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It’s election season. Here’s a guide to some of the best political movies

From All the President's Men to The Post, the University of Colorado Denver film critic breaks down his favorites

Clockwise from top left: “The Manchurian Candidate,” “All the President's Men,” “A Face in the Crowd,” “Gabriel Over the White House,” “The Dead Zone,” “The American President.” (Provided by studios)

The more I think about political movies – in this overheated political world – the less I understand just what IS a political movie.

Certainly political movies can be more than stories – or documentaries — about elections or mayors, or about presidents. 

Just about every film French director Jean-Luc Godard has made – and he started in 1955 – is political in one way or another.

Howie Movshovitz. (Photo courtesy of the University of Colorado Denver)

Sometimes he stages diatribes about capitalism and imperialism; sometimes his films engage the politics of language or film imagery. But there’s really no one like Godard, so maybe the conversation can start on a less pugnacious note.

In the early 1930s, before Hollywood’s censorship code kicked in, the studios, mostly Warner Bros., produced a slew of films about social and economic conditions. 

The 1933 “Heroes for Sale” (William A. Wellman) is about terrible injustices foisted on veterans of World War I. In “Employees Entrance” (Roy del Ruth, 1933), a callous department store manager first drives an aging man to suicide and then sexually harasses a young female worker. 

The year 1933 was a good one for blunt political movies. That’s the year FDR took office for his first term. One of the strangest pictures is Gabriel Over the White House” (Gregory la Cava). A callow, too-rich jerk (Walter Huston) somehow gets himself elected president.

He doesn’t give a hoot about anything besides his own pleasure. He likes to joyride in his big open touring car with members of his cabinet. One day he flips the car and winds up in the hospital for a good while with a head injury.

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The cynical implication is that for a politician to comprehend the crisis facing the country – it is the middle of The Great Depression – he has to get hit on the head.

When this President Hammond recovers, he now has pretty good understandings of the needs of average Americans, and some call him “incorruptible.” Maybe, but he apparently got too much of a good thing (the head injury) because he also turns fascist.

He starts to rule by edict – even though what he does is considered good for the country. But he suspends Congress and does all manner of dictatorial things. Good values, perhaps, but overshadowed by exceptionally bad methods.

Most political films are finally about decency and the preservation of democracy. The 1995 “The American President” shows a good guy widowed president (Michael Douglas) lose his way in the aroma of power, until he regains his best self, talks down his fear-mongering opponents, wins back his girlfriend (Annette Bening) and makes America safely democratic, as it should be. No surprise, it was written by Aaron Sorkin. 

“All the President’s Men,” from 1976, is the essential mainstream Watergate film. Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford play the two inexperienced investigative reporters at The Washington Post, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who, through dogged work, expose the actual shenanigans of the actual Richard Nixon.

If you lived through that time, it’s still a pleasure to see the two good-looking actors bring down the slimy likes of John Mitchell, Maurice Stans, the palace thugs Bob Haldeman and John Erlichman – and, of course, greasy old Richard Nixon himself.

And sticking with The Washington Post, Steven Spielberg’s 2017 “The Post,” also gives the full movie-star celebration (Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep) to the paper’s decision to publish the first installments of the infamous Pentagon Papers, which exposed government lying about the war in Vietnam. Again, the free press saves the country.

What these films share is a picture of rescuing a beleaguered democracy from people who would corrupt it. But at least two go the assassination route.

“The Dead Zone,” directed by the great master of horror and paranoia, David Cronenberg in 1983 (and written by Stephen King) is about another guy who gets hit on the head. Chistopher Walken, as as the blandly named Johnny Smith, comes out of a terrible auto accident able to see the future. Eventually, he confronts a monstrous populist (Martin Sheen) intent on nuking a good part of the world.

Walken’s assassination attempt fails in the short run, but Cronenberg sticks it to Sheen even worse – he lets him contemplate the horror of himself. 

And then there’s John Frankenheimer’s masterpiece, the 1962 “The Manchurian Candidate,” which comes right out of the heart of the Cold War. Richard Condon wrote the source novel, and the film is laced with early 1960s paranoias.

Frank Sinatra, who was still a Democrat at the time (he later became an ardent Ronald Reagan supporter) worked hard to get the picture made. 

In the story, an American officer in the Korean War (Laurence Harvey) is captured and brainwashed by the Chinese. Back in the U.S., he’s trained to be triggered by the sight of the Queen of Spades, which puts him into a trance and makes him call his handler who dispatches him to commit a series of assassinations of people opposing a vicious plot to elect a man who happens to be his step-father.

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His mother is the real villain, though, which among other things makes “The Manchurian Candidate” one hell of an Oedipal story.

But Frank Sinatra plays a fellow officer whose brainwashing was faulty, and slowly he awakens to what was done to him. He rallies to save American democracy from the selfish, greedy tyrants who would destroy it.

If all of these are political movies, you have to ask: what is not a political movie?

Are there movies that are not political?

French director Jean-Luc Godard’s  work shows that in one way or another, all movies are political because they embody the basic values and interests of the people who control their societies. 

And by that measure, such recent pictures as “Marriage Story,” “Dolemite Is My Name,” “The Irishman,” “Harriet,” “Jojo Rabbit” and “Little Women” are all political movies.

Certainly mainstream films reflect the basic, accepted values of their societies, whether you like those values or not, and that’s a political stance. Movies overtly about politics though, especially in this country, are rarely if ever about evaluating political positions and ideas.

They favor those who play by the rules. Even those daring political films of the early 1930s did not question basic American principles of government – they simply asked for fairness.

And after the Hollywood blacklist that held sway from 1947 to about 1963, American filmmakers avoided mostly anything political – including simple fairness.

So most American political films are about events where one side cheats and the other plays something like fair and square. “Seven Days in May” (1964), another John Frankenheimer cold war political thriller is not about whether the president is right to support a treaty with the Soviet Union, it’s about some hateful generals who nearly pull off a military coup over the issue. 

And it’s the same story with the nasty senator (Richard Dreyfus) in “The American President,” who loses out because he’s mean and underhanded, not because his political ideas are worse than others.

Even Warren Beatty’s beautifully nutty 1998 “Bulworth” assumes the rightness of fundamental American principles; it just wants politicians to live up to them. 

Other political movies to consider

So, if in this virulent political climate you want to look for guidance — or sanity — in (mostly) American films, a nearly unlimited list of movies awaits. Here are a few:

  • “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” a heart-warming, but near-delusional 1939 fantasy about a sudden gush of integrity taking over the Senate.
  • “A Face in the Crowd,” a harrowing 1957 film about a charismatic two-bit guitar picker lifted to political heights by a public he helps turn fanatical.
  • “Nashville,” Robert Altman’s 1975 cynical “celebration” of the American bi-centennial, about an outsider presidential candidate who is never seen, only heard from loudspeakers mounted on vans. Utterly brilliant, thoroughly jaded.
  • “The Great Dictator.” In 1940, the legendary silent clown Charlie Chaplin made his first talking picture in which he ridicules both Mussolini and Hitler. He saw through them before most anyone else – too bad the world didn’t pay better attention.
  • “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (Stanley Kubrick, 1964). A farce that’s only partly farcical, and as time passes it looks more and more like realism.
  • Two films made outside the U.S. by Greek/French political filmmaker Costa-Gavras: Z (1969), about the government coverup of the assassination of a prominent leftist politician, and “State of Siege” (1972) in which leftist guerillas in Uruguay kidnap an American intelligence operative. Both with Yves Montand. Costa-Gavras also made the 1962 American film Missing, in which parents go looking for their son, “disappeared” after the coup against Salvador Allende in Chile.
  • And one non-fiction film, the 1960 “Primary,” an observational documentary which follows Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy running for president in the Wisconsin presidential primary. This movie is an extraordinary artifact of a bygone era, when candidates walked unguarded around small towns, shaking hands, talking to people, and in general being something like human beings.
  • Now, if you really are a glutton for punishment, take a look at an early Godard film, “Weekend.” I love it, but I’m a little lonely in that assessment.

Howie Movshovitz teaches film in the College of Arts & Media at the University of Colorado Denver and is a film critic at KUNC.

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