The current U.S. election is rough. Yes, I use euphemisms a lot. As it’s probably only going to grow more nasty by 8th November, my instinct is to turn to the best form of escapism: movies.
Movies, however, have this tendency to draw inspiration from real life. Or to be such great fiction that they say something true about the world we live in. Politics being the most fascinating quest for power, many films have tackled the topic from many angles. As it turns out, many can also say a thing or two about what we’re going through right now.
Timing is a funny thing. Around the same time that the Monica Lewinsky scandal was going to shake the boat of the Bill Clinton presidency, this film was released: it follows an affable Southern governor who is running for the top job and whose campaign gets mired in a sex scandal. It is based on an anonymously published novel which is based on the 1992 Clinton campaign.
As usual, Mike Nichols’ deft hands hit all the right notes, and so do the performances by John Travolta and Emma Thompson as the soon-to-be first couple. The line between fiction and real life is thin, and it’s strange to imagine that a campaign could have gone this way.
Wag the Dog
Another one that, if it were true, is spooky to consider. When the President is about to get dragged in a sex scandal, a spin doctor has the genius idea of enlisting a Hollywood producer to create a fake war to draw the media’s attention elsewhere. (That film was also released, coincidentally, around the time of the Lewinsky scandal.)
There is major talent involved with this film: David Mamet wrote, Barry Levinson was at the helm, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman portrayed the two men in charge of producing a war. Part of the fascination of watching this film is seeing them going for a more and more outlandish setup, seeing it work out knowing it’s all fake -and wondering if we’ve ever seen something entirely fake on the news.
A wealthy, self-possessed businessman tries to influence public opinion until he decides to run for office. Sounds familiar? If you’re thinking Citizen Kane, then you’re right.
On a quest to gain more influence in the media at the expense of others (and eventually himself) Charles Foster Kane, based on real life mogul William Randolph Hearst who tried his best to censor the film, has an incredible rise in the public eye, and the comparison with Donald Trump is eerie.
Mr Smith Goes to Washington
Hillary Clinton wrote a memoir called “Hard Choices”, this films could’ve been called “Hard Lessons” (although that would be on the nose). When a US Senator dies and a replacement has to be picked, the establishment chooses, naturally, someone they think they can manipulate into doing their bidding. Enter James Stewart.
His character is a decent man who is progressively eaten up by the political machine and accused of fraud by the very people who put him in the Senator seat (and who also committed the fraud). This Frank Capra film follows the same path as many of his other films, chronicling the rise and fall and tribulations of a decent man: it’s both classical and a classic. Who knew politics could get so nasty?
Elections get nasty, and that’s not just elections that have the world’s future at stake. When Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) runs for student body election, teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) decides that he’s had more than enough of her and plans to sabotage her entire campaign.
The richness of this early Alexander Payne movie lies not just in the biting satire of the electoral process -even on small scale-, but also in the fullness of the characters, with all their quirks and flaws beautifully portrayed in the performances.
The Ides of March
George Clooney runs for office. He has the political ideas of George Clooney. That sounds to good to be true, right? Right. When Ryan Gosling’s staffer started working in the campaign, he took that decision because of his ideals -some might say out of idealism. What happens when he goes behind the scenes?
A contemporary take on the “man eaten by the political machine”, George Clooney is not necessarily a classic on the scale of the aforementioned films, yet it does a compelling job at exposing who our representatives are, what their motivations are, and the extent of their cynicism.
Talking of cynicism… Politics is -ideally- about people, and changing people’s lives for the better. Sometimes, it gets personal. It’s bound to. However, our politicians are often so driven by ambition, and so cut off from what happens in what is call “the real world”, and so used to playing people like pawns that they forget what personal means.
This film by Tim Robbins exposes that situation by making full use of the mockumentary form with the story of a right-wing folk singer turned corrupt politicians runs a crooked campaign, and a journalist tries to expose him.
This Gus Van Sant film was an instant classic, both for the timelessness of the struggle it depicts, that of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in the United States, as well as the timeliness of its release, when California was undergoing a campaign to repeal marriage equality.
The beauty of that Oscar-winning film is that it never loses its focus, just like its eponymous character: it concentrates on Harvey Milk, on his fight for fair representation in the political class and ending prejudice, and also explores the very real implications this has on people.
The premise of this one is intriguing: a candidate who’s free to campaign as he chooses. The catch is: the race is already decided. He’s bound to lose -so he may as well tell the truth. The twist is, the campaign doesn’t go as bad as it was supposed to and the candidate gains momentum.
Yes, that’s a cynical premise, and the film gets some dark laughs. What’s more intriguing is that the director worked on a political campaign himself, and the screenwriter used to be a speechwriter for Senator Eugene McCarthy. The story was put together by director Michael Richie, lead star Robert Redford and writer Jeremy Larner and the film remains fascinating as ever.
All the President’s Men
The 70’s were an auspicious time for Robert Redford, and he also put together this classic about journalism, elections, which still gives today some sort of hope that there can be counter-power in the media.
A classic both for the filmmaking choices by director Alan J. Pakula and director of photography Gordon Willis, a.k.a. the Prince of Darkness, as well as for the depiction of the behind-the-scenes story of how Richard Nixon came to step down as President of the United States, this remains the film against which all journalism and politics films are rated.