Film Reviews:

My Top Five Films about Politics

Warning: Spoilers, mostly mild ones.

 

Do you think anyone will ever make a film inspired by Trump’s White House or Boris’s Number Ten? If I were a screenwriter, I’d be finding plenty of juicy material in the current goings-on. In fact, certain recent events make the Watergate scandal seem somewhat tame.

And speaking of Watergate, here are my top five films with political themes.


 1. All the President’s Men (1976)

 

My all-time favourite political film is adapted from the bestselling non-fiction book of the same name by journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

What makes this film so great? Obviously the casting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as the two journalists, the preppy Woodward and the dishevelled Bernstein. They are the perfect odd couple.  Then there's the source material, a story so Machivellian that in our '70s naivety, we couldn't quite believe it was true.

The film begins with a bungled break-in at the offices of the Democratic Party. Soon Woodward and Bernstein discover links to the White House. With the support of Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards), they persist in their investigation, even in the face of White House attempts to close them down.

At the time, we were shocked and appalled by the Watergate affair and the fact that the President turned out to be a crook. Nowadays, it seems like small play compared to what has been happening under Trump’s regime – the Ukrainian quid pro quo scandal being the tip of the fatberg. Nevertheless, All the President’s Men still resonates more than forty years after it was made.


In a nutshell . . .

This is one of the best suspense thrillers ever made, and all based on fact.


 2. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

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Where there’s political power, there will always be corruption. But you only need one honest man to fight for truth and justice. In this case, it’s Jefferson Smith (aka James Stewart) who is elected to the US Senate where his personal mission is to fight for ‘lost causes – the only causes worth fighting for’. Mr Smith’s idealism doesn’t sit well with fellow politicians from his home state who try to bring him down by circulating forged documents and fake stories. Sound slightly familiar?

 

In a nutshell . . .

Capra’s film was a ground-breaker in dealing with political corruption and and nepotism in post-Depression America and is just as relevant today. Perhaps more so. The film is a bit creaky and the acting often veers towards histrionics, but if you're a movie buff, it’s worth a look.


 3. The Ghost Writer (2010)

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Unlike All the President’s Men, The Ghost Writer is a work of fiction, yet it feels very real. A corrupt former Prime Minister, played with charming malevolence by Pierce Brosnan, is struggling with his memoirs and wants a ghost writer to pen them for him.

Enter Ewan McGregor, who arrives by ferry at the PM’s house on a windswept island. If you thought being a politician’s ghost writer would be a bland occupation, think again. Referred to only as 'The Ghost', McGregor soon discovers hidden documents that reveal the former PM is hiding some very dangerous political secrets. Is there anyone our Ghost Writer can trust? The PM’s wife? The professor? Or perhaps the senior politician who claims he has dirt on the ex PM?

In the best thriller tradition, there is a knock-you-for-six ending that will leave you reeling.


In a nutshell . . .

An intelligent thriller which will draw you into its dark and sinister world.


 4. The Ides of March (2011)

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Ryan Gosling is a novice campaign director, working for Governor George Clooney, a charming Presidential hopeful competing in the Democratic primaries. In this film, nobody is as they seem and everyone wants to win at all costs, from the campaign managers to the candidates themselves. There’s collateral damage along the way but no-one seems to care.

An outstanding cast, including the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as the Governor’s chief of staff and the ever-reliable Paul Giametti as the opponent’s campaign manager, lifts this film above your run-of-the-mill political thriller.


In a nutshell . . .

A riveting drama about political and personal machinations with plenty of twists.


 5. Dave (1993)

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Wikipedia

 

Ostensibly a romantic comedy, there is far more to Dave than that. The titular hero is an ordinary guy who runs an employment agency and has a part-time job impersonating the President. When the real President suffers a stroke, the White House Chief of Staff (a delightfully devious Frank Langella*) recruits Dave to take Potus’s place.

The President’s wife (Sigourney Weaver), who is estranged from her husband, soon works out there is an imposter in the Oval Office but keeps this to herself as she finds Dave’s kindness and honesty rather refreshing. So does the American public who are delighted to see that their President has become a new and better man following his stroke. 


*Frank Langella also played a chilling Nixon in Frost Nixon, another excellent political film based on the famous interviews between David Frost and Richard Nixon.


In a nutshell . . .

Can a rom com about politics be deeply insightful? You bet!


Afterword

I couldn’t end this article without mentioning some outstanding television series with politics at their heart.

 

The West Wing (1999-2006)

The first few seasons are a tour de force, featuring quick-fire ‘walk and talk’ scenes delivered by an impeccable cast. At the heart of the series is President Josiah Bartlet, played by the magnificent Martin Sheen, who had previous experience in the Oval Office as JFK in the 1983 miniseries Kennedy.

For those of us who suffered through the George W. Bush years, The West Wing provided an alternative political world led by an intelligent and capable statesman.

Following the departure of scriptwriter extraordinaire Aaron Sorkin, the series started to flag, but it did give us a Hispanic President (Jimmy Smits) in the final year.


A snippet of trivia –Elisabeth Moss who plays June in The Handmaid’s Tale rose to fame as Martin Sheen’s daughter Zoey in The West Wing.

 


House of Cards (1990)

This is the original BBC series, which I found far superior to the more recent American version. The late Ian Richardson plays the nefarious and manipulative Francis Urquhart who plots to become leader of the Conservatives and then PM. The ending is truly shocking.


The Politician’s Husband (2012)

Written by the talented Paula Milne, this miniseries stars David Tennant as a leadership aspirant and Emily Watson as his wife, a woman with political ambitions of her own. There is a fine supporting cast including Ed Stoppard and Roger Allem and lots of twists culminating in a pull-the-rug-out-from-under-you ending.

 

The Thick of It and The Hollowmen

Who says politics can’t be humorous? Particularly when the humour is of the satirical kind. The British series features the incomparable Peter Capaldi as spin doctor Malcolm Tucker, a man renowned for spicing his conversations with picturesque profanities. Meanwhile The Hollowmen is a biting Australian satire targeting politicians and bureaucrats alike.

 

Deborah O’Brien

February 2020