5 movies about politics worth seeing

by Editors


5 movies about politics worth seeing

As the 2008 presidential campaign season finally winds down, perhaps you aren’t ready to turn you attention to other matters just yet. Here, for your consideration, are five movies worth seeing that offer differing takes on the world of politics. Each is the product of its own era, of course, but these movies also comment on the political realm in ways that have lasting impact.

1. DUCK SOUP (1933)

In this classic Marx Brothers farce, the tiny nation of Freedonia is in a dire financial situation and forced to borrow money from a wealthy benefactor. In this case, the loan is from a certain Mrs. Teasdale (Margaret Dumont), not the People’s Republic of China. Enter Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx) as Freedonia’s new prime minister. His unorthodox ideas to solve the crisis may or may not seem more absurd to you than certain ideas put forth in the recent very real financial crisis, but the results are certainly much funnier. Filled with the usual Marx Brothers mayhem, the whole situation is complicated by the antics of spies from a rival nation, played by Harpo and Chico Marx. Directed to wonderful effect by Leo McCarey.


An antidote to the cynicism that characterizes contemporary attitudes about politics, director Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is probably a movie that more people know about than have actually seen. Yet, regardless of what you already know about this movie, it is well worth seeing for a first, second, or even third time. Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart is a standout in the lead role of Jefferson Smith, an idealistic man appointed to fill a vacant seat in the U.S. Senate. Few in the political establishment think that Smith will be up to the job. They wrongly assume that he will present little obstacle in their business-as-usual world of sleazy backroom politics. But Smith is a an idealist on a mission, and soon powerful forces aim to bring him down. One of Capra’s best.


Talk about backroom politics. Director Otto Preminger rakes Washington over the coals in Advise and Consent, a film that deserves a more prominent place in the pantheon of movies from the 1960s than it has. The plot involves an unpopular president who makes a controversial cabinet appointment. The president’s political enemies pull out all the stops in efforts to derail it. Yet, the slimy political trickery is not restricted to the president’s enemies. Opportunists in the president’s own party use threats and blackmail as they try to sway the outcome. Starring Henry Fonda, Gene Tierney, Charles Laughton, Peter Lawford, and a host of other Hollywood luminaries.

4. WAG THE DOG (1997)

Does your candidate have skeletons in the closet that could make for disaster at the polls? Why not start a war to divert attention elsewhere. That’s the premise behind director Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, in which a president with a sex scandal to hide uses spin and manipulation in order to stay in office. The producers of the film used the tag line “A Hollywood producer. A Washington spin-doctor. When they get together, they can make you believe anything” when it was first marketed in the late 1990s. This is a funny and witty film, albeit it one with disturbing overtones. Starring Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Andrea Martin, Denis Leary, Anne Heche, Kirsten Dunst, and others.


Mike Nichols directed this entertaining treatment of Joe Klein’s thinly veiled version of the 1992 Clinton campaign. Here, the presidential candidate in question is a southern politician named Jack Stanton, a man with one eye on the pressing political problems of the day and the other on many of the women he encounters along the campaign trail. On the surface, the movie may seem rather limited in its aims, but film as critic Roger Ebert wrote, Primary Colors isa superb film–funny, insightful and very wise about the realities of political life.” With John Travolta, Emma Thompson, and other notables.


There are other titles worth seeing, of course, and this list merely represents one set of viewing options. (Among obvious possibilities are two Robert Redford films:The Candidate, from 1972; and All the President’s Men, the Watergate story released in 1976.) Don’t see your favorite? Let us know about it.

— G.A.


IMAGES (above): Duck Soup DVD; Mr. Smith Goes to Washington DVD; Advise and Consent DVD; Wag the Dog DVD; Primary Colors DVD — all available at Amazon.com