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Political Movies Tell the Truth Some of the Time About Politics

Presidents Nixon & Johnson: Movie Makers' Dream Subjects? - LBJ Library

If life reflects art reflects life, does political movie-making reflect politics? Does political cinema reveal truth? Does it matter, if they’re good films?

Film is a medium that lends itself to dramatising conflict, espousing causes, harnessing opinion and satirising opponents. Political movies need that material.

It’s been utilised in TV series, such as The West Wing from the U.S.; In the Thick of It, which spun into In the Loop (2009), a movie; and House of Cards and Yes Minister /Yes Prime Minister, classics of civil service/politician tensions. The British mini-series State of Play became an American movie (2009) about investigative reporters and government corruption.

It’s a broad category, political film. Citizen Kane (1941) was a thinly disguised biopic about publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst who had an unsuccessful run for New York governor. It’s about ruthless power, wealth and fame within American life. Politics and media are natural bedfellows.

Media Power, Political Power

The Front Page (1974) from Ben Hecht’s 1928 comic play, examined the newspaper world, juxtaposing the death penalty and crime. That made it political. His Girl Friday (1940) was an earlier retelling of the same play about newspapers and the pursuit of crooked government officials.

Network (1976) portrayed power-concentrated media ownership and the fickleness of audiences. Broadcast News (1987) exposed the newsroom environment – or the politics of media, really. Shattered Glass (2003) was described by Internet Movie Database (IMDB) as “the true story of a young journalist who fell from grace when it was found he’d fabricated over half of his articles.”

All the President’s Men (1976) was the first dramatisation of the U.S. Watergate scandal, Washington Post reporters, secret informers and cover-ups that went to the White House itself, leading to Nixon’s resignation. Dramatic and suspenseful, the film both set standards in political expose and inspired a generation of political journalists.

Nixon himself, arguably one of America’s more interesting Presidents, inspired Nixon (1995), which revealed the contradictory nature of the man who overcame defeats to become a popular, shrewd political operator before ending in failure and lies. Frost/Nixon (2008) dramatised the post-Watergate interview that Nixon gave British TV journalist, David Frost, in a battle of wits three years after the scandal.

The Political Process

Advise and Consent (1962) told the saga of a President’s nominee for Secretary of State, skeletons in cupboards and what ensued when somebody tried to undermine the choice. Acknowledged as the first mainstream movie to show a gay bar and a black male and white female senator, it was political drama.

The press’ freedom and journalistic refusal to reveal sources (and in extremis facing jail), the U.S. court system and and the constitution were themes of Nothing But the Truth (2008). All the King’s Men (1949 and 2006) fictionalised the rise of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, as he began building roads, schools, hospitals and his empire. The film studied the man caught between public service and corruption of power.

Getting elected is fascinating. The Candidate (1972) showed Robert Redford as an idealistic wannabe and the cost of power, hoops, obstacles and hostages to future fortune that politicians make. The War Room (1993) was a documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential campaign and the people who ran it. A Perfect Candidate (1996) followed Oliver North’s doomed bid for a Senate seat.

Born Yesterday (1950 and 1993) was described by Ten Classic Political Movies as a “sweetly funny story of a gangster’s girlfriend who comes with him to Washington to bribe a congressman and learns about ‘the finer things of life’ from a journalist.” Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) had a political innocent arriving in the capital full of ideals but encountering systematic corruption.

Tense Times, Intense Drama

Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) and The Hurt Locker (2008) were recent conflicts with political/military angles. But the Cold War was the background for political thrillers galore. The 40-year tension between the Soviet Union and the West made another world war a distinct possibility. Dr. Strangelove (1964) was a black comedy about it with Peter Sellers playing three separate roles.

Fail Safe (1964) was a serious version, with the “what-if” notion of nuclear weapons being dropped. Global annihilation was imminent. Seven Days in May was also a make-believe of possibilities, in a tense political thriller about military and civilian mindsets. From the novel, The Manchurian Candidate (1962 and 2004) was about brainwashing, political idealism and theories wrapped in a thrilling tale.

The second world war was the environment of The Gathering Storm (2002), depicting British wartime leader Winston Churchill’s “idiosyncrasies, moods and mercurial disposition,” according to Joseph Planta of Among others, Young Winston (1972), Das Boot (1981) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) dealt with the politics of war.

JFK (1991) was one of many movies about the 1963 assassination of John Kennedy, the aftermath and the conspiracies that have continued ever since. A Face in the Crowd (1957) charted the rise of a hobo to political kingmaker. Political thriller The Contender (2000) focused on becoming Vice-President.

Comedy, the Last Resort

Nobody should go into politics without a sense of humour. Wag the Dog (1997) humorously showed a spin-doctor and Hollywood producer covering up a presidential sex scandal. The Front (1976) was a comedy drama about the 1950s communist blacklist period. The American President (1995) was a funny movie about a widowed President and a lobbyist.

Election (1999) took on high school student elections in an amusing way. Bob Roberts (1992) offended some Republicans, as it was a comedy about a corrupt, right-wing folksinger running a crooked election campaign. Yet another comedy drama was Primary Colors (1998) about the political campaign of a smooth operator.

Dave (1993) was an ordinary guy who bore an uncanny resemblance to the U.S. President and was hired to take on some of his duties, until it became for real. It was comedy, but like much humour, it shed new light on serious topics, in this case, the role and power of one elected human being.

That’s what political movies do. They give audiences fresh insights into government machines, temptations befalling elected representatives and systems put into place to regulate life. Such movies may be enjoyable, informative, challenging or objectionable – or all of the above. Politics is one way into some people’s dark side.

First published on Suite 101, 5 March 2011.

Photo: Presidents Nixon & Johnson: Movie Makers’ Dream Subjects? – LBJ Library

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