Our long national nightmare—aka the run-up to the 2016 presidential election—won’t end until November 6. Or thereabouts, if things get especially contentious. But while we’re still slogging through the downest and dirtiest election cycle in recent memory, let’s take a moment to reflect on Hollywood’s best political movies, whether, like Mark Ruffalo and Rosario Dawson, you’re a progressive pulling for a miracle from Bernie Sanders, or, like Tila Tequila and Dennis Rodman, you stump for Donald Trump, or you steer straight down the middle for Hillary Clinton a la Katy Perry and George Clooney.
Political movies can be dicey, polarizing beasts. We’re looking at you JFK, W., J. Edgar, Bobby and The Assassination of Richard Nixon. Think about it: Too much propagandizing or sermonizing and a political issues-driven flick can come off as a shrill, heavy-handed screed. Bungle a fact or two and the whole movie gets pounced on as a fraud. Too little heft and critics write off the film as trivial. The best political movies, though, tend to be genre efforts that keep their political bona fides tucked in their pockets, not worn on their sleeves—stuff like Sicario, Traffic and, yes, even Captain America: The Winter Solider.
Same goes for classic political films. All the President’s Men is one hell of a suspenseful newspaper thriller first and, second, a spectacular recreation of a torn-from-the-headlines political scandal that brought the 1974 resignation of President Nixon. Likewise, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is tough-minded yet sentimental, a comedic drama that embodies our deepest proto-American fantasies (“You can fight City Hall!”) as the astonishing James Stewart plays a noble young senator who single-handedly takes on the entire, entirely corrupt Washington establishment.
For those who like their political messages embedded in heatseeking missiles, TV regularly delivers binge-worthy stuff like House of Cards, a wallow in lethally nasty Beltway shenanigans that sometimes plays like a high-class soap opera, and Veep, a workplace comedy in which the workplace happens to be the Oval Office and the Beltway. (The writers have several times dipped into Hillary Clinton-inspired gaffes.)
For nihilistic—or is it realistic?—viewers who believe that, when it comes to the political establishment, the fix is in and we’re all royally screwed, how can you go wrong with a straight-up thriller like the original Manchurian Candidate (former P.O.W. Frank Sinatra tries to stop a brainwashed fellow soldier from assassinating a presidential candidate), the doomsday black comedy Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (the president and his staff can’t seem to stop a nuclear Armageddon launched by a crazed right-wing general) or the bitterly brilliant Wag the Dog (Washington spin doctor Robert De Niro hires Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman to trump up a war to save a president from a sex scandal). And there’s the electrifying Elia Kazan-directed A Face in the Crowd, in which Andy Griffith is hair-raising as a repulsive Arkansas con artist who becomes an incredibly powerful media-created star and nascent political figure valued for his unfiltered “honesty.” How prescient is that for a movie made in 1957, when Donald Trump was only an 11-year-old?
Says a respected film and TV producer who has brought several contemporary political movies to the marketplace, “The industry considers political movies to be a big risk. Everyone’s afraid of taking stands and turning off potential ticket sales. Overtly political stuff also tends to be a harder sell to audiences. Think of The Big Short that had Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and Christian Bale, or Lions For Lambs, even with Tom Cruise and Meryl Streep in the leads. Smarter thing to do? What Aaron Sorkin did by writing what looked like a love story set against a Washington backdrop: The American President. It was a political movie, but people mostly remember Michael Douglas as the good-looking widowed leader of the free world trading snappy quips with Annette Bening as an environmental lobbyist. As for political satires? Look what happened with North Korea over Seth Rogen’s movie The Interview. And Aaron Sorkin recently said that Trump is so extreme that his existence as a candidate may mean ‘the end of political satire.’ He may be right.”
We hope he isn’t. After all, think what Sacha Baron Cohen did with The Dictator.