DEVIN MEENAN, Arts & Life Editor–Election season means that politics is at the forefront of everyone’s mind right now; it may be our civic duty to stay engaged, yet it’s undoubtedly exhausting, so much that some escapism is needed. I propose a compromise; listed below are some entertaining, and occasionally informative, films about American politics, which I heartily recommend you watch.
“13th” is named after the constitutional amendment bearing the same number (the one which prohibits slavery, “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”), and a searing indictment of said amendment’s failures in its purported liberation of black people. Honing in on the US Justice [sic] System as the root of modern racism’s enforcement, “13th” supplies information and editorialization on the prison-industrial complex as well-documented as it is blood-curdling.
“A Face In The Crowd” (1957)
When Arkansas drifter Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith) is plucked from prison to become a radio show star then a certified demagogue, the nation’s powerful seek to mold him into a mouthpiece for themselves. “A Face In The Crowd” is so prescient about the shrinking divide between politics and entertainment, particularly the role that manufactured image laden with charisma has played in laundering far-right politics into our political realm, that it’s hard to believe it was made decades before there was a President Reagan, let alone a President Trump.
“All The President’s Men” (1976)
The standard-bearer for journalistic procedurals, “All The President’s Men” tells the story of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) blowing the lid off the Watergate scandal. Though very much a film of its time, from its literal depiction of history to the overriding paranoiac mood so endemic to the 1970s, “All The President’s Men” is still vital history and filmmaking – on a superficial, entertainment value level, it’s firmly anchored by the two leads, as fine a salt-and-pepper pairing as any great buddy film. As a bonus, the film features Denison alum Hal Holbrook as the main duo’s whistle-blowing, always concealed by shadow contact, “Deep Throat,”
Chronicling the last days of the civil war and the Lincoln presidency, “Lincoln” feels historical not just in setting but in mood, for the movie’s messages (political compromise in the name of greater good, coupled with slow but sure progress on racial equality in the United States) are decidedly relics of the Obama presidency. Nonetheless, it’s one of Spielberg’s most mature films and the most well-realized of his historical dramas; a cast made up of too many great character actors to even attempt listing them, all in orbit of Daniel Day Lewis’ masterful-as-usual performance as the man himself (though if any come close to displacing him, it’s Tommy Lee Jones as abolitionist congressman Thaddeus Stevens).
“Knock Down The House” (2019)
Real-life political stories are rarely feel-good, but “Knock Down The House” chronicles a one-in-a-million exception. A documentary chronicling four women who ran against incumbent Democratic politicians in the 2018 primaries, the victorious Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets top billing but the film is just as much the story of the other three; Cori Bush (who ran again in 2020, with more successful results), Paula Jean Swearengin, and Amy Vilela. The film is a reminder that politics is foremost about struggle in an arena where victory is never assured, but it’s that adversity that makes that occasional victory all the sweeter.
“Miss Sloane” (2016)
Sometimes, a single powerhouse performance is so magnetic it can lift an otherwise unremarkable movie to heights that would’ve been unthinkable otherwise – that’s what Jessica Chastain does for “Miss Sloane.” The titular Sloane, first name Elizabeth, is a lobbyist working to get a gun control bill passed with an approach of calculated ruthlessness. The film’s screenplay never quite expunges its scent of “discount Aaron Sorkin,” but Chastain’s commitment to the role does wonders, leading to a rapturous finale that, stuck with a lesser lead, might’ve felt contrived.
“Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” (1939)
A fantasy even more so now than when it first screened in cinemas fourscore and 1 year ago, “Mr. Smith Goes To Washington” features Jimmy Stewart as the titular Mr. Smith, a Boy Scout leader who is appointed to fill the seat of a recently-deceased Senator from his home state, only to find his naïveté buck up against the All-American cynicism of DC. Stewart, an onscreen avatar of decency and earnestness if there ever was one, is maybe the only man alive who could’ve sold his role without being chokingly corny, and sell it he does.
Of all of Oliver Stone’s eponymously-named films about American presidents, “JFK” (1991) is looked on the most fondly. I, however, have a soft spot for “Nixon,” as Stone evidently does for the titular character (I can’t say I agree on that front, but Stone’s POV makes for some damn interesting filmmaking). Covering the span of Richard Nixon’s life up to his resignation in the style of “Citizen Kane” (1941), down to the same thesis of “this man could’ve been great, if only he’d been loved,” “Nixon” is an uncommonly epic and ambitious biopic, best demonstrated by the lead performance. Anthony Hopkins goes far above and beyond the usual biopic performance formula in bringing Tricky Dick to the big screen – rather coast by on mediocre make-up and an on-the-nose impression, Hopkins mines from the soul (or at least the black hole of an inferiority complex which Nixon had in place of one), channeling the essence of the 37th President so well it completely transfixes his lack of any resemblance to the real-life Nixon.
“The Power Of Nightmares” (2004)
The presidency of George Bush the lesser has been quietly and bafflingly swept under the rug of history, despite their key role in leading us to the point we now find ourselves in. To understand how we got to that point, watch “The Power Of Nightmares,” by documentarian Adam Curtis. Few voices are as insightful as Curtis in critiquing the failures of modern civilization while explaining how those failures came about; this doc, where he weaves together the origins of American neoconservatism to the rise of Radical Islamists into a single, interconnected narrative, is no exception, all bound together by a thesis just as true now as it was 16 years ago: “Instead of delivering dreams, politicians now promise to protect us from nightmares.”
“Seven Days In May” (1964)
Ben Franklin said of a then-recently founded America, “[it’s] a Republic, if you can keep it.” We soon might be getting an answer to the latter part of that declaration, but if you’re looking for a more optimistic outcome than we’re liable to be receiving, watch John Frankenheimer’s Consistently thrilling “Seven Days In May.” Set in 1970, with the Cold War still casting a long shadow across the globe, Pentagon staffer Colonel Martin Casey (Kirk Douglas) discovers evidence that the Joint Chiefs Of Staff, led by General James Scott (Burt Lancaster), are plotting a coup against the President to stop his signage of a peace treaty with the USSR. With a one week deadline before the treasonous plot is put into action, Casey and the President must work to unwind the conspiracy.