I understand completely—we’re now at the end of two weeks of conventions and you’re wondering how you’re going to cope in the foreseeable future.
And that’s why, as my Public Service announcement, I’m going to recommend some favorite films about politics (or those with overt political elements). Again, this is purely subjective, so if you don’t find your favorite film among my choices (as in “Where is Dr. Strangelove?,”), rest assured I may still believe it’s a fine film—it’s just not one I return to time and again.
The Manchurian Candidate – John Frankenheimer’s film of the Richard Condon novel (as adapted by George Axelrod) is one of my favorite films overall, a peerless blend of intrigue, suspense and dark humor (McCarthy-like Senator James Gregory to Machiavellian wife/monster mother Angela Lansbury: ‘Just how many Commies are supposed to be on this list?”). Frank Sinatra is superb as an officer and ex-prisoner of war beset by some “crazy dreams,” and he is matched by Lawrence Harvey as a cold, unwitting dupe of some diabolical forces. It never fails to entertain—and some of it continues to be profoundly disturbing.
Seven Days in May – As long as we’re on a Frankenheimer kick, this is a good follow-up, as military man Burt Lancaster tries to engineer a coup against what he deems to be a passive president (Fredric March). Conflicted aide Kirk Douglas nicely understated) and Edmund O’ Brien help save the day, and there are a number of well-scripted and directed confrontations throughout to maintain the tension, including one between Lancaster and March that should be familiar if you’re a TCM viewer.
Advise and Consent – Otto Preminger’s political panorama has nominal star Henry Fonda hoping his appointment to Secretary of State is ratified, but dang if there isn’t plenty of colorful skullduggery along the way, what with Don Murray investigating Fonda’s past political leanings, George Grizzard digging up dirt on Murray, Charles Laughton’s Southern senator scheming behind the scenes. It’s all quite engrossing, no matter how many times you see it.
A Face in the Crowd and All the King’s Men – I’m putting these two together because they both contain protagonists who are initially sympathetic ‘country boys’ who are corrupted by power (or was this corruption already at their core, but just well disguised?). Both are hard-hitting films that address both the political system but also the power of the media. Andy Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes and Broderick Crawford’s Willie Stark are career performances, and they’re ably abetted by strong support from Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau (A Face in the Crowd), John Ireland and Mercedes McCambridge (All the King’s Men).
The Best Man, The Candidate, Bulworth – Many good films are set along the campaign trail. Henry Fonda’s decent but indecisive Presidential candidate goes toe to toe with unscrupulous Cliff Robertson in The Best Man, though the proceedings are stolen by former President Lee Tracy, while Robert Redford’s Candidate is undeniably handsome and charismatic as he is pushed and pulled through a campaign in which he is sometimes more of a bystander than a participant. Warren Beatty’s Bulworth is an incisive political satire with Beatty’s Bulworth garnering some “street cred” and new support when he starts spouting the unvarnished truth. (Of course, he also gains some enemies along the way.)
Dave and The American President – Both are modern political fantasies (don’t take it from me—feel free to examine the world around us) that are engaging and entertaining—and sometimes persuasively assert that change is possible—under the right conditions. Both also benefit tremendously from the charm of the leads and supporting players; Michael Douglas has rarely seemed more likable or committed as the American President who tries to come to terms with both new love (Annette Bening) and a re-awakened social conscience, while Kevin Kline’s Dave takes the place of the look-alike President (Kline does a fine job of delineating the different personas) while First Lady Sigourney Weaver) is at a temporary loss about how to handle the new and improved President. And there’s the added bonus of Frank Langella as a determined opponent and a magical Charles Grodin as Dave’s enterprising accountant.
Election – Renee Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick will stop at nothing to become class president, while well-meaning teacher Matthew Broderick will stop at nothing to prevent it—even sponsoring an easy-going jock to run against her. Alexander Payne’s political satire goes off in unexpected directions, as many small (and not-so-small) indiscretions have profound repercussions later on. The tone never falters and neither does the wit in Payne’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s novel. It’s always worth a look.
Lincoln – Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln agonizes, wheels and deals, demands concessions and meets with all kinds of responsible and unsavory individuals in his quest to push through the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery (and follow through on his Emancipation Proclamation). It’s a story of backroom dealings and inner turmoil, as Lincoln has his country, his family and his legacy very much on his mind. Steven Spielberg’s intimate epic is among his better recent films and benefits from a strong screenplay by Tony Kushner (based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals) and a quietly compelling Day-Lewis performance at the center of it all.
The Last Hurrah – Another of my favorite films, from director John Ford. Spencer Tracy’s principled but roguish Mayor Frank Skeffington engages on a final campaign—not just for another term, but a last gasp of old-school politics that is less media-driven and more old-school, complete with Rotary Club visits and outdoor rallies. He is accompanied by nephew Jeffrey Hunter and aided and abetted by what seems to be assemblage of the best character actors in Hollywood: Basil Rathbone, John Carradine, Pat O’Brien, Donald crisp, Wallace Ford, Frank McHugh. It’s a warm, moving drama with a sterling Tracy performance; the only flaw is in the cartoonish nature of Tracy’s opponent. (Charles Fitzsimmons – Maureen O’Hara’s brother). As Donald Crisp’s Cardinal says, “Has it come to this?” Well then again, maybe it’s not so farfetched after all…