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A Look at Political Films

Today’s episode featured a look at movies about politics and political figures. Here are the films discussed on the show as well as a few additional titles.

The American President (1995)

1995’s The American President was the story of a widowed Commander in Chief who begins a romance with an environmental lobbyist. The movie was an attempt to explore whether or not politicians could have private lives but it doesn’t come up with many answers in that regard. The American President was written by Aaron Sorkin and it displays many of Sorkin’s best and worst tendencies especially the climactic big speech which devolves into a laundry list of 1990s liberal talking points. The film is also interesting as a dry run for Sorkin’s television show The West Wing.

The Ides of March (2011)

Far less idealistic than The American President was 2011’s The Ides of March. Ryan Gosling is cast as a high minded staffer to a presidential candidate played by George Clooney. The staffer comes to learn his boss’ dirty secrets and gets a crash course in the transactional nature of politics.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

One of the great paranoia thrillers is 1962’s The Manchurian Candidate. Frank Sinatra plays a former Army intelligence officer who suffers from nightmares that his former military buddy, who is also the son of a prominent political family, murdered members of their squad. As he tries to sort out delusions and reality, the officer begins to suspect he’s onto a communist conspiracy. The Manchurian Candidate was subject to a surprisingly good remake in 2004

Look Who’s Back (2015)

One of the boldest and most interesting political pictures from recent years was the 2015 German film Look Who’s Back. Adapted from the bestselling novel by Timur Vermes, Look Who’s Back sees Adolf Hitler miraculously return to contemporary Germany. He becomes a celebrity and gradually reenters public life. The film is extraordinary as a work of German cinema since Hitler’s visage is all but banned in that county but Look Who’s Back is also relevant to American audiences who frequently resort to calling each other Hitler in political debates. Look Who’s Back is a black comedy that asks whether or not people would recognize fascism if it was literally staring them in the face. The answer is not reassuring.

Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Fahrenheit 11/9 (2018)

Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit documentaries were attempts to influence the 2004 and 2018 elections and they probably did to some degree. Fahrenheit 9/11 was about the George W. Bush administration and the invasion of Iraq and despite its shortcomings the movie was one of the defining films of its decade. Its success was partly due to the way Moore stood alone in the media landscape of 2004. Fahrenheit 11/9 was in some ways a superior film–it was more focused and better crafted–but the culture had changed. With the advent of YouTube and the liberal transformation of MSNBC, Fahrenheit 11/9 didn’t have the rebellious novelty of the 2004 picture.

The Films of Dinesh D’Souza

Dinesh D’Souza has emerged as one of the main agitprop filmmakers of the Obama and Trump eras. Starting with 2016: Obama’s America, D’Souza and his filmmaking partner John Sullivan crafted a series of films that played to the worst elements in American politics including America: Imagine the World Without Her and Hillary’s America: The Secret History of the Democratic Party and Death of a Nation. These films ought to have sunk without a trace but D’Souza found a place in the rightwing media sphere and these films have a reliable and dedicated audience.

It’s Not History, It’s HBO

HBO has a long history of making very good dramatic films out of American political history. Recount dramatized the legal and political fight over contested ballots in Florida during the 2000 presidential election. Confirmation adapted the 1991 Senate hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and the testimony of Anita Hill. Game Change was a backstage drama about the 2008 Republican presidential ticket of John McCain and Sarah Palin. All the Way was about President Lyndon Johnson’s efforts to pass civil rights legislation. John Adams was an impressive biographical miniseries about the second President of the United States. And Too Big to Fail dramatized the 2008 financial crash as seen through the eyes of Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.

Irresistible (2020)

Irresistible is an absurdist comedy that uses a wacky scenario to illustrate something real and concerning about America’s political system. Following the 2016 presidential election, a Democratic political strategist recruits a farmer to run for mayor of a rural Wisconsin town. The race becomes a national story when a Republican strategist supports the other candidate. The story addresses a number of issues but its primary concern is the alienation between east coast political elites and the blue collar citizens of so-called “fly over country” and the movie illustrates that point quite well.

Bulworth (1998)

Warren Beatty co-wrote, directed, and starred in this political comedy of a United States Senator who has a nervous breakdown on the campaign trail and begins telling the truth. Bulworth is very much a piece of 1998 but it has aged well with many of its core points as relevant now as they were in its day.

All the President’s Men (1976)

Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in All the President’s Men, an adaptation of their book about the investigation into the Watergate scandal that brought down the Nixon Administration.  The movie was released in 1976, not long after Nixon had resigned from office and the film’s immersion in the time it was made gives All the President’s Men a cinema verite style but it may be a little confusing for younger viewers who weren’t around at the time and aren’t familiar with Watergate.

The Many Films of Richard Nixon

Perhaps no American political figure has been dramatized as frequently as Richard Nixon. He’s appeared in silly comedies like Dick as well as serious dramas such Frost/Nixon and even superhero movies like X-Men: Days of Future Past and Watchmen. But the essential Tricky Dick movie is still 1995’s Nixon. The movie, which is Oliver Stone’s masterpiece, is ambitiously broad and deep in its portrait of the thirty-seventh President. Played by Anthony Hopkins, Nixon is portrayed as a tragic figure, a consummate statesman who was undone by his own paranoia and insecurity. At three and a half hours, Nixon is a long commitment but it’s also one of the fastest and most engrossing long movies around. 

The Hunt (2020)

The Hunt became a political football because of some misrepresentations of the film by politicians and commentators. The movie is lightweight and silly in a way that doesn’t quite match the political rancor over it. It certainly isn’t about inciting violence against conservative citizens; The Hunt suggests the opposite. The controversy of The Hunt is somewhat ironic because the movie does not have much to say. If anything, this movie is a warning to liberal and leftist reactionaries who risk becoming the caricature that the rightwing media establishment claims them to be.

The Interview (2014)

The Interview starred James Franco and Seth Rogan as a television host and his producer who are invited to North Korea to profile Kim Jong-un. The movie was intended as a silly comedy but it provoked an international incident. North Korean hackers allegedly got into the servers and emails of Sony Pictures Entertainment and posted embarrassing internal memoranda that led to the resignation of Sony Pictures chief Amy Pascal. After some veiled threats, the movie’s theatrical release was mostly cancelled and it debuted directly on streaming services.

11/8/16 (2017)

11/8/16 is a time capsule of the 2016 presidential election and it is admirably broad in its scope. This is an observational documentary. It doesn’t have voice over and on-screen text is used minimally. The filmmakers let the images and the subjects speak for themselves and the picture captures the mood of Election Day 2016 and especially the joy or disappointment (depending on your point of view) of the results. For viewers too young to remember that night, the documentary gives a sense of what happened and for everyone else it places viewers back in that moment. But the filmmakers also force us to acknowledge the people who didn’t vote the way we did and see them as fellow citizens. 

Primary Colors (1998)

Primary Colors was adapted from the book which was credited to Anonymous but was later revealed to be authored by Joe Klein. The book was officially a work of fiction but Primary Colors was widely recognized as a roman à clef about Bill Clinton and his 1992 campaign for the presidency. The film version was directed by Mike Nichols and starred John Travolta, Emma Thompson, and Kathy Bates.

Hillary (2020)

Hillary is a four hour documentary on Hillary Clinton. The film covers the breadth of her life and work but it pays particular attention to Clinton’s failed campaigns for the presidency. The documentary purports to offer an unvarnished look at Hillary Clinton but this is a piece of legacy building fashioned by the Clintons and their allies. Despite running four hours in length, this documentary offers little more than can be gleaned from Hillary’s Clinton’s Wikipedia page. 

Chappaquiddick (2018)

The 2018 movie Chappaquiddick is a dramatization about the car accident involving United States Senator Teddy Kennedy and campaign worker Mary Jo Kopechne. The film is an extraordinary tale of political ambition colliding with personal responsibility and the ways people compromise themselves in pursuit of power. The movie never got the attention it deserved during its initial release but it was named one of the ten best movies of 2018 here on Sounds of Cinema and Chappaquiddick ought to be more widely seen.

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