By Tom O’Brien
It’s been a tough 2020 so far. It seems that we’re just done with impeachment, barely have had time to take a breath, and now we have to deal with the Coronavirus, a plague the likes of which none of us have faced in our lifetimes. “March Madness” and almost every other sport have canceled or postponed all of their games; museums all over the country have shuttered; movie theaters are dark; all Broadway shows have had to temporarily close and some may never reopen. Ultimately, even with all the closings and the sacrifices that fans will make, the Coronavirus will eventually pass. But we will always have politics.
To that point, we have just concluded a fierce campaign among Democrats as to who will challenge Donald Trump to be the next President of the United States. With the departure of Bernie Sanders from the race, the path has now been cleared for Joe Biden to become the Democratic nominee to go head-to-head with Trump for the presidency. With 29 Democratic candidates having joined the race at one time or another, it’s been a dramatic primary campaign, with twists and turns around every corner. It’s little wonder that election stories hold enormous appeal in both films and television.
HBO, in particular, has done great TV work with election stories, from 2008’s “Recount,” 2012’s “Game Change” and the best of all, Robert Altman’s mockumentary miniseries, “Tanner ’88,” in which Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy), a fictional candidate, actually campaigns side by side with such real political figures as Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Pat Robertson, and Jesse Jackson, all of whom treat Tanner as a genuine colleague. For this article, however, I’d like to concentrate on feature films.
There, of course, have been several masterpieces that use an election campaign as a story element in the film, such as Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane,” Altman’s “Nashville” and John Frankenheimer’s “The Manchurian Candidate,” but I haven’t included them in this list because, as great as they are, an election isn’t really what they’re all about.
These ten offer a wide variety of facets of what goes into an election campaign, from delegate gatherings to campaign smears, and idealistic drive to cynical opportunism. During off-year elections, these are the ten to which I regularly return for a much-needed election fix. Enjoy.
10. PRIMARY COLORS (1998)
Based on the anonymously written political novel (really by columnist Joe Klein), director Mike Nichols’ film focuses on a Bill Clinton-like candidate on the presidential hustings who’s about to begin his campaign in the New Hampshire primary. The film doesn’t tell us anything we didn’t already know about Clinton (here renamed Jack Stanton and played by John Travolta) and his many sexual indiscretions with other women. But the film, directed with Nichols’ usual skill, does offer a fascinating insight into the use of opposition research that campaigns invest in to dig up dirt on their rivals, including the use of a tough private eye (Kathy Bates, in an Oscar-nominated performance) to make problems, sometimes at gunpoint, disappear. It’s the sordid underbelly of dealing with political scandals that we don’t see in the similarly-set documentary, “The War Room,” that makes “Primary Colors” particularly scrumptious.
9. STATE OF THE UNION (1948)
Yes, this is a Spencer Tracy/Katharine Hepburn vehicle and follows all of the back-and-forth banterings that a Tracy/Hepburn film requires, but it also has a serious underpinning. It’s 1948, and the Republican National Convention appears to be deadlocked, with the contenders being Robert A. Taft, Thomas E. Dewey, and Harold Stassen. Republican newspaper magnate Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury) feels that there needs to be a compromise candidate so she boosts her lover, aircraft tycoon Grant Matthews (Tracy) as a reasonable alternative. Enter Grant’s ex-wife Mary (Hepburn) who, of course, stirs things up (she’s Katharine Hepburn, for God’s sake – that’s her job), unaware that Thorndyke and her ex are having an affair. Complications ensue. Although “State of the Union” is more of a romantic comedy than an election film, what political scenes there are in here are great.
8. STREET FIGHT (2005)
Probably the least well-known of the films on this list, this Oscar-nominated documentary might be the most relevant. The year is 2002, and the city of Newark, NJ, is firmly in the pocket of Mayor Sharpe James. The African-American version of Broderick Crawford’s political boss in “All the King’s Men,” James is a classic movie villain-type content with his power, until, surprisingly, a young community activist who lives in the projects dares to challenge him for mayor. Director Marshall Curry’s camera follows the campaign as closely as I’ve ever seen a film follow a campaign, as James initially tries to flick off his young challenger, but he won’t be flicked. James gets more and more frustrated as the young upstart keeps coming at him until a climactic showdown on Election Day. Oh yes, the name of the young upstart? Cory Booker. This is the best depiction of the down and dirty of city politics that I have ever seen on film.
7. THE LAST HURRAH (1958)
This John Ford film is old-school, set in a time that candidates were anointed in smoke-filled rooms rather than in the primary system we have today. Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) is the mayor of “a New England city” and is in firm control of all that’s done politically there. (I grew up in a political family in “a New England city,” and trust me, Ford gets all of the details right.) Skeffington aims to run for a fifth term (not uncommon in New England then), but a growing number of influential townspeople are stepping up to say “Enough!”, something that Skeffington has never before experienced. Rather than being self-reflective and declining to run, Skeffington digs in harder and threatens to destroy all who oppose him. Though it never gets down in the mud of a mayoral campaign as “Street Fight” does, Ford directs with an assurance that befits his role as one of the great American directors of all time.
6. BOB ROBERTS (1992)
“Bob Roberts,” Oscar-winner Tim Robbins’ directorial debut, is a satiric mockumentary focusing on the title character, a right-wing country singer running for a Senate seat from Pennsylvania in 1990. The story is told from the perspective of British documentary filmmaker Terry Manchester (Brian Murray), who captures just how Roberts (Robbins) can glad-hand his way into the hearts of voters. What’s most interesting about “Bob Roberts” is not just the filmmaking skill, but also its examination of the media’s “build-’em-up-just-to-knock-’em-down” storyline that prevails even today. There’s a wonderful loosey-goosey atmosphere to “Bob Roberts,” which I suspect he learned from his mentor Robert Altman, for whom he starred in “The Player” just months before. “Bob Roberts” has proven to be one of a kind in Robbins’ career, but its remarkable political prescience is still a wonder to appreciate.
5. THE BEST MAN (1964)
Franklin J. Schaffner’s film version of the 1960 Gore Vidal political play is very much a product of its time. Set in the world of presidential politics laced with Vidal’s famed mix of drama and snark, good guy and ex-Secretary of State William Russell (Henry Fonda) is running for President but finds himself being challenged by ruthless Sen. Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson, having a delicious time). Cantwell has no shame about smearing his opponent and learns that Russell once suffered a nervous breakdown, news that would likely bury his candidacy. But when Russell discovers that Cantwell once had a gay affair (a real political career-killer at that time), he struggles ethically as to whether to use it against his opponent. In an era when conspiracy theories abound on Fox News, it’s satisfying to watch a first-rate political thriller at the center of which is a politician who’s still ethical.
4. NO (2012)
Pablo Larraín’s Oscar-nominated film takes on a subject that’s rarely seen in films: the power of political advertising. The time is 1988, and the government of Chile has asked its citizens to vote on a plebiscite as to whether military strongman Gen. Augusto Pinochet should remain as the country’s leader. Pinochet is all-powerful in Chile and a “Yes” victory is all but assured. The “No” side is in despair, especially since their ads stink – mostly footage of Pinochet’s opponents being clubbed, about which everybody knows and nobody cares to see. Enter young ad expert René Saavedra (Gael García Bernal) who specializes in upbeat, happy commercials for detergents and the like. The “No” purists are appalled at the choice, but it soon becomes clear that Saavedra’s upbeat ads might actually be working. One fascinating technical note that makes the look of “No” so effective is that Larraín shot the film using 3/4-inch Sony U-Matic magnetic tape so that the news and commercial footage of the time fit seamlessly into Larraín’s new film, making it appear that “No” was actually shot in 1988.
3. THE WAR ROOM (1993)
This is the real deal. Arguably the most famous political documentary of our generation, “The War Room” goes behind the scenes of the underdog 1992 Presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, masterminded by the unlikely pair of a (very) young George Stephanopoulos and the mad genius James Carville. Filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus got permission to film Stephanopoulos, the campaign’s communications director, and Carville, its lead strategist, allowing first-hand access to the inside strategy in Bill Clinton’s uphill quest to unseat President George H.W. Bush. Yes, Clinton was helped by Bush’s gaffes and the entry of Ross Perot, but the film shows that the victory was largely achieved by the campaign relentlessly staying on the message: “It’s the economy, stupid.” “The War Room” is detailed enough that, over the past quarter-century, aspiring political analysts have been studying it, as well as entertaining enough that movie lovers have been lapping it up with a spoon.
2. ELECTION (1999)
Every election has certain things in common, whether they take place in a polling booth or a high school hallway. In Alexander Payne’s incisive satire, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a beloved civics teacher in an Omaha high school, learns that overachieving student Tracy Flick (Golden Globe nominee Reese Witherspoon) is planning on running for student government president, an election that he oversees. Jim has an intense dislike of Tracy after she got away scot-free after conducting a sexual affair with a colleague, who was quickly fired. So Jim recruits Paul Metzler (Chris Klein), a popular (if dim) football jock to run against her. For Tracy, this simply won’t do, and she employs hardball tactics to get the victory she wants so desperately. Payne expertly turns this high school story into a mirror as to where our national elections are going and the tactics the campaigns are using to get there. In that sense, the perceptive “Election” has much more in common with tough documentaries like “Street Fight” than it does with other high school comedies.
1. THE CANDIDATE (1972)
Still the gold standard among election films, Michael Ritchie’s dramatic comedy is all about the mechanics of elections and the cynicism that sometimes helps drive them. Republican U.S. Sen. Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) is the overwhelming favorite to be reelected, and since the race is considered to be unwinnable, no Democrat wants the nomination, a problem for recruiter Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle). He finally convinces handsome Bill McKay (Robert Redford), son of former CA Gov. John McKay (Melvyn Douglas) to take on Crocker with the promise that, since he’s sure to lose, he can campaign any way he wants. It doesn’t work. So Bill begins to make compromises and runs a conventional campaign, and his poll numbers begin to rise until he finally wins an upset victory. With the film’s famous final line, “What do we do now?”, “The Candidate” demonstrates aptly that campaigning is one thing, but governing is something else entirely.
Enjoy the dramatic twists of this year’s presidential election, but please remember that, once it’s over, you’ve got these ten gems waiting for you. Which have you seen already? What do you think of these kinds of films? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Tom and hear more of his thoughts on the Oscars and Film on Twitter at @thomaseobrien