The 35 Greatest U.S. Political Films of All Time
By Connie Wilson
In preparing a list of “the greatest” of anything, you are limited by your own exposure to the films (i.e., ‘Did you see these movies?”) If you did see them, do you remember all of them?
Fortunately for those of you longing for a political fix that isn’t nauseating (but actually entertaining), I have personally seen every single movie on this list—some of them more than once.
I concentrated on the American political experience, not that of another country. For that reason, films like “Z” by Costa-Gravas, or his equally impressive “Missing” (Chile) or Helen Mirren’s“The Queen” were deleted, as they focus on the political process in other countries. Warren Beatty’s movie “Reds” would have qualified if we wanted to open the list to Mother Russia.
But my emphasis is on politics here in the good old United States of America. (Also known, recently, as the Divided States of America, but that’s a topic for another day.) Steve McQueen’s 2008 film “Hunger” about the Irish Republican Army prison inmates certainly deserves a place on a list of great political films, but not if we’re concentrating on America, American politicians, and American politics. Similarly “The King’s Speech” (2010) had to go. “V for Vendetta”(2005): out. “Metropolis” (1927): a classic, but not really a film about American politics.
And that brings me to another criteria for my list. The primary focus of the film had to be on politics or the political process or a political candidate. One other list I consulted while researching my list included “Children of Men” (2006) and “The Godfather: Part II”.
The second “Godfather” movie definitely brings politics into the plot. But let’s be honest about “The Godfather” films. They’re about the Mafia family the Corleones. They’re not purely about politics, except peripherally. When it seemed like it might be a good idea for the Corleone family to become involved in the political process, by hook or by crook, they were buying Senators, yes, and perhaps planning more, but the films do not scream POLITICS to me.
Nor was Coppola’s other masterpiece, “Apocalypse Now” a movie about politics (as one list would have had me believe). Yes, Martin Sheen is traveling up the river to find Kurtz (Marlon Brando), but don’t most of us think of “Apocalypse Now” as a war movie? I know I do; I was surprised to see it on lists of “greatest political films” and I was equally surprised to see Orson Welles’ 1941 masterpiece “Citizen Kane” or Gregory Peck’s turn as Atticus Finch in “To Kill A Mockingbird” listed as “political” movies.
Well, yes, there is politics involved in both,— if you really stretch the definition of what you want your list to represent. Were they really short of candidates when they made their list(s), because I had no problem at all listing 35 films that I guarantee you that you will find enjoyable, entertaining and informative. (No attempt to say, “THIS is the very best one.”)
I eliminated documentaries, such as Michael Moore’s “Fahrenheit 9/11” because it isn’t a feature film. A great documentary like the Oscar-nominated “The Look of Silence” about the Philippines therefore lost out on two counts: it’s a documentary AND it is not about the United States. There are any number of great Errol Morris documentaries (“The Fog of War,” “The Unknown Known”) that would have been included, if I included documentaries. But these are all feature films on this list, made about the U.S. and being recommended to you for future viewing.
For those of you still reeling from the election of 2016 who want to see a good movie that will both entertain and enlighten you and is about politics in the U.S. of A, this is the list for you!
I admit to having seen every single one of them, which demonstrates why I get so little real work done. After the thumbnail sketches of the films, I’ll list a few “oldies-but-goodies” that I admit woulda’/shoulda’/coulda’ made the list—if I had seen them. Or, in at least one case, if I remembered it, which, apparently, I do not, or I would have included it.
Most of those films pre-date my movie-going career, (which has been very, very long).
1949 & 2006: “All the King’s Men” – Broderick Crawford won an Oscar for playing Huey Long in the original movie (and then moved on to television, where he had a long-running role on “Highway Patrol.”) Sean Penn took on the part again in 2006. I’ll take the original over the remake, especially for the scene featuring Huey’s violent death as he exits the Capitol building. The film was based on Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and here’s what IMDB says it is about: “The rise and fall of a corrupt politician, who makes his friends richer and retains power by dint of a populist appeal.” Amazing how these old movies retain their timeliness.
1962 & 2004: “The Manchurian Candidate” – For many years, this was my All-Time Favorite Flick. Laurence Harvey as the hit man who was brainwashed and is now the pawn of the evil Angela Lansbury (his mother) is magnificent, and Frank Sinatra is racing against the clock to prevent catastrophe in this plot that involves putting a Russian pawn in the White House. After the assassination of JFK, the film was withdrawn from release for many years, but re-emerged and the John Frankenheimer (“Black Sunday,” “Seven Days in May”) version was re-shot with Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber in the title roles and the conflict updated to the Korean War. Direction in 2004 was by Jonathan Demme (“The Silence of the Lambs”). Both are good films, but I vote for the original 1962 version.
1962: “Advise and Consent” – Otto Preminger directed this film that starred Henry Fonda and Franchot Tone. The film was adapted from the Allan Drury novel that I once had to read for and with a young student from Chicago who was enrolled in a political science class at Augustana College and had been assigned to read the book for his class. The IMDB plot write-up: Senate investigation into the President’s newly nominated Secretary of State, gives light to a secret from the past, which may not only ruin the candidate, but the President’s character as well. (Nothing like this could ever happen in today’s world—right?)
1964: “Dr. Strangelove: or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” – Stanley Kubrick’s film with Peter Sellers in multiple roles is so good that I once cornered my entire family and made them watch it on Christmas Day. After all, what is more entertaining than the sight of Sellers’ facing off against Sterling Hayden and George C. Scott. I’ll never forget the scene where Sterling Hayden is ordered to machine gun a Coca Cola vending machine and Hayden defiantly says, “Well, all right, but you’ll have to answer to the Coca Cola Company,” or words to that effect. The plot (IMDB): An insane general triggers a path to nuclear holocaust that a war room full of politicians and generals frantically try to stop. Oh! THAT could never happen in real life, now, could it? Slim Pickens riding the bomb. This film cries out for viewing in today’s political climate.
1964: “Fail-Safe” – Henry Fonda steps up to the political plate once again, in a film directed by Sidney Lumet (“12 Angry Men,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Network”) that features a rogue attack on the U.S.S.R. (Remember the Cold War when Russia was our adversary and not our good friend?). The launch a mistake caused by an electrical malfunction and the question is: “Can we avoid an all-out nuclear war?”
1964: “Seven Days in May” – John Frankenheimer directed the original film that starred Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner and Martin Balsam about a plot against the President of the United States by military leaders because the president supports a nuclear disarmament treaty and the military fears a Russian sneak nuclear attack. Nominated for 2 Oscars.
1972: “The Candidate” – I still have a political button that says “Bill McKay: A Better Way.” The theater gave them out to advertise this Robert Redford starring movie about a candidate running for the Senate in California and his handlers. Real Senators Alan Cranston, Hubert Humphrey and George McGovern had cameos. Howard K. Smith of ABC News played himself. I always felt that this treatment of the run for office was probably more accurate than most.
1974: “The Parallax View” – An ambitious reporter played by Warren Beatty gets in way-over-his-head trouble while investigating a senator’s assassination. Everyone who knew anything about the Senator’s death seems to be dying. He discovers a vast conspiracy involving a multinational corporation behind every event in the world’s headlines. Directed by Alan J. Pakula (“The Pelican Brief”) and co-starring Paula Prentiss.
1975: “Three Days of the Condor” – A bookish CIA researcher (Robert Redford) finds all his co-workers dead. (You never know what you’ll find your co-workers up to when you return from a coffee run). He must outwit those responsible and figure out whom he can trust. Directed by Sydney Pollack, Robert Redford’s kidnapping of Faye Dunaway (he needs a place to hide out while he figures things out) leads to some moody cinematography of her photography and, ultimately, to the salvation that releasing facts to the media (i.e., the “New York Times”) used to mean. Ah, for those good old simpler days.
1976: “All the President’s Men” – Starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Woodward and Bernstein of the Washington Post, the two uncover the details of the Watergate scandal (primarily from informant “Deep Throat” played by Hal Holbrook) that leads to President Richard Nixon’s resignation from office. Again directed by Alan J. Pakula, based on Bernstein and Woodward’s books. I showed this to a class at Eastern Iowa Community College to illustrate “whistle-blower” films, and the credits are of an old manual typewriter banging out the information, so its credit opening seems very dated.
1979: “Being There” – The great Peter Sellers plays Chance, the gardener, and Shirley MacLaine co-stars. I’ll never forget Chance saying, “I just like to watch.” Jerzy Kosinski wrote the novel on which the plot is based and also wrote the screenplay for the film, which was directed by Hal Ashby (“Harold & Maude,” “The Last Detail”). A poor simple gardener becomes an unlikely trusted advisor to a powerful businessman and an insider in Washington politics (These days, that phrase is redundant). Is Chance really dumb, or is he crazy like a fox? Melvyn Douglas won the Oscar as Best Supporting Actor, but the film also had another 13 wins and 15 nominations for a variety of film critics’ awards that year.
1981: “First Monday in October” – This film starring Jill Clayburgh and Walter Matthau was about the appointment of the first woman to the Supreme Court. Jerome Lawrence wrote the play and the screenplay and Ronald Neame directed. Clayburgh is the Conservative (think Scalia) and Matthau is the liberal (think Ruth Bader-Ginsberg). It eventually leads to a romance not unlike that of the Ragin’ Cajun of the Democratic party, James Carville, and his Republican wife Mary Matlin—[before she bolted from the GOP, anyway].
1992: “Bob Roberts” – Tim Robbins wrote it. Tim Robbins directed it. Tim Robbins starred in it. Here’s the IMDB plot summary: “A right-wing folk singer becomes a corrupt politician and runs a crooked election campaign. Only one independent muck-raking reporter is trying to stop him.”
1993: “The Pelican Brief” – Denzel Washington and Julia Roberts are on the trail of who murdered a Supreme Court Justice of the United States and why. Based on the John Grisham best-selling novel. Alan J. Pakula (“All the President’s Men,” “The Parallax View”) wrote the screenplay and directed.
1995: “The American President” – Aaron Sorkin wrote it, Rob Reiner directed it, and Michael Douglas and Annette Benning play the widowed President, who falls in love with a lobbyist. I actually knew the guy who made sure the dye in the carpet was the same as the real Oval Office. (He also dyed the Trump baby’s layette for a photo shoot for “Vanity Fair”, but that “baby” our current president’s second daughter, with Marla Maples, is now the young Tiffany Trump.)
1997 : « Conspiracy Theory » – Mel Gibson & Julia Roberts. A man obsessed with conspiracy theories becomes a target after one of his theories turns out to be true. Unfortunately, in order to save himself, Mel has to figure out which theory it is. Directed by Richard Donner (“Lethal Weapon”).
1997 – “Wag the Dog” – Shortly before an election, a spin-doctor (Robert DeNiro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) join efforts to fabricate a war in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal. Directed by Barry Levinson (“Diner”) and co-starring Anne Heche. My favorite scene involved a young girl clutching a bag of potato chips to simulate a baby, which would be “green screened” into a touching war scenario that would distract from the REAL scandal. The movie is a hoot and a half and rings even truer today!
1998: “Primary Colors” – A man joins the political campaign of a smooth-operator candidate for president of the USA, played by John Travolta and loosely modeled on Bill Clinton’s charisma. Directed by the late great Mike Nichols, who joins Alan J. Pakula in heaven as one of the best directors of a political movie since 1970. Based on the Joe Klein novel that hit New York Times best-seller lists as written by “anonymous.”
1991: “JFK” – Oliver Stone directed from a script that he and Zachary Sklar co-wrote. The bio-pic explores the assassination theories that New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison believed to be true. Too many courtroom scenes, but a decent bio-pic about the assassination of President John Fitzgerald Kennedy, starring Gary Oldman as Lee Harvey Oswald, Brian Doyle Murray as Jack Ruby, Sissy Spacek, Kevin Costner (as Garrison), Tommy Lee Jones, John Candy, Jack Lemmon, Ed Asner, Vincent D’Onofrio, Wayne Knight and Michael Rooker among a very large cast.
1992: “Malcolm X” – Spike Lee directed from the book “Malcolm X” by Alex Haley (“Roots”). Denzel Washington, Angela Bassett and Delroy Lindo starred in this bio-pic about the Black Muslim leader who was assassinated in New York at the age of 39 on Feb. 21, 1965.
1995: “Nixon” – Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen and Powers Boothe headed up the cast of this Oliver Stone bio-pic. I have to admit that I thought Hopkins was the wrong physical type to play Nixon, but he did his usual great job. Film was nominated for 4 Oscars. It got nominations for its screenplay, its original music, and both Allen and Hopkins were nominated, but did not win.
1998: “Bulworth” – Warren Beatty wrote this, starred in it, and directed it, with Halle Berry as his co-star. Bulworth is a liberal politician, Senator Jay Billington Bullworth, who is so suicidally disillusioned that he puts a hit out on himself. At that point, he feels that he can now be completely honest with his constituents. I did not like this movie as well as most of the others on the list, which was because the plot had Bulworth embracing hip hop music and culture as he waits to die. But it’s a Warren Beatty film and deserves to be on the list as an examination of to what lengths (or depths) politics can drive a candidate.
1999: “Election” – A very young (and obnoxious) Reese Witherspoon is Little Miss Goody Two Shoes in teacher Matthew Broderick’s classroom. A compulsive over-achiever, Broderick’s life becomes very complicated (and the film becomes very hilarious) when the campaign and run for Class President comes down to a vote or two against opponent Chris Klein (“American Pie”). I loved this movie and laughed out loud; it didn’t hurt any that the inexpensive film used the Midwest chain Younkers in the background of some shots, because you’re not going to see THAT every day! (Founded in 1856 in Keokuk, Iowa, Younkers stores only exist in 50 Midwestern locations.)
2000: “The Contender” – Joan Allen strikes again, this time as a Vice Presidential contender named Laine Hanson. Information and DISinformation threatens to derail her confirmation. What a cast! In addition to Allen, the co-stars include Gary Oldman, Christian Slater, Jeff Bridges, Sam Elliott and William Peterson. (I met Joan Allen at the Chicago International Film Festival a few years back, when she was being honored as a local girl made good. She is a Rochelle, Illinois native who attended both Eastern Illinois University and Northern Illinois University, my husband’s alma mater).
2005: “Good Night & Good Luck” – George Clooney wrote, directed and was one of the stars of this film about Edward R. Murrow’s attempts to bring down Senator Joseph McCarthy. Clooney admitted it was a passion project for him. David Straithorne played Murrow, with Jeff Daniels, Patricia Clarkson, Frank Langella, Matt Ross and Robert Downey, Jr., also in the cast. Nominated for 6 Academy Awards.
2007: “Charlie Wilson’s War” – Tom Hanks portrayed Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, who attempted to covertly supply Afghan rebels with the weapons to defeat the Soviets in Afghanistan. The film’s tag-line was: “Based on a true story. You think we could make all this up?” Co-stars were Julia Roberts, Philip Seymour Hoffman (again), and Amy Adams from a script written by Aaron Sorkin, directed by Mike Nichols.
2008: “Frost/Nixon” – Ron Howard directed Frank Langella (Nixon) and Martin Sheen (Frost) in this film adaptation of the Broadway play that detailed the information that Nixon finally admitted during David Frost’s interviews of him on national television. It was essentially a two-man play, but the movie also featured such name actors as Kevin Bacon, Toby Jones, Sam Rockwell, Oliver Platt and the director’s brother, Clint Howard.
2008: “Milk” – Sean Penn beat out Mickey Rourke this year (in “The Wrestler”) to take home the Oscar for Best Actor in this drama about California’s first openly gay elected official. Emile Hirsch and Josh Brolin (as the shooter) star in this Gus Van Sant project.
2008: “W” – Josh Brolin portrayed George W. Bush in Oliver Stone’s bio-pic, with Thandie Newton as Condoleeza Rice, Richard Dreyfuss as Dick Cheney and Scott Glenn as Donald Rumsfeld. Toby Jones portrayed Karl Rove, Jeffrey Wright played Colin Powell, Ellen Burstyn was Barbara Bush and Colin Hanks played a speechwriter.
2011: “The Ides of March” – Ryan Gosling portrays an idealistic staffer for a candidate who learns more than he wants to about dirty politics. The play on which the film was based was written by a former Howard Dean staffer, Beau Willimon, who now helps helm Kevin Spacey’s “House of Cards” TV series. George Clooney, who directed and co-wrote, also played Governor Mike Morris. Others in the cast included Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood (“Westworld on television now), Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright.
2012: “Game Change” – Jay Roach directed from the book of the same name, in a film about Sarah Palin’s ascendancy to the vice presidential slot on John McCain’s ’08 presidential bid. The film starred Julianne Moore (as Palin), Woody Harrelson, and Ed Harris as John McCain. (These were “the olden days” when we thought Sarah Palin was the worst know-nothing candidate one could put on a presidential ticket.)
2012: “Argo” – Ben Affleck both directed and starred (along with Bryan Cranston and John Goodman) in this film based on Tony Mendez’ book “The Master of Disguise.” The book detailed how a team posing as filmmakers scouting a location for a sci-fi movie rescued 6 of the Iranian hostages in 1980. Won 3 Oscars, including Best Picture of the Year.
2012: “Lincoln” – Based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin book, Stephen Spielberg cast Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln and he won the Oscar this year as Best Actor for the bio-pic about Lincoln’s trials and tribulations as the Civil War raged. The film was also nominated as Best Picture. Co-stars were Sally Field (as Mary Todd Lincoln), David Straitharn (again), Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones, Jackie Earle-Haley, Hal Holbrook and John Hawkes.
2012: “Zero Dark Thirty” – Kathryn Bigelow helmed this story of the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan by Navy S.E.A.L. Team Six in May of 2011. The film starred Jessica Chastain, Chris Pratt, Joel Edgerton and Kyle Chandler. It won one Oscar.
2014: “Selma” – Ava DuVernay directed from a script by Paul Webb. The film documents the Martin Luther King civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. David Oyelowe played Martin Luther King, and would later make his mark again in “Twelve Years A Slave.” Carmen Ejogo portrayed Coretta Scott King. Won one Oscar.
I’d just like to add that 1964’s “The Best Man,” as well as 1939’s “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and 1957’s “A Face in the Crowd” would have made the list if I had a better memory. I know I saw them, but they are lost in the mists of memory, while I do remember all others on this list. Also, haven’t seen “Snowdon” (Oliver Snow) and perhaps “Dave” with Kevin Kline and Sigourney Weaver could make the list, but I was trying for films with the stature of “Argo” and “Lincoln,” so some (like “War Games”) were intentionally omitted.