In a matter of days, the next President of the United States will be decided. During this tumultuous time, it can be fun and educating to look at how films have portrayed candidates, elections, media, and the government. Here’s a line-up that spans the spectrum between serious social drama to goofball satire.
The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)
While based on a 1970s election campaign, the ideas and political machinations present in The Candidate still feel very fresh. Peter Boyle plays an election strategist who is tasked with finding a Democratic candidate to go up against a seemingly unbeatable Republican senator in California. He find the candidate in Bill McKay (Robert Redford) a community activist who is the son of a former California governor. McKay is reticent to run but is eventually convinced that he can help his causes better in a position as senator. What follows is a tug of war between idealism and the cold machine of politics. Director Michael Ritchie handles the content with a very adult, intelligent eye and produces an excellent film about American politics.
Bob Roberts (1992, dir. Tim Robbins)
On the total opposite end of the spectrum when comes to tone is Bob Roberts, Tim Robbin’s passion project mockumentary about conservative Republican folk singer who becomes a populist success on his campaign to become a senator. Supporting Robbins as the titular Roberts are Gore Vidal, Giancarlo Esposito, Alan Rickman, and many more familiar faces that pop for a cameo. The film operates as both a political version of This Is Spinal Tap and genuinely (and these days realistically) terrifying examination of the campaigning machine.
Anytown, USA (2005, dir. Kristian Fraga)
The scene is Bogota, New Jersey, and the conflict is over who will be the mayor. Three candidates are clashing over the position: Republican Steve Lonegan, Democrat Fred Pesce, and independent Dave Musikant. The impetus of the dirty campaign is the cutting of funds to high school football team. The lengthy public fights and arguments are full of the story of fascinating and unexpected twists you find in great small town stories: both the Republican and Democratic candidates are legally blind, the independent candidate hires the former campaign manager of Jesse Ventura, Pesce becomes violently ill near the end of the campaign. The documentary operates as both the quirky story of a small town election and a dissection of the way modern politics divides neighbors.
The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, dir. Rob Epstein)
I first saw this documentary during a rough time in my life. Out of college, unemployed, sleeping on a friend’s couch. I flipped through the channels and came to the Sundance Channel and was pulled deep into the story of Harvey Milk. The first openly gay elected official in California, Milk was one of the last great McGovern era idealist politicians. I learned about how his public face helped push for the acceptance of LGBT Americans in all walks of life. And when the doc reached the inevitable moments of the end of Milk’s life it is heartbreaking. The interviews with the activists and co-workers who Milk meant so much to made me cry so hard that afternoon. He is one of our modern American heroes.
In the Loop (2009, dir. Armando Iannucci)
Most Americans likely know Iannucci’s work in the biting and fantastic comedy Veep. However, he started taking apart the inner workings of government and politics on the BBC’s The Thick of It. In the Loop serves as a film spin-off of that series. It features the current Doctor Who star Peter Capaldi as the foul-mouth Director of Communications for the Prime Minister. Almost, but not quite, stealing the show from Capaldi is Tom Hollander as the completely inept Minister for International Development who almost sets off an international incident when speaking off the cuff during a television interview. In the Loop is one of those comedies with jokes whizzing by so fast you’ll discover a deep vein of humor with every viewing.
Being There (1981, dir. Hal Ashby)
Based on the slim novel by Jerzy Kosinski and directed by Hal Ashby, Being There feels like a mix of Wes Anderson and Armando Iannucci’s irreverent political comedy. The jokes are mostly subtle but build to one majorly stunning ending. Chance the Gardener (Peter Sellers) is possibly the bastard son of a reclusive D.C. millionaire and he’s never left the walls of the property in the heart of the city. The owner dies and Chance is tossed out onto the street where, after a case of mistaken identity, he’s believed to be a political mastermind. Even the President seeks out Chance’s advice. There is a less than covert taking down of government and organized religion going on, which is made very apparent by the final shot. One of the best films about politics and Mr. Sellers’ final work.
A Face in the Crowd (1957, dir. Elia Kazan)
If you only know Andy Griffith from his early 1960s sitcom then you are in for a huge shock. Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, who starts out as a drifter and criminal but also possess an ability to coerce and convince others. A radio producer discovers Rhodes and decides to use his charisma to gather a large populist following through political broadcasts. Rhodes quickly becomes drunk on the power and gains a dangerous level of national influence. He ends up as a tool for corporate peddling, tying their economic interests to the fears of his listeners. This might be the single most prescient film about media and politics ever made. If you ever wanted to learn what goes on inside the minds of men like Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones, here you go. The film also features the criminally underrated actress, Patricia Neal who plays the love interest and adversary to Lonesome.