Granger on Film: Best movies about U.S. politics and elections
While you’re waiting for ballots to be tabulated in all 50 states, here are some political movies to distract you from the polarizing pundits. Many are fact-based, some are inspirational and others far more speculative and skeptical.
Let’s start with some classics:
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939): Frank Capra captures America’s democratic ideal as James Stewart personifies a small-town patriot who battles self-serving politicians.
“Born Yesterday” (1950): Broderick Crawford visits Washington, D.C. to ‘buy’ influence in Congress while his wife Billie Dawn (Judy Holliday) learns about democracy from an idealistic journalist (William Holden). (Forget about the tepid re-make with Melanie Griffith.)
“A Face in the Crowd” (1957): Imagine a TV-personality-turned-demagogue! Andy Griffith plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a cracker-barrel philosopher who cons an entire nation in this edgy drama by Budd Schulberg and directed by Elia Kazan.
“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962): John Frankenheimer’s thriller tapped into 1960s and ‘70s Cold War paranoia, featuring Angela Lansbury, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Janet Leigh. (Forget about Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake).
“Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): Stanley Kubrick created the Cold War’s most indelible comedy, starring Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and Slim Pickens. The story revolves around an unhinged Air Force General who orders a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.
Moving into more contemporary themes:
“The Candidate” (1972): Robert Redford plays the idealistic son of a former California Governor who is tapped to run as a token candidate in a seemingly un-winnable race to unseat a powerful Senator.
“All the President’s Men” (1976): Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) expose a national scandal with the support of their editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards). Director Alan J. Pakula set the standard for journalistic clarity and precision.
“Malcolm X” (1992): Denzel Washington embodies one of the civil rights era’s most controversial leaders in Spike Lee’s sprawling chronicle.
“Bob Roberts” (1992): In Tim Robbins’ mockumentary, a right-wing celebrity millionaire, a charismatic folk-singer who preys on the resentments of white Pennsylvania voters during a Senate race, challenges the political establishment. It’s a wake-up call about the vulnerabilities of a polarized political system.
“Citizen Ruth” (1996): Skewering political polarization, writer/director Alexander Payne cast Laura Dern as Ruth Stoops, whose pregnancy inadvertently evokes the support of anti-abortion activists (Mary Kay Place, Burt Reynolds) who are opposed by liberal lesbians (Swoozie Kurtz, Kelly Preston).
“Wag the Dog (1997): Barry Levinson’s satire in which a political fixer (Robert De Niro) and a movie producer (Dustin Hoffman) try to divert the public’s attention away from a sex scandal involving the President of the United States a few days before the election by creating a fake war against the nation of Albania.
“Bulworth” (1998): Warren Beatty wrote, directed and stars in this zany comedy about a financially ruined Senator who is so disillusioned that he hires his own assassin so his family can collect on his insurance policy. But when he falls in love with a savvy woman (Halle Berry), he’s forced to re-think his plans.
“The Contender” (2000): Rod Lurie’s perceptive White House drama stars Joan Allen as a U.S. Senator who is considered for the Vice-Presidency until a past indiscretion threatens her future. Jeff Bridges and Gary Oldman co-star as provocative questions arise about gender, female sexuality and the double-standard.
“Selma” (2014): Ava DuVernay directs David Oyelowo as Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in her chronicle about the historic 1965 march in Alabama - with Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Susan Granger has been an on-air television and radio commentator and entertainment critic for more than 25 years. Raised in Hollywood, Granger appeared as a child actress in movies with Abbott & Costello, Red Skelton, Lucille Ball, and Lassie. She currently resides in Westport.