret”, Stanley Kubrick gleefully embraces the paradoxes of mutually assured destruction.
Featuring three brilliant and very different performances from Peter Sellers, the film shows us what can happen when you leave the fate of the world in the hands of the worst possible people. Considering the types of people around the world who have current access to the nuclear codes, Dr. Strangelove is as chillingly prescient as it is rip-roaringly hilarious.
The Front Runner (2018)
If you make a run for president, try and make sure your record is squeaky clean. If not, journalists will leave no stone unturned in scrutinizing your past. This is especially true in The Front Runner, which tells the story of Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman), whose run for the democratic nominee is beset by press accusations that he’s having an extramarital affair.
The cynicism lies in the ways that journalists often go after the more salacious details instead of focusing on what really matters. Tabloid journalism, supercharged over the last few decades by Rupert Murdoch’s nefarious influence, barely looks at policy, instead turning candidate races into personality contests.
Nonetheless, the reason The Front Runner failed at the box office is because these things no really longer apply, making its cynical message feel telegraphed in from the wrong time. It’s crazy to think that a mere extramarital affair caused so much controversy when this type of scandal failed to end Clinton’s career. Now with both candidates for the presidency accused of sexual assault, and the issue glossed over in debates, it really indicts a more innocent time.
Miss Sloane (2016)
Lobbyists in DC control everything, at least according to the politico world of Miss Sloane. Jessica Chastain brings a characteristically intense performance as a professional lobbyist, seemingly willing to push any position for the right amount of money. Things change however when she finds a cause that she really believes in: gun control legislation.
Suddenly changing tack proves to be difficult for the eponymous Sloane, whose personal life is put through the wringer, as well as featuring additional scrutiny for apparent ethics violations. Now, with the current election featuring little to no discussion of gun control reform, it shows that this subject is one that’s intensely difficult to broach within contemporary American life.
The Fool (2014)
Bleak but in the best kind of way, The Fool speaks to the impossibility of changing the status quo in the face of local corruption. It tells the story of a young man who realizes that a local apartment block is about to collapse, only to find that no one in power seems to care at all.
Yuri Bykov shoots in his typically up-and-close way — often parodied — with handheld camera work and naturalist, lived-in performances, the threat of the building’s imminent collapse adding a gripping urgency throughout. Through this style, the film unfolds with the power of a fable, providing a damning indictment of the seeming lack of empathy in contemporary Russian life.
Citizen Kane (1941)
Orson Welles’ timeless classic encompasses tens of different themes, but one of its most cutting insights is the corrosive nature of political life. The eponymous Kane marries the niece of the President, but can’t help himself from attacking him in order to set himself up for a run at the top job.
Thankfully, he doesn’t win, despite his promises of locking up the opposition, but his style of campaigning firmly puts him in the populist sphere. Now with newspaper barons such as Rupert Murdoch, the Barclay Brothers, and the Koch Brothers having an outsized influence on political opinion, Citizen Kane — ever so thinly based upon the real publishing tycoon William Randolph Hearst — feels oddly prescient.
My Friend Ivan Lapshin (1985)
The duality of man is elegantly exposed in My Friend Ivan Lapshin, a deeply melancholic and bitter portrait of a secret police member during the Stalinist purges. Told from the perspective of a nine-year-old boy living through the 1930s, Alexey German’s film portrays the complicated nature of a police inspector who, although seeming like a kind man, is capable of incredible cruelty in the name of ensuring a communist state.
Steeped in history as well as foreshadowing the difficult gains and losses the country would experience over the next fifty years, Ivan Lapshin asks about the difficult cost of building a truly so-called socialist state. After all, a nation born in suffering will have to deal with its demons eventually.
Children of Men (2006)
Clive Owen gives a career-best performance as a put-upon civil servant finding his better self in Children of Men. Set in a nativist UK after years of no newly-born children, it portrays a grim world where refugees are caged, terrorism is a daily occurrence and paranoia is everywhere.
While critically acclaimed upon its release, Children of Men went a long way in predicting the seismic political changes the UK would go through over the next few years: demonizing migrants and retreating from the international sphere. Thankfully ending on a note of diminished hope, this victory is hard-won against a truly cruel and cynical worldview.
The Ides of March (2011)
Set in Pennsylvania — a state everyone will be watching come Tuesday — during a democratic presidential primary, The Ides of March is a true politico film; filled with fast talk, cynicism and behind-the-scenes insight. Ryan Gosling plays a campaign manager for Mike Morris (George Clooney), the state’s governor running for the Democratic ticket.
But when he finds out about Morris’ extra-marital affair, which ends in a fatal fashion, his idealism is challenged by the reality of the political world, where people throw endless money at problems just to make them “go away”. With great performances from both actors, it reminds you that basically, no one is clean in the game of political campaigning.
- Redmond Bacon
Also worth checking out… Twelve Movies To Get You Through the U.S. Election