By Ann Hornaday
The Washington Post
Election years are often called “the silly season.” But in 2020, the stakes feel much too high for such lightheartedness. We need inspiration, edification and, quite frankly, a massive course correction when it comes to the American project: its most aspirational ideals, its most perilous pitfalls, and the part strong institutions and informed citizens play in keeping the whole crazy experiment from exploding into hyperpartisan smithereens.
Political movies can help. But first we must define the term. John Sayles - perhaps the greatest American political filmmaker of his or any generation - once wrote in Mother Jones that movies as disparate as “Rambo” and “Adventures in Babysitting” could be described as political, because “they served only to maintain the status quo, strengthen stereotyping, and push people apart.” He makes an excellent point: A political film can be great - or at least jarringly effective - even though it’s not political on purpose.
A few movies like that are on this list. But there’s also the usual collection of thrillers, biopics, satires and straight-ahead dramas. Many are fact-based, set amid the imposing edifices and featureless bureaucracies of Washington. Others are more speculative and metaphorical, taking viewers to the Texas border or an Omaha high school to explore the vagaries of power as they play out within communities and individual relationships.
There are titles not on this list that are sure to launch a million “How could you leave out … ?” objections. We’ve limited this list to 10 films.
1. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). Have you watched it lately? You should. (And by “you,” we mean every sentient being on Capitol Hill.) Frank Capra’s classic is still the granddaddy of America’s small-d democratic, participatory ideals. And James Stewart’s portrayal of a small-town nobody and his quixotic battle against self-dealing politicians still claims pride of place as Hollywood’s most stirring, convincing and timeless reminder that the Constitution is a sacred trust that all American citizens - and their representatives - have responsibility for bearing.
2. “All the President’s Men” (1976). For many viewers - especially the untold number who became reporters after being inspired by it - this flawlessly crafted Watergate procedural is a journalism movie. But in the process of untangling the skein of lies, malfeasance and coverups that defined the scandal, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) wind up exposing the seamy underside of partisan realpolitik, and underline the crucial role of a free press in holding leaders accountable. Bonus points for featuring Jason Robards as history’s best big-screen Ben Bradlee.
3. “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962). The 1960s and ’70s produced their share of great paranoid thrillers, but this one proved shockingly prescient, not only regarding the era of assassinations that immediately followed its release, but of today, when foreign influence on our elections poses a credible and escalating threat. Masterfully directed by John Frankenheimer and featuring Frank Sinatra’s finest acting performance, this hallucinatory masterpiece still manages to be darkly funny and queasily discomfiting in equal measure. (Which unfortunately can’t be said of Jonathan Demme’s forgettable 2004 remake.)
4. “Primary” (1960). Robert Drew’s chronicle of John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey’s contest for the Democratic presidential nomination marks a watershed in an emerging documentary form alternately called “cinema verite” and “direct cinema.” However you describe it, this startlingly intimate glimpse of the candidates and the people who surrounded them reminds audiences of a time when media access, brand identity and messaging had yet to be weaponized - and it anticipates another classic, “The War Room” (1993), which captured the presidential campaign of an unknown named Bill Clinton with similar candor.
5. “The Battle of Algiers” (1966). This tense, closely observed drama about the guerrilla war of independence with France is so realistic that it was screened at the Pentagon for counterinsurgency training in 2003. Director Gillo Pontecorvo cast mostly nonprofessional actors in the film, which helped codify the jangly aesthetic of handheld cinematography. But Pontecorvo never lost his cool, cinematically or ideologically. As the filmmaker said himself, “I am on the side of the Arabs, but I feel compassion for the French even if historically they were at fault.”
6. “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964). When Stanley Kubrick first set out to adapt the novel “Red Alert,” about the horrifying and all-too-likely possibility of a hair-trigger nuclear war, he considered it a drama. But as he began contemplating concepts such as “mutual assured destruction,” “massive retaliation” and “megadeaths,” he realized the only suitable vernacular was satire as black and polished as onyx. If “The Manchurian Candidate” is the era’s finest Cold War thriller, “Dr. Strangelove” is its most lacerating comedy, one that still cuts deep as a funhouse mirror version of hubris, belligerence and staggering self-deception. (For a good approximation of what “Dr. Strangelove” might have looked like as a drama, check out “Fail-Safe,” which came out the same year.)
7. “The Lives of Others” (2006). For many Americans, this exquisitely staged and acted drama provided their first exposure to the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, and their methods of political and social control. Reminiscent of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1974 thriller “The Conversation,” Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s stunning feature debut brought viewers inside the experience of both the watchers and the watched. The film’s hushed restraint made its conclusion all the more shattering. And, less than two decades and one Edward Snowden later, it feels even more Cassandra-like in its depiction of the surveillance state.
8. “Mean Girls” (2004). Yes, “Mean Girls.” Lindsay Lohan has never been better than in this frothy teenage coming-of-age comedy. But in addition to the usual adolescent high jinks and catty comebacks, screenwriter Tina Fey managed to create an incredibly insightful taxonomy of hierarchical power as it is amassed, wielded and ultimately dismantled - all within the complicated context of high school politics, Queen Bee-enforced gender norms and internalized sexism. That’s a lot to accomplish, even if we never exactly made “fetch” happen.
9. “Born Yesterday” (1950). Fans of the epic political biography “All the King’s Men,” in which Broderick Crawford channels Louisiana populist Huey Long, will notice that title is missing here - not out of disrespect, but in deference to Crawford’s equally titanic performance in a similarly bumptious role: a coarse blowhard seeking to buy the political fealty of a U.S. congressman. The sublime Judy Holliday brings her signature brand of intelligence and sensitivity to his girlfriend Billie Dawn, who may be daffy but is anything but dumb, especially when she catches on to the cynical influence-peddling in her midst. What would Billie make of the excesses of today’s lobbying industry, not to mention Citizens United? One hopes she’d say they “just aren’t couth!”
10. “Lone Star” (1996). As previously noted, John Sayles is our poet laureate of political cinema. His films “Return of the Secaucus 7,” “City of Hope” and “Matewan” could have easily made this list, along with several others. But “Lone Star” is his masterwork. A simultaneously epic and finely drawn intergenerational and time-shifting murder mystery set on the Texas-Mexico border, “Lone Star” interrogates history, narrative and tidal shifts in power through the lens of race and immigration, but never at the expense of their complexities. Timely when it first came out, today it feels more relevant than ever.