Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

24 hours of American political movies

Illustration for article titled 24 hours of American political movies

With tomorrow’s election ending two years and billions of dollars in presidential-campaign saturation, political junkies may find it hard to go cold turkey. So here we offer a daylong dose of cinematic methadone, 24 hours’ worth of first-rate American political films that range from paranoid to irreverent to inspiring, crisscrossing genres that include screwball comedy, withering satire, metaphorical horror, incendiary documentary, and post-Watergate thriller. You will enter jaded and leave… well, more jaded—but hopefully entertained and edified, too.

6 a.m.: Duck Soup (1933) 
Good morning! How about easing into the day with 68 of the funniest minutes ever committed to film? The extent to which the Marx Brothers intended Duck Soup—the last and best of their peak years at Paramount—as political satire is a matter of debate. After all, what’s the real difference between having Groucho play the leader of the small, made-up country of Freedonia and having him play the leader of the small, made-up college of Huxley in Horse Feathers the year before? Both are merely ripe settings for anarchic humor, some of it completely off-topic. Yet Groucho was politically outspoken, and there’s some bite to his performance as a whimsically deranged dictator who makes irrational decrees (among those listed in the classic song, “Laws Of My Administration,” “No one’s allowed to smoke or tell a dirty joke / And whistling is forbidden”) and takes his country to war over a slightest provocation. To war! To war! To war we’re gonna go!

7:30 a.m.: The Great McGinty (1940)
Preston Sturges kicked off one of the great directorial hot streaks—The Lady Eve, The Palm Beach Story, The Miracle Of Morgan’s Creek, and Sullivan’s Travels followed—with his debut feature, a withering satire about machine politics and the rotten soul of our democracy. The McGinty of the title, played by Brian Donlevy, first gets attention as a lowlife who collects $2 a pop for voting 37 times in the same mayoral election. That his initiative eventually leads to him holding that very same office—thanks to the power-brokering of the dirty, violent political “boss” (Akim Tamiroff) who makes Donlevy his protégé—says everything about the coal-black cynicism that underscores Sturges’ comedy. It’s only when poor McGinty starts to take public service seriously that his downfall is heralded.

9 a.m.: Election (1999) 
A tight student-council election that is decided by the powers-that-be throwing votes away? It sounds like a heavy-handed metaphor for the Bush v. Gore fiasco, only Alexander Payne’s jaundiced satire—based on Tom Perrotta’s novel—was released the year before. The Katherine Harris of this scenario is Matthew Broderick, a beloved high-school teacher in suburban Omaha who’s running the election, but opts to handpick a popular alternative (Chris Klein) to the monomaniacal frontrunner, a relentless and vindictive go-getter played by Reese Witherspoon. In his seething little microcosm of democracy, Payne spares none of the major players save for a third-party candidate (Jessica Campbell) who make a bold campaign promise: If elected, she’ll blow up the system altogether. Cue rapturous applause.

11 a.m.: The Parallax View (1974)
After three comedies in a row, and particularly the comic mania of Election, the ’70s grimness of The Parallax View will take the energy down several notches, and replace it with shifty dread. As the Watergate scandal continued to unfold in the early ’70s, amid ongoing fears about Communism, Hollywood reacted with a handful of queasy conspiracy movies about dirty dealings in high places. The 1974 triad of Chinatown, The Conversation, and The Parallax View together represent some of the era’s bitterest responses to institutional corruption, but Parallax View in particular addresses the times’ politics as a broken machine invisibly tended by irredeemably evil people. Warren Beatty stars as a dogged journalist who realizes there’s a larger story in a political assassination when the witnesses start dying—especially after a former girlfriend and fellow journalist who was present at the killing tips him off to the pattern, then dies herself. His hunt for truth progresses against increasingly disturbing odds, as he uncovers evidence of a ring of trained assassins who cover their tracks perfectly. Parallax View is notable for many things—its unrelenting cynicism, its shocking ending, its scathing conception of the era’s political tone—but it’s most memorable for a sequence where Beatty is subjected to a film meant to test his personality. The montage begins with warm, positive images of family, country, and religion, then gradually slides into a nightmarish montage of America’s racial atrocities, political assassinations, and wartime horrors. The juxtapositions associate sex with death, America with the Nazis, and the viewer with a comic-book image of Thor, a literal god on Earth. It’s exactly the kind of thing a sociopath should love and respond to, and Beatty’s presumed response sets up that shocking ending.

1 p.m.: Bananas (1971)
First off—and this has nothing to do with politics—it should be noted that the kazoo-laden score for Woody Allen’s goof on Central American tumult, by the late Marvin Hamlisch is joy distilled. It also sets the tone for Allen’s ironic, irreverent, and often supremely silly treatment of the revolutionary spirit that was gripping the region. As with the Marx Brothers in Duck Soup, Allen allowed himself the freedom to score laughs wherever he could find them—a scene where he represents himself in court is a highlight—but he takes pointed shots at the media (Howard Cosell covers a political assassination like a sporting event) and the dubious commitment of poseurs like him (with a Fidel Castro fake moustache) who engage in causes primarily to impress girls.

2:30 p.m.: A Face In The Crowd (1957)
Before Andy Griffith charmed a nation as the aw-shucks sheriff of America’s most idyllic small town on his classic eponymous sitcom, director Elia Kazan used the actor’s All-American magnetism to much darker effect in the classic 1957 political melodrama A Face In The Crowd. Griffith stars as an ornery, drunken itinerant troubadour who is plucked from obscurity by a canny operator (Patricia Neal) to sing on a local radio show. Griffith’s down-home appeal makes him a huge instant attraction and greases the way to a secondary career as a homespun advisor to a struggling presidential candidate. As Griffith scales the height of personal, professional, and political success, his ego balloons to monstrous dimensions. Under Griffith’s folksy facade lies a cynical, misanthropic, and calculating demagogue he can only hide for so long. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg, who memorably wrote about another incorrigible opportunist whose ambition proves his undoing in What Makes Sammy Run?, reportedly based Griffith’s character partly on real-life figures like humorist Will Rogers and television personality Arthur Godfrey, but today A Face In The Crowd stands as the most prescient of political satires. The film seemingly anticipates the inexorable rise of everyone from entertainer-turned-politician Ronald Reagan to blowhard demagogues like Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly.

5 p.m.: Street Fight (2005)
Before his ascendency as the superhero mayor of Newark, near-legendary for personally digging out snowed-in residents and rescuing a woman from a house fire, Cory Booker battled the entrenched forces of incumbent mayor Sharpe James, who was determined at all costs to retain his seat. Marshall Curry’s riveting 2005 documentary, Street Fight, aligns itself with Booker in this David-vs.-Goliath match-up in the 2002 mayoral election, which Booker ultimately lost. (Booker was elected four years later when James decided not to run for a sixth term.) Among the dirty tactics used by the James campaign: sabotaging businesses that held events for Booker, destroying his street signs, and, perhaps most perniciously, implying that Booker was not black enough to represent the city. It’s nasty, bare-fisted politics, and Curry’s camera dives right into the scrum.


6:30 p.m.: Hearts & Minds (1974)
Peter Davis’ Oscar-winning documentary Hearts & Minds covers the history of the Vietnam conflict and the war-protest movement, all the way up to the waning days of both. Structured as a two-hour cine-collage, Hearts & Minds shows wartime atrocities, pontificating politicians, student marchers, army recruiters, and the cross-continental damage wrought by the domino theory of geopolitics. The title refers to President Johnson’s contention that the war in Vietnam wouldn’t be won until the U.S. and its allies swayed the country’s citizens to the inherent rightness of capitalism and democracy. Davis’ film works the other side of the street, picking apart the arguments of the war’s architects by showing the compassion of the allegedly ruthless Vietnamese, and painting American culture as militaristic (right down to its high-school pep rallies). By the time the documentary got U.S. distribution in 1975, the war was over, Nixon had resigned, and public sentiment had long since turned against the whole endeavor. Nevertheless, the film stands as a cogent distillation of the argument that raged 40 years ago, which isn’t that different from the “red/blue” cultural divide today. Even now, Hearts & Minds stands as an artful sketch of fevered times.

8:30 p.m.: Secret Honor (1984)
During the period of Robert Altman’s career when about all he could get the money to make were low-budget filmed plays, he directed 1984’s Secret Honor, a one-man show starring Philip Baker Hall as a post-presidency Richard Nixon, delivering a long, conspiratorial rant into his tape recorder. Part history and part alternate-history, Secret Honor’s script (by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone) is as savvy and insider-y about executive-branch politics as Altman’s earlier films were about the military and the music business. Stylistically, Altman treats the material in much the same way as he did his filmed plays Come Back To The Five And Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean and Streamers, making maximum use of a minimal setting by showing how even in a world suddenly shrunken by circumstance, there’s plenty to examine. And Hall’s Nixon is a marvel: a mumbling, paranoid old man who knows far too much about how the world actually works.

10:30 p.m.: Blow Out (1981)
So much attention is given to the Hitchcockian orchestration of Brian De Palma’s thrillers that it’s easy to forget he’s been making political movies his entire career, from the racial provocation of 1970’s Hi, Mom! to the raw anger over American misdeeds in 2007’s Redacted. Blow Out operates brilliantly on both fronts, layering a thriller about a Hollywood soundman (John Travolta) who witnesses a high-profile crime with allusions to Chappaquiddick, Watergate, the JFK assassination, and the 1976 Bicentennial celebration in Philadelphia. The inciting incident, an accident where a car peels off a bridge into the water, may seem to recall Chappaquiddick, but De Palma reworks the details into a much broader conspiracy that divorces the film from simple partisanship. Like many post-Watergate thrillers, De Palma seeks to foment a general distrust of government and play on the common paranoia that the people have lost control of their democracy.

12:30 a.m.: “Homecoming” (2005)
After midnight, it’s time for political horror—though, in the spirit of “Homecoming” director Joe Dante, please be advised not to feed the mogwai until sunrise. Given carte blanche to do whatever he wanted for Showtime’s Masters Of Horror series, Dante opted to make a horror film in “Homecoming” that only qualifies as horror due to the presence of zombies; his real purpose was to unleash a torrent of anger over the Iraq War and the lives thoughtlessly sacrificed for the cause. Where George Romero’s zombies have always been a metaphor for something, Dante’s have a blunter purpose: They’re rising from the dead to vote the Republicans out of office. With thinly veiled references to Ann Coulter, Karl Rove, and Jerry Falwell, “Homecoming” picks apart the crass operatives who backed the Bush presidency.

1:30 a.m.: The Crazies (1973) 
“Homecoming” partakes in a tradition of bringing in zombies as metaphors that dates back to George Romero’s Night Of The Living Dead in 1968. There, the metaphor seemed almost coincidental, a fortuitous collision between the unease of the age, an ingenious approach to low-budget chills, and enough artistic savvy to let audiences make the connections between the two. Romero got more explicit with Dawn Of The Dead, his 1978 sequel, but he was already headed in a more self-consciously political direction with his follow-ups to Night: the feminist horror film Season Of The Witch and The Crazies. The latter is a near-zombie movie in which a virus drives the population of Pennsylvania mad in ways that resemble the political unrest and counterculture excesses of the late-’60s and early-’70s. So too did the response of the unaffected, particularly a military whose attempts to crack down on the crazies is portrayed in ways the recall images from the 1968 Democratic Convention and the shootings at Kent State. It’s effectively done yet never subtle (but then what combination of monsters and politics is)?

3:30 a.m.: White Dog (1982)
Virtually unseen in 1982, Sam Fuller’s last Hollywood film stars Kristy McNichol as an actress who hits then adopts a white German shepherd only to discover that it’s been trained by a racist handler to attack black people (which it then does, in a series of terrifying scenes). The only hope for the dog’s redemption seems to lie in the efforts of Paul Winfield, who takes on the challenge of helping the dog overcome its racism, at the risk of his own life. In typical Fuller fashion, it’s a lurid, well-crafted, from-the-gut movie with a larger point on its mind about who’s to blame when hate gets passed down from one generation to the next, and whether it can ever be unlearned. That it provided no easy answers led to accusations—from the NAACP and other sources—that the film itself was racist, suggesting that political movies and ambiguity don’t always make the easiest companions.

5 a.m.: The Candidate (1972)
That’s a shame since ambiguity of all sorts has a habit of overwhelming clarity in politics. Few films illustrated that as well as The Candidate, which takes director Michael Ritchie’s concern about what it takes to win in America and applies it to politics. (For other applications, refer to Downhill Racer, Smile, and The Bad News Bears.) Robert Redford stars as a young, liberal California Democrat who stands against a Republican senator in an election he knows he can’t win. Given that he’s destined to lose, he speaks his mind. But then losing doesn’t seem that appealing, and as the race progresses, Redford keeps softening up his stances and offering vagaries instead of moral clarity. It’s as convincing a depiction of how politics really work, and why even the most principled-seeming candidates end up selling out, or at least selling short, their ideals, as has ever been made. Forty years later its last line, “What do we do now?,” still hangs in the air waiting for an answer.

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