A Voters' Guide to Presidential Movies

A Voters' Guide to Presidential Movies
12 Oct
2020
Not in Hall of Fame

Index

What an absolutely insane year 2020 has been—and it's not even over yet. In particular, the United States has a general election upcoming in November, and not only has that already proved to be insane—it could go positively psychotic.

This is a pop-culture site, so don't worry, we'll not go into polemics that will raise your blood pressure faster than you can say "fake news." In fact, this "Voters' Guide to Presidential Movies" is meant to offer a respite from the frenzy while keeping to the topic of politics in general and presidential politics in particular. Below you'll find summaries of an array of movies from old to new that have thrown their hats into the ring of political discourse, with an emphasis on the US presidency although that is not exclusive.

Indeed, to touch on the various moods politics and presidents evoke, I've grouped these movies around different themes, keeping in mind that several of these movies could fit under more than one theme; I've grouped those under the theme that reflects that part of the movie I think is most pertinent overall.

For instance, The Front Runner is about Gary Hart's abortive 1988 presidential run, but since it was a media-driven scandal that forced his withdrawal from the race, it appears under the media theme rather than the campaign-trail theme. Of course, politics does encompass a multitude of personal and social aspects, and many of these movies reflect several of those aspects to varying degrees. I've also included a few movies that don't seem to touch on politics or presidents at all, at least not overtly or literally, but are analogous to our subject.

Nixon1

To hold office, you have to get elected, so first up is Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail. Whether running for or holding office, you'll find yourself in the media spotlight of Pageantry and Personalities, while espousing an ideology such as The Virtue of Selfishness can both attract and alienate voters.

Focusing on leaders and those who think they are is Presidents and Pretenders to the Throne, with one President so distinctive that we still say Nixon's the One. But holding onto power is treacherous—there's always the danger of an American Coup. And looking at upheavals in other countries, do you really think It Can't Happen Here?

Providing contrast to the American system is And Now for Something Completely Different. Kind of. Finally, Sublimely Ridiculous takes a cock-eyed view of presidents and politics, showing us that you can't always takes these things too seriously.

A note on the ratings: The film's rating reflects its cinematic qualities, in other words, how well it was made and how well it conveys its message regardless of what that message is.

Ratings are from one to five stars:

*****

Classic. Transcendent filmmaking or storytelling that epitomizes a period, style, or genre.

****

Excellent. Superior but not transcendent filmmaking or storytelling.

***

Good. Filmmaking or storytelling of average value, or typical of a period, style, or genre.

**

Fair. Fundamentally flawed technically and/or artistically, or an interesting failure.

*

Poor. Technically inferior and/or artistically bankrupt; no redeeming qualities.

Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail

Movies discussed in this section, listed here alphabetically although not discussed in alphabetical or chronological order below:

All the King's Men (1949) ****

The Best Man (1964) ****

Bulworth (1998) ***

The Candidate (1972) ****

The Ides of March (2011) **

The Last Hurrah (1958) ***

Nashville (1975) ****

Primary Colors (1998) ***

Credit for the title of this section of course goes to the late, great Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, whose exhaustive (exhausting?) opus Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail '72 chronicles the ups and downs of Democratic Senator George McGovern's ill-fated run in 1972 to unseat incumbent President Richard Nixon.

Laced with lurid flights of fancy such as Democratic candidate Edmund Muskie's unlikely ingestion of ibogaine during the New Hampshire primary to explain his odd behavior, Campaign Trail remains a political outsider's scathing indictment of not just party politics but of the mainstream media that covers them. What is most depressing is that the situation has become much worse since those days—then Thompson had to go and off himself in 2005 just when we need his crazed yet astute insights the most.

All politics is local, as former House Speaker Tip O'Neill liked to put it, so with these eight campaign-focused movies we begin at the municipal level and work our way up to the presidency.

The Last Hurrah (1958) ***

Directed by John Ford. Written by Frank S. Nugent, adapted from the eponymous novel by Edwin O'Connor.

Starting with the local level, and most appropriately for O'Neill, who represented Boston, Massachusetts, in the US House of Representatives, Spencer Tracy gives his all for The Last Hurrah, his final campaign to remain mayor of "a New England city" not unlike Boston, in this political drama laced with sharp wit but burdened with lingering melodrama at the close. Tracy plays Frank Skeffington, the amiable but tough head of a well-oiled political machine that has earned him a loyal following—as well as equally dedicated enemies, led by banker Norman Cass (Basil Rathbone) and newspaper publisher Amos Force (John Carradine), backing political novice Kevin McCluskey (Charles Fitzsimons) to unseat Skeffington in his final election.

Last Hurrah

Given a ringside seat to his campaign by his Uncle Frank, Force's sportswriter Adam Caulfield (Jeffrey Hunter) watches savvy, cunning political boss Skeffington manage a widow's wake into a raucous political gathering and arm-twist Cass for the loan needed to fund a municipal housing development. The Last Hurrah nose-dives in its last act, which Ford stretches into gratuitous melodrama as the stock music swells mawkishly. Along with Ford mainstays Ken Curtis and Jane Darwell, Edward Brophy, Donald Crisp, and Pat O'Brien head the supporters giving Tracy The Last Hurrah.

All the King's Men (1949) ****

Written and directed by Robert Rossen, adapted from the eponymous novel by Robert Penn Warren.

Moving up to the gubernatorial level, Broderick Crawford came to prominence by playing Willie Stark, a naïve populist running for governor of an unnamed US state, although All the King's Men is loosely based on the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long. The pivotal moment comes when Stark realizes that he has been set up as a dupe in the race: Shaking off his drunkenness while speaking at a county fair, Stark rouses the crowd with his candor and his promises to help the "hicks" of his state, among whom he counts himself, as Crawford delivers his signature performance as the politician with upstanding principles who inevitably succumbs to political corruption.

All the Kings Men

Cinematographer Burnett Guffey's angled shots, framed in dramatic black and white, lend All the King's Men its film noir atmosphere that cloaks its themes of idealism, pragmatism, and ultimately cynicism, with disillusionment and duplicity bubbling underneath as decadence and corruption permeate the narrative that sees Stark betray crusading reporter Jack Burden (John Ireland), who had championed Stark from his earliest days, and co-opt opposition operative Sadie Burke (Mercedes McCambridge) to be his fixer and would-be mistress. All the King's Men remains a (pardon the pun) stark lesson in Lord Acton's familiar dictum: "Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The Candidate (1972) ****

Directed by Michael Ritchie. Written by Jeremy Larner.

Robert Redford also finds his idealism tested on the campaign trail as Bill McKay, The Candidate whose pivotal moment comes during his debate with incumbent Republican Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter) for Jarmon's seat as a US Senator from California. McKay goes off-script to decry all the issues the two candidates are not discussing, rattling Jarmon and irritating his own handlers (played by Peter Boyle and Allen Garfield), although McKay's rant ultimately signals his last moment of idealism and his turn toward slick pragmatism, a dynamic that distinguishes the unsentimental yet not quite cynical script by Larner, who had been Senator Eugene McCarthy's speechwriter during McCarthy's 1968 presidential bid.

Candidate

Released at the height of the 1972 presidential race, the subtly satiric The Candidate echoes the quixotic George McGovern campaign while applying the hard lessons of recent politics that spurred Redford and Ritchie to make the film. With Jarmon considered a shoo-in for re-election, community activist McKay is enticed into running by the opportunity to use the race as a platform for unorthodox political positions, but despite early indifference and even hostility, McKay gradually begins to build a groundswell of support that is so successful—and so unexpected—that it prompts The Candidate's closing punchline familiar to countless underdogs: "What do we do now?" Ritchie's verité direction and committed performances, especially by Redford, keep The Candidate on the ballot.

Bulworth (1998) ***

Directed by Warren Beatty. Written by Beatty and Jeremy Pikser.

But instead of staying on the ballot, Beatty dives into outrageous political satire in Bulworth as Democratic US Senator Jay Bulworth (Beatty), needing to revitalize his campaign, formulates a different re-election strategy: He purchases a $10 million life insurance policy, a sop to the insurance industry, names his daughter as sole beneficiary, and, grown weary of Beltway power bargaining and his façade of marriage to wife Constance (Christine Baranski), arranges to have himself assassinated. Then, back in Los Angeles for last-minute campaigning, he speaks truth to power. Boy, does he ever.

Bulworth2

Tapping piquantly into black urban culture, Bulworth broadcasts acute, often cutting observations clearly from the left-liberal spectrum about the state of the union that would sound preachy in a conventional drama but have mixed results as a comedy, with Bulworth dissing blacks in South Central, kvetching about Hollywood Jews in Beverly Hills, and hooking up with Nina (Halle Berry), who knows more than she lets on, all as Bulworth, who hasn't slept in days, begins rapping—yes, rapping—about how it's all going down. Does Bulworth work? Partly. Beatty leans too heavily on African-American tropes while populating the white establishment with cardboard cutouts, with the assassination simple catalyst and his reappraisal hinging on contrivance. On the plus side, the pungent humor hits enough marks as the whirling narrative stays lively. Bulworth plays the clown—because only the jester can risk telling the awful truth.

The Best Man (1964) ****

Directed by Franklin Schaffner. Written by Gore Vidal, adapted from his eponymous play.

That awful truth raises the stakes higher as you move up the ticket, and who better to parse the intricacies of presidential politics than Vidal, whose acclaimed 1984 historical novel Lincoln garnered praise from across the political spectrum, and who adapted his own play for Schaffner's film version of The Best Man, an unyielding examination of candidates jockeying for their party's presidential nomination at a contentious convention in Los Angeles, with former President Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy) a potential kingmaker.

Henry Fonda is William Russell, glib but thoughtful, a liberal former secretary of state, and Cliff Robertson is Joe Cantwell, a hard-nosed, hardline conservative with more than a touch of Richard Nixon about him. Russell's infidelities (a nod to John F. Kennedy) and mental health issues give Cantwell a trump card over him—and Cantwell is not afraid to use it.

Best Man

But when Cantwell's old army comrade (Shelley Berman) offers dirt to Russell, he must decide whether to abandon the high road even to stop Cantwell in this taut, sharp, prescient forum for Vidal's cutting home truths about politics reduced to "gossip instead of issues, personalities instead of policies," all captured in cinematographer Haskell Wexler's unvarnished black-and-white framing—and don't think we've seen the last of Wexler or of "gossip instead of issues, personalities instead of policies," either.

Primary Colors (1998) ***

Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Elaine May, adapted from Joe Klein's eponymous novel.

A thinly-veiled account of Bill Clinton's successful 1992 run for the presidency, Primary Colors offers up "Jack Stanton," played by John Travolta, who exudes enough Dixie charisma to pass as a Clinton surrogate and who, with wife Susan (Emma Thompson) more or less by his side, lights out on the campaign trail as the wonkish governor from a nowhere Southern state (never named, but y'all can guess) determined to become the Democratic nominee for president.

Primary Colors

May's lively, sometimes rollicking script bristles with knowing barbs as young up-and-comer Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) is inveigled into the campaign, teaming with spokeswoman Daisy Green (Maura Tierney) and James Carville stand-in Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thornton) as obstacles appear in Stanton's path: evasions over youthful activities, followed by allegations of sexual indiscretion, first with Susan's hairdresser, then with their teenaged babysitter, with the Stantons' old friend, brutal fixer Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), tasked to douse the fires—until her discovery of how ruthless the Stantons really are rattles her. Primary Colors bursts forth like a front-runner—Travolta eerily captures Clinton's "I feel your pain" solicitude—but Nichols's patented surface sheen atop Klein's facile source material all but guarantees a fade before we get to the convention.

The Ides of March (2011) **

Directed by George Clooney. Written by Beau Willimon, adapted from his play Farragut North, with Clooney and Grant Heslov.

Speaking of facile material and surface sheen, the too-familiar The Ides of March emerges as a West Wing episode writ large with contrived melodrama that aims for electoral sophistication but hits a series of shallow clichés, both personal and political, from start to finish. Clooney stars as Mike Morris, the governor of one battleground state, Pennsylvania, running for the Democratic presidential nomination in another battleground state, Ohio, where his challenger, Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell), could win the state with the help of influential Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright).

Ides of March

Each candidate has his campaign soldiers trying to engineer the deals. For Pullman, it's crafty Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and for Morris, it's grizzled veteran Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and young Turk Stephen Meyers (a vapid Ryan Gosling), whom Duffy tries to lure into the Pullman camp. Meyers himself is successful in luring young Morris intern Molly Stearns (Rachel Evan Wood) into his bed, and while accidentally answering Molly's mobile phone late one night, he discovers that she and Morris shared a brief tryst. Already we're faced with tired, predictable devices, both literally (the cell phone) and figuratively (the sexual affairs), and compounding the labored storytelling is the jockeying by the three campaign managers, particularly the temptation Duffy offers Meyers. Savvy politico Clooney tries to deliver a meaty moral but serves up an unconvincing trifle instead. Beware The Ides of March.

Nashville (1975) ****

Directed by Robert Altman. Written by Joan Tewkesbury.

Our final campaign stop is in Nashville, which, at least overtly, is focused on country music, the chief industry of "Music City, U.S.A." But Altman's sprawling yet masterful opus opens with the drone of one Hal Phillip Walker (Thomas Hal Phillips), his flat voice blaring from the loudspeaker atop his van that identifies him as the presidential candidate for the "Replacement Party," slowly winding his way through the city streets, and it ends at a benefit concert for Walker at the (Nashville) Parthenon, where an assassination attempt occurs.

Seen in that respect, Nashville sits at an American crossroads musically, spiritually, politically, geographically, and chronologically, in many ways the most astute and compelling cinematic summation of a decade-plus of the social and cultural upheaval that changed the United States in the 1960s and early 1970s—changes that remain contentious even today. We never see Walker, but we do see John Triplette (Altman stalwart Michael Murphy), Walker's unctuous advance man, schmoozing the local luminaries including Haven Hamilton (Henry Gibson), part of country music's aristocracy with political ambitions of his own, first seen recording his stirring if schmaltzy ode to the upcoming Bicentennial, juxtaposed with Linnea Reese's (Lily Tomlin) session singing for gospel performer Tommy Brown (Timothy Brown)—already displaying contrasts in race and musical forms.

Nashville

Walker's voice, and its plainspoken populist message, winds sonorously through Nashville and its array of dramas, musical and non-musical, played out on large and small stages by, among others, Ned Beatty, Karen Black, Ronee Blakely, Keith Carradine, Geraldine Chaplin, Shelley Duvall, and Barbara Harris—and have fun identifying the actual country-music personages in some of their characters. (Hint: Think "Coal Miner's Daughter" when you see Blakely.)

Pageantry and Personalities

Movies discussed in this section, listed here alphabetically although discussed (generally) chronologically below:

Bombshell (2019) ****

Citizen Kane (1941) *****

A Face in the Crowd (1957) ****

The Front Runner (2018) ***

Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) ****

Medium Cool (1969) ****

Network (1976) ****

State of Play (2003) ****

State of Play (2009) ***

Truth (2015) ****

Wag the Dog (1997) ****

Mainstream media, or as Sarah Palin so wittily dubbed it, "lamestream" media, takes a drubbing from all points on the political spectrum for its perceived biases. By and large, the MSM (as the shorthand goes) deserves it. We could launch into discourses on ideology—conservatives think the MSM is too liberal while liberals think it's too conservative—or on economics, of how, as Ben Bagdikian noted way back in his landmark 1983 study The Media Monopoly, media outlets, primarily television, not only commodified the news but began to consolidate ownership of its outlets into fewer and fewer hands.

But to boil it down to basics, the MSM has devolved into what I call Pageantry and Personalities. A pageant is, to be polite, a stylized representation that delivers a shallow understanding while emphasizing surface attractions—think of a beauty pageant, ostensibly an appreciation of womanhood but one that extols only women's superficial qualities. To be blunt, a pageant is a pretense, an ostentatious display, which is what the mainstream media has become. Issues do not get in-depth explorations that could foster understanding; they get personalities that either support or oppose an issue, with the ensuing talkfest—cue the array of insets on your television screen, each containing a talking head just waiting to pontificate, usually over someone else—the "debate" that doesn't enlighten or even inform very well; it only raises the blood pressure.

How did we get here? The movies in this section might not provide a direct answer, but they do illustrate that media has been intertwined with politics to such an extent that perception is politics, and that perception reflects the framing by the media, which any media-savvy president, from FDR and JFK to Reagan and Trump, knows how to manipulate.

Fittingly, then, as media sources have multiplied in the last few decades, so too have the number of movies that stress the marriage of media and politics; thus, the bulk of these movies are from the more recent decades. However, four pre-Reagan movies illustrate the groundwork upon which the newer movies have built.

Citizen Kane (1941) *****

Directed by Orson Welles. Written by Welles and Herman J. Mankiewicz.

To be sure, pageantry and personalities has been around for a long time, epitomized by "yellow journalism," sensationalistic, dubiously-sourced reporting that we now call tabloid journalism, with a giant practitioner being William Randolph Hearst, the media mogul of his era whose influence and personality are echoed by the likes of Fox News maven Rupert Murdoch. Citizen Kane is the fictional, thinly disguised profile of Hearst that also made Welles a legend as he and Mankiewicz tell the tale of Charles Foster Kane, the Hearst alter ego who transcended his humble origins to cast his mighty shadow over American politics and society.

Leaving Colorado to launch his own newspaper in New York, initially with high ideals (the iconic "Declaration of Principles" scene), Kane soon resorts to yellow journalism even as his paper's influence is weighty enough to push the United States into the Spanish-American War (Kane paraphrases Hearst's actual directive to a reporter stationed in Cuba as, "You provide the prose-poems, I'll provide the war"). Aspiring to public office himself, Kane, against a backdrop of himself in a gigantic poster, challenges incumbent New York governor Jim Gettys (Ray Collins) with a fiery speech in Madison Square Garden as cinematographer Gregg Toland's sumptuous black-and-white photography captures the literally larger-than-life Kane in full self-righteous glory.

CitKane

What a comeuppance, then, when Gettys discovers Kane's love nest housing aspiring singer Susan Alexander (Dorothy Comingore), a scandal that ends both Kane's political ambitions and his marriage to Emily (Ruth Warrick), who just happens to be the niece of a former president. We'll forego the eternal debate about whether Citizen Kane is the greatest movie ever to note simply that it still casts a mighty shadow over our impressions of the news media.

A Face in the Crowd (1957) ****

Directed by Elia Kazan. Written by Budd Schulberg.

While Citizen Kane illustrates, among other points, how the media can manipulate public opinion, A Face in the Crowd demonstrates how someone can use the media to manipulate the public—and if you know Andy Griffith only as a genial small-town sheriff or a folksy defense attorney from nostalgia TV, wait until you get a load of him here. Griffith stars as "Lonesome" Rhodes, discovered by local radio reporter Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) in a rural Arkansas drunk tank who is taken by his folksy, bumpkin manner and particular appeal to women—to which she is hardly immune. A hit with his own show, Rhodes displays his ambition and powers of persuasion as he moves to Memphis, then to New York, where he becomes a national icon with his own television show.

Face in the Crowd

Screenwriter Schulberg proved remarkably prescient about the power of television, still in its early stages, to magnify the cult of personality to demagogic levels while suggesting his own cynicism (not entirely unfounded) about the gullibility of audiences even then as director Kazan proves equally capable of framing the message evocatively, if hardly subtly. Behind the scenes, Lonesome's down-home charm evaporates as the shrewd, egotistical, manipulative, often spiteful Rhodes reveals his contempt toward an adoring public that made him a sensation. What's more, his sponsor (Percy Waram) is grooming a stodgy, reactionary senator (Marshall Neilan) for president—and he sees Rhodes as the ideal tutor to give him a makeover to make him more appealing to the unwashed masses. The ending of A Face in the Crowd flags with the predictable comeuppance, but its overall message remains bracing—and uncomfortably contemporary.

Medium Cool (1969) ****

Written and directed by Haskell Wexler.

Television factors into Medium Cool by focusing on John Cassellis (Robert Forster), a news cameraman with an instinct for the story if not for the people making the story: In a telling early scene, he and his sound man Gus (Peter Bonerz) become more concerned about shooting effective footage of a road accident that had just happened than with helping the victims. Then again, Wexler, best known as a premier cinematographer who filmed Medium Cool himself, pulls no punches in his unsentimental portrait of Chicago at the height of the bloody, infamous 1968 Democratic National Convention that further polarized an already-divided nation and led to the election of Republican Richard Nixon as president.

Medium Cool

Wexler adapted the title Medium Cool from Marshall McLuhan's description of television as a "cool" medium whose detachment and lack of context requires you to fill in the blanks yourself. Wexler compels his viewers to do the same with his skeletal story, which forces them to probe Cassellis's motivations even as the detached professional finds himself pulled more closely into the political upheaval while discovering that his stories have been handed over to the FBI by his own station's management. Wexler's ending is a contrived cliché, but his final shot, when he swings his camera around to face the camera filming him—in other words, forcing his audience to acknowledge that it is part of the story—is unforgettable.

Network (1976) ****

Directed by Sidney Lumet. Written by Paddy Chayefsky.

Taking television to new heights—or depths—Network is truly the transitional movie here, consolidating previous fears and anxieties about the increasingly pervasive medium while offering an outrageous—and chilling—preview of where television was going. Guess what? Their future is our current reality television—and our current reality-television president.

About to be fired for low ratings, television news anchor Howard Beale (Peter Finch) announces that he will kill himself on-air before his old chum and fellow unemployment recipient Max Schumacher (William Holden) convinces him to make a dignified exit. Instead, Howard rants on-air that he's mad as hell and he won't take it anymore. Lo! His audience feels the same way. Presto! He's back on top as the "mad prophet of the airwaves"! Make that mad profit for his network, the fictitious UBS, as entertainment-programming genius Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway) steers Howard to national fame—an eerie foreshadowing of what really did happen to television news just a few years after Network was first released.

Network

Lumet (Twelve Angry Men, Dog Day Afternoon) knew how to transmit a social message while never losing sight of the individual lives that compose that society. Pairing him with legendary "Golden Age of Television" writer Chayefsky should have been a dream teaming. Overall, it is, as Network looks as relevant (if not more so) today as it did nearly a half-century ago. But Chayefsky's script produces characters who emit stilted, affected speech on the way to an utterly cynical, rapacious, business-driven ending. Still, Ned Beatty's glorious scenery-chewing as he berates Howard for the folly of believing that countries, not transnational corporations, make the rules of the world remains an object lesson in realpolitik, one that Donald Trump certainly understands, if only on a transactional level.

Wag the Dog (1997) ****

Directed by Barry Levinson. Written by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, based on Larry Beinhart's novel American Hero.

Outrageous television (among other mediums) combined with equally scandalous political theater distinguishes Wag the Dog, which manages not only to recap then-contemporary political foibles but eerily presage upcoming ones. The contemporary foibles include a US president caught making advances on a "Firefly Girl" just days before his hoped-for re-election—shades of Bill Clinton's l’Affaire Lewinsky, oui?—which sends West Winger Winifred Ames (Anne Heche) springing into damage control. Her first call is to shadowy spin doctor "Connie" Brean (Robert De Niro), whose solution is to concoct a fictitious war with . . . Albania, subcontracting the production of the war to a real Hollywood producer, Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman), to make the deception look realistic. And is it ever—until one detail develops a life of his own.

Wag the Dog

Director Levinson dwells on these juicy details, whether it's Motss's staging an "Albanian" girl's (Kirsten Dunst) "escape" from a "war-torn" village—actually a green screen on a sound stage—or enlisting Willie Nelson and Pops Staples to write a "vintage" folk song, "Old Shoe, " about a missing US soldier, with a secretly psychotic Woody Harrelson playing that soldier whose circumstances are an eerie preview of the Jessica Lynch deception during the early stages of the 2003 Iraq War. And just wait until you see CIA operative William H. Macy "end" the "war." What is truly frightening about Wag the Dog is not just how seamlessly it fabricates reality but how easily it is accepted as truth—Orwellian doublespeak and revisionism in the 24-hour news cycle. And in an age with a reality-television star as president, Wag the Dog remains, tragi-comically, all too relevant.

State of Play (2003) ****

Directed by David Yates. Written Paul Abbott.

Mixing political chicanery, media scrutiny, and interpersonal relationships, the ambitious State of Play marshals a wealth of narrative and characterization into a generally compelling story that commands attention and rewards close examination. This six-part BBC miniseries is the only television production included in this voters' guide because it was adapted directly into a 2009 feature film (discussed below). The British take on State of Play uses the apparent suicide of a young female researcher beneath a London subway train as the impetus into a complex web of connections that lead to Minister of Parliament Stephen Collins (David Morrisey), for whom the woman had been working. Reporter Cal McCaffrey (John Simm), who once worked for Collins, offers his sympathy as he is investigating the apparently drug-motivated killing of a young black man—but when a briefcase in the man's possession contains surveillance material on the dead researcher, McCaffrey enlists fellow reporter Della Smith (Kelly Macdonald) to help investigate a thickening plot.

Oh, boy, does the plot thicken. Spurred by their editor Cameron Foster (the always-enjoyable Bill Nighy), McCaffrey and Smith begin to uncover a larger, Byzantine thread that points to governmental and industrial corruption and conspiracy through increasing degrees of realization and on the kind of grand scale that British drama seems able to shrug off as easy as breathing without becoming grandiose, melodramatic, or, crucially, unbelievable—a testament to Abbott's ability to concoct a rich, complex story. With six hours of narrative, State of Play cannot help but be sprawling and occasionally padded, but Yates's steady direction keeps the lanes straight as the principals, supported by James McAvoy, Polly Walker, and Marc Warren, whose near-manic PR flack Dominic Foy is almost comic relief, make the connections clear and compelling.

State of Play

State of Play (2009) ***

Directed by Kevin Macdonald. Written by Matthew Michael Carnahan, Tony Gilroy, and Billy Ray, based on Paul Abbott's eponymous teleplay.

The American movie adaptation of State of Play, directed by Macdonald seemingly after repeated screenings of All the President's Men, distills the miniseries' general premise but, now set in the United States, many of the specific references become more identifiable in an American context. The young researcher tied to now-Senator Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) emerges as an analog to the 2001 disappearance and murder of Chandra Levy, a federal intern who had been having an affair with Democratic Representative Gary Condit, while PointCorp, a shadowy private security contractor fallen under Collins's scrutiny, echoes the description of Blackwater, the de facto American mercenary army infamous for its massacres in Iraq.

Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) is now a grizzled Washington Globe beat reporter investigating a local shooting who locks horns with the paper's young online blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) investigating the researcher's death until, with the blessing of Globe editor Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren), they join forces to prove that the aide was murdered to discredit Collins's investigation into PointCorp. Of course, there is a plot twist lurking, facilitated by sleazy public relations flak Dominic Foy (a delightfully greaseball Jason Bateman) working for PointCorp, leading to an unsurprising conclusion. Jeff Daniels and Robin Wright add interest to this earnest if unexceptional political drama, although any Washington thriller that can squeeze Gil Scott-Heron's cutting Reagan critique "B Movie" onto the soundtrack can't be all bad.

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) ****

Directed by George Clooney. Written by Clooney and Grant Heslov.

Delving back into the 1950s, Good Night, and Good Luck features David Strathairn portraying legendary journalist Edward R. Murrow and battling archival footage of Senator Joseph McCarthy during that decade's Red Scare, with Robert Elswit's seamless black-and-white photography defusing that potential conceit. Murrow, a crusading pioneer in television's early days, incurs McCarthy's wrath when he dares to criticize McCarthy's bullying tactics, which have cowed the nation, gripped in Cold War paranoia, that include McCarthy's threats of labeling someone a communist, a charge that taints fellow journalist Don Hollenbeck (Ray Wise). And although CBS head William Paley (Frank Langella) supports Murrow, it comes at the cost of alienating advertisers like aluminum giant Alcoa.

Good Night and Good Luck

Clooney and Heslov's taut, effective script captures the clipped newsmen's dialogue and mid-century attitudes without ostentation while Clooney's direction, his shots perhaps a shade self-consciously arty, nevertheless evokes the tenseness of the time and Murrow's sense of purpose without melodrama, particularly when Murrow realizes that he's won the battle but lost the war. Reserved, unemotional, but resolute, Strathairn holds the center of the film, which, bookended by scenes of Murrow's prescient 1958 speech warning not to fritter away television's power on cheap entertainment, drives home a timeless message that surely resonates today and makes Good Night, and Good Luck, Murrow's sign-off phrase, enlightening and compelling.

The Front Runner (2018) ***

Directed by Jason Reitman. Written by Reitman with Jay Carson and Matt Bai, based on Bai's book All the Truth Is Out: The Week Politics Went Tabloid.

News media proved to be the downfall of Gary Hart, a Democratic rising star from Colorado who attracted favorable comparisons to John F. Kennedy when he ran for president in 1988 and quickly became The Front Runner. Like Kennedy, Hart (Hugh Jackman) was also known as a womanizer—but unlike JFK, it proved to be his undoing when the Miami Herald, staking out Hart on an anonymous tip, reported that a woman, Donna Rice (Sara Paxton), spent the night at Hart's Washington, D.C., townhouse while his wife Lee (Vera Farmiga) was still in Colorado. The ensuing media frenzy soon forced Hart to withdraw from the race (although he re-entered briefly during the early primaries).

Front Runner

Director Reitman starts The Front Runner off with a bang. Hart, with Lee on the periphery, hits the campaign trail flanked by staffers led by Bill Dixon (J.K. Simmons) firing off glib, profane dialogue, like West Wingers given permission to swear, in a narrative punctuated by Rob Simonsen's spare, percussive score as editor Stefan Grube sweats the fast cuts while blending in archival footage. Then Hart goes to Miami, meets Rice—and sets the media off to the races. After its manic first half, The Front Runner throttles back for a ruminative look at how the scandal mushroomed to swallow Hart's momentum, not helped by his clipped, cursory responses at a contentious press conference, but it also swallows the momentum of this shallow, extended vignette that produces tepid heat but no enlightenment.

Truth (2015) ****

Written and directed by James Vanderbilt, based on the book Truth and Duty: The Press, the President and the Privilege of Power by Mary Mapes.

During the 2004 election, CBS's 60 Minutes aired an exposé delivered by journalist Dan Rather (Robert Redford) alleging that George W. Bush, seeking his second term as president, had received preferential treatment and had made unauthorized absences while serving in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam conflict, with the smoking gun being copies of memos written by Bush's commander that were furnished to CBS by former Air National Guard officer Bill Burkett (Stacy Keach). However, the political blogosphere quickly challenged the veracity of the documents, prompting media scrutiny and subsequent backpedaling by CBS, which launched an internal investigation that targeted producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett), whose team was unable to fully vet the memos because of scheduling pressures.

Truth

The hard-hitting docudrama Truth examines this controversy with little subtlety as Vanderbilt plunges ahead with slick convention and hastily drawn characterizations, underlined heavily by Brian Tyler's plangent score, and its unabashed championing of Mapes and her team (which includes Topher Grace, Elisabeth Moss, and Dennis Quaid) is guaranteed to polarize viewers with established political convictions. Yet conviction drives the essence of Blanchett's dynamic performance—she is the very heart of Truth—which lifts Vanderbilt's directorial debut above merely satisfactory as Redford, no stranger to cinematic and political conflict, delivers a nice emeritus turn. So, is Truth a lie? Better examine the evidence before you draw your conclusion.

Bombshell (2019) ****

Directed by Jay Roach. Written by Charles Randolph.

As the head of Fox News, Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) changed the face of cable-television news by developing a confrontational, unabashedly partisan format and by emphasizing the sex appeal of female anchors and reporters, paternalistic sexism that prompted his 2016 ouster from Fox amidst a slew of sexual-harassment allegations beginning with Gretchen Carlson's (Nicole Kidman) following her departure from Fox. Bombshell takes an up-close and personal look at the events leading up to the bombshell revelations against Ailes as Randolph's combustible script sweeps knowingly across the newsroom and director Roach sets a deliberate pace.

Bombshell

But Bombshell has a double meaning: Telling the tale isn't just Carlson but also Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron), replacing Carlson in Fox's primetime while drawing blood in a public feud with then-Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump, and Kayla Pospisil (Margot Robbie), a (fictitious) young up-and-comer eager to land an on-air role—even if that requires a humiliating private audition before Ailes. Taken together, the three women—all attractive blondes—form the life cycle of the bombshell Fox newswoman, with Theron's Kelly the crucial linchpin in tipping credibility for the harassment claims in favor of the victims. Lithgow delivers a choleric, sometimes creepy performance that touches lightly on caricature in this diffuse yet forceful lead story that indeed drops a Bombshell.


 

The Virtue of Selfishness

Movies discussed in this section, listed here alphabetically although discussed chronologically below:

Atlas Shrugged, Part I (2011) **

Atlas Shrugged, Part II: The Strike (2012) **

Atlas Shrugged, Part III: Who Is John Galt? (2014) *

The Fountainhead (1949) **

Nearly four decades after her death, Ayn Rand has become a resurgent icon of American conservatism and libertarianism, her political and philosophical ideas, primarily Objectivism, best known through her 1957 novel Atlas Shrugged, a sprawling work that paints a dystopian United States in which intrepid industrialists, hamstrung by an interventionist, collectivist federal government, disrupt the economy by going on strike.

Rand's resurgence can be traced, at least in part, to economist Alan Greenspan, a member of Rand's inner circle in the 1950s who lauded Rand's influence when he became chairman of the Federal Reserve System, the central bank of the United States, in 1987, a position he held for nearly two decades with a firm commitment to laissez-faire capitalism and the monetarist policies associated primarily with economist Milton Friedman, both of which remain pillars of the American political right.

Rand's ideas epitomized in Atlas Shrugged got their first notable airing in her 1943 novel The Fountainhead, which featured her prototypical rugged, individualistic man struggling to erect his monuments to individual rights and freedoms to be admired as an aesthetic ideal against the daunting tide of oppressive collectivism, and if those overtones sound overtly sexual, Rand herself adapted her novel for the film version of The Fountainhead—and even Hollywood's Production Code era can't disguise some of its more outré elements.

Rand died in 1982, ironically as a beneficiary of both Social Security and Medicare—both the debilitating tools of a collectivist government, remember—which left libertarian businessman John Aglialoro struggling to erect his cinematic monument to Rand's magnum opus, Atlas Shrugged, for several years until it bore its first fruit in 2011.

The Fountainhead (1949) **

Directed by King Vidor. Written by Ayn Rand, adapted from her eponymous novel.

Resolute and uncompromising, steely-eyed architect Howard Roark (Gary Cooper) would rather starve than be forced to alter his conceptions, epitomizing the struggle of the visionary individual against conformist society in Rand's strident, portentous critique of collectivist oppression that's as subtle as a jackhammer.

A wealthy young dilettante (Patricia Neal), who writes a column for tabloid mogul Gail Wynand (Raymond Massey), does become Roark's champion sight unseen, although when she does meet him, working in her daddy's Connecticut quarry, she ends up striking him across his cheek with her riding crop, spurring him to ravish her later. Her name? Dominique. Really. Thus, sneering social critic Rand becomes a panting schoolgirl gushing sadomasochistic fantasy, with anguished Dominique marrying Wynand, who eventually champions Roark too, erecting Rand's modernist, ideological ménage à trois.

Fountainhead

Vidor's perceptive direction also picks up on Rand's psychosexual cues disguised as architectural angst: Robert Burks's acute black-and-white cinematography takes in every phallic skyscraper in New York's background, climaxing with the iconic shot of an orgiastic Neal in an outdoor elevator rushing up to Cooper, astride the world's tallest skyscraper. In case you don't get what a Fountainhead really is. Cooper is, er, stiff and stilted—check his courtroom speech near the climax—but Neal, sensing Max Steiner's pervasive, melodramatic score, plays up Rand's aloof dominatrix-cum-submissive with sexy gusto, almost redeeming the leaden manifesto The Fountainhead.

Atlas Shrugged, Part I (2011) **

Directed by Paul Johansson. Written by John Aglialoro and Brian Patrick O'Toole, adapted from the eponymous novel by Ayn Rand.

The Atlas Shrugged trilogy's most distinguishing quality is that each part features an almost entirely different cast and crew, with producer Aglialoro the only constant. Remarkably, this seeming discontinuity doesn't hamper any of the movies because all of them struggle to rise to cinematic mediocrity, and the eternal hope is that one of the teams might actually succeed through, ahem, collectivist action. Part I labors to bring together Rand's elements of mystery, romance, and social commentary on an epic scale, but its execution falls far short of its ambition. In 2016, America is wracked by depression and oil shortages that has left railroad travel as the most viable transportation option, faithfully retaining Rand's original vision but introducing the jarring juxtaposition of mid-20th-century affectation with near-future sleekness.

Trying to save Taggart Transcontinental rail lines, Dagny Taggart (Taylor Schilling) battles her scheming brother James (Matthew Marsden) and meddling bureaucrats while finding allies in maverick oilman Ellis Wyatt (Graham Beckel) and especially workaholic Hank Rearden (Grant Bowler), whose innovative metal inspires Dagny to rebuild a failing Taggart rail segment as her own company. Soon, Dagny and Hank are investigating rumors of a revolutionary motor, and the romance—well, you can see that one coming a mile away, which exemplifies the narrative deficiencies: Every line is exposition, not conversation, prompting the actors to portray their characters as symbols, not individuals. John Mott's sumptuous—if incongruous—production design and Ross Berryman's sometimes-sweeping photography cannot lift Atlas Shrugged beyond half-inspired amateurism, exemplified by Elia Cmiral's cliché-laden score. Only the partisan politics survive this aesthetic train wreck.

Atlas Shrugged Parts I and II

Atlas Shrugged, Part II: The Strike (2012) **

Directed by John Putch. Written by Brian Patrick O'Toole, Duke Sandefur, and Duncan Scott, adapted from the eponymous novel by Ayn Rand.

The best of the Atlas Shrugged trilogy, Part II: The Strike avoids the first movie's self-conscious homage and even injects an occasional drop of humor, but while it rises to made-for-cable technical competence, this installment of Rand's saga disgorges the pat dialogue and pacing of any message-of-the-week movie without evincing any sense of grandeur. The Taggart railway-tycoon siblings, Dagny and James, are now played by, respectively, Samantha Mathis and Patrick Fabian with marginal improvement over their predecessors, although Mathis, whose Dagny is the linchpin to the Atlas Shrugged saga, is merely adequate but no more.

James has been conciliatory to big government, which continues to crack down on business, first with its "Fair Share" law, which snares Dagny's confederate and lover Hank Reardon (Jason Beghe), and then by declaring "economic martial law" with "Directive 10-289," which further forces Reardon's hand while Dagny quits her position, but a train disaster forces her back—and to a fateful encounter that heralds the third part. Part II delivers a more cohesive near-future feel along with the economic and social unrest (ostensibly inspired by the Occupy Wall Street movement), but although the dialogue is conversational and not simply polemic, it displays the banality of a prime-time soap opera even if enough vaguely familiar faces (Diedrich Bader, Paul McCrane, Thomas F. Wilson, Ray Wise) warrant pursuit of the answer to the persistent question, "Who is John Galt?"

Atlas Shrugged, Part III: Who Is John Galt? (2014) *

Directed by James Manera. Written by Manera, John Aglialoro, and Harmon Kaslow, adapted from the eponymous novel by Ayn Rand.

Unfortunately, the crumb of hope offered by the previous installment of producer Aglialoro's mash note to Rand and her magnum opus novel, which relates how interventionist government oppresses enterprising industrialists, comes to a shuddering close in Part III: Who Is John Galt? with all the grace and subtlety of a high-speed train derailment.

Atlas Shrugged Part III

Having survived the plane crash that ended Part II, railroad magnate Dagny Taggart (Laura Regan) is lifted from the wreckage by the titular enigma (Kristoffer Polaha), seemingly stepping from a romance-novel cover to rescue the damsel. (Remember The Fountainhead?) Galt's Shangri-La in the Rockies is where he and several "disappeared" captains of industry drink wine and pontificate about the evils of "Head of State" Thompson's (Peter Mackenzie) inevitably sinister socialistic government that is failing to halt the increasing social and economic decay barely noticeable in these (mostly) white-privilege settings. Dagny refuses to join them as she believes in the (largely hypothetical) fight against the government, and Galt discreetly decides to help her—

—Argh! Enough! The narrative is as maladroit as the ludicrous sex scene between Dagny and Galt, a risible prelude to Galt's preposterous bully-pulpit sermonizing and the torture-porn finale into which Rob Morrow wanders, seemingly looking for NUMB3RS—and Morrow, top-billed in the credits as audience bait, barely makes a blip in Part III. Manera's utter lack of competence—he fiddles over fancy shots while his impoverished story crashes and burns—makes Part III: Who Is John Galt? an embarrassingly awful film, one that even cameos from fellow travelers Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, and Ron Paul cannot redeem. Who is John Galt? Who cares?

Laws and Sausages

Movies discussed in this section, listed alphabetically here although discussed chronologically below:

Advise & Consent (1962) ****

The Great McGinty (1940) ****

In the Loop (2009) ****

Milk (2008) ****

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) *****

Selma (2014) *****

Laws are necessary and sausages might not be too far behind, but folk wisdom dictates that you don't want to know how either one of them is made. Better just to savor the end product. Loosely grouped together are one or two movies that deal with lawmaking directly along with the bulk that deals with politicking in various forms.

The half-dozen selections in this section, all based in the United States with one or two excursions overseas, range from local to national to international politics and across issues that include civil rights, gay rights, and foreign policy. Their common theme is an insider's look at how those issues are handled within the corridors of power from city hall to the US Senate.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) *****

Directed by Frank Capra. Written by Sidney Buchman, adapted from the unpublished story "The Gentleman from Montana" by Lewis Foster.

Still one of the greatest films about the American political system, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is no more ashamed of its idealism as it is shy about its cynicism, and its genius is that it reconciles both attitudes without compromising either one. All right—the ending is a gyp, and Harry Carey as the President of the Senate tips his gavel hand once too often, but Capra's rousing political comedy-drama still elicits outrage and encouragement in equal measures, thanks to a star-making performance by James Stewart and an endearing one by Jean Arthur.

Stewart is Jefferson Smith, a naïve, idealistic new senator shepherded through the halls of power by Arthur's savvy, cynical secretary Clarissa Saunders—and Smith needs it as his supposed mentor, Senator Joe Paine (the always-delightful Claude Rains), will throw him under the bus to support a corrupt dam project spearheaded by powerful businessman James Taylor (Edward Arnold). To clear his name of Paine's phony charges of corruption, Smith must maintain a filibuster on the Senate floor in Mr. Smith's iconic climax as Saunders is finally won over by Smith's idealism and Carey's senate president tips the audience reaction.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Marshaling his performers while quietly driving the narrative, Capra emphasizes the small gesture as much as the broad statement, supported by Joseph Walker's sympathetic black and white photography and Dmitri Tiomkin's discreet score, as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, heart proudly on its sleeve, wins by a landslide.

The Great McGinty (1940) ****

Written and directed by Preston Sturges.

Offering a political spin on the rags-to-riches-to-rags formula, Sturges, in his directorial debut, gives incisive teeth to the potent, brilliantly scripted The Great McGinty, which strikes uncomfortably close to precinct patronage while offering an ultimately endearing cautionary tale. (Check The Last Hurrah, in the Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail section, for a more sentimental contrast.) Tough guy Brian Donlevy is Dan McGinty, a once-and-future political star who winds up tending bar in an unnamed banana republic and counseling a despondent expatriate banker whose moment of weakness reminds McGinty of his own downfall.

Great McGinty

When a low-level political fixer (William Demarest), impressed by hobo McGinty's resourcefulness in fraudulent municipal voting, brings him to his boss (the wonderfully malaprop-prone Akim Tamiroff), McGinty becomes his enforcer, and then his political protégé, becoming the "reform" mayor. Of course, to appear respectable, McGinty has to marry his secretary, single mother Catherine (Muriel Angelus), whose integrity begins to rub off on McGinty as they fall for each other—and forces him to his "moment of weakness" when the boss decides that he should be governor. In Donlevy, Sturges has the ideal spearhead for his keenly uncomfortable skewering of political machines and local corruption as The Great McGinty heralds the arrival of Sturges as a witty, perceptive, slyly satirical filmmaker and social critic.

Advise & Consent (1962) ****

Directed by Otto Preminger. Written by Wendell Mayes, adapted from the eponymous novel by Allen Drury.

With a forceful yank, Advise & Consent pulls back the curtain on the United States Senate to expose the public and private workings of this eminently powerful legislative body during the contentious confirmation hearings of Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda), the ailing President's (Franchot Tone) controversial nominee for Secretary of State, in this powerful if flawed political drama. Liberal Leffingwell's backers include Majority Leader Bob Munson (Walter Pidgeon), but the glib intellectual faces opposition from Senator Brig Anderson (Don Murray) and from reactionary Senator Seab Cooley (Charles Laughton), whose surprise witness, Herbert Gelman (Burgess Meredith), accuses Leffingwell of being a communist.

Advise Consent

Although Leffingwell publicly refutes Gelman, he perjures himself in the process and insists that the President withdraw his nomination. The President refuses, inciting Anderson—and prompting Senator Fred Van Ackerman (George Grizzard), sympathetic to Leffingwell, to dig up explosive dirt on Anderson. (Note the parallels with The Best Man in the Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail section.) That last, along with the President's ill health, mars Advise & Consent with melodramatic contrivance for much of its second half, although the first half crackles with seamless assurance and remains a definitive portrayal of American governance, honorable and otherwise. Preminger renders Advise & Consent an unblinking portrait of power and zealousness, idealism and pragmatism, and old-fashioned political mud-wrestling.

Milk (2008) ****

Directed by Gus Van Sant. Written by Dustin Lance Black.

Sean Penn inhabits the title personage in Milk, the involving political biopic about Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man elected to California public office before being assassinated in 1978. Informed by the acclaimed 1984 documentary The Times of Harvey Milk, Black delivers a hard-hitting if occasionally earnest narrative although director Van Sant softens the edges with his sympathetic investment in this gritty, little-explored examination of gay rights. When Milk and his lover Scott Smith (James Franco) open a camera shop in San Francisco, the animosity they encounter prompts Milk to activism, eventually winning a seat on the city supervisors' board in 1977.

Milk

There he meets conservative supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin), whose adversarial relationship with Milk, and, later, with Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber), leads to Milk's climactic confrontation. Black and Van Sant use the state and national anti-gay efforts of John Briggs and Anita Bryant as both the impetus and mirror for Milk and his followers, contrasting the political battles with Milk's contentious personal life as Van Sant, working around some uneven performances, develops intimacy amidst the throng, with cinematographer Harris Savides's washed-out photography supplying period patina and Danny Elfman's score avoiding his usual annoying quirks. But Milk belongs to Penn, who transcends mimicry and stereotype to make Harvey Milk a genuine inspiration.

In the Loop (2009) ****

Directed by Armando Iannucci. Written by Iannucci with Jesse Armstrong, Simon Blackwell, and Tony Roche.

Every edge of the political satire In the Loop is so sharp that no one can avoid getting nicked, let alone gored, by its scathing, take-no-prisoners approach that examines the petty, territorial, backstabbing, yet ultimately influential and consequential machinations of mid-level bureaucrats on both sides of the Atlantic (think The West Wing with switchblades) during the run-up to an imminent invasion of a Middle Eastern country (think 2003 invasion of Iraq).

When Secretary of State for International Development Simon Foster (Tom Hollander) publicly blunders his opinion about the possibility of a war, communications director Malcolm Tucker (a torrential Peter Capaldi) rakes him over the coals, but not before Foster attracts the interest of American Undersecretary of State Karen Clarke (Mimi Kennedy), whose aide, Liza Weld (Anna Chlumsky), has authored a paper that actually argues against an invasion but is eventually spun as the rationale to go to war.

In the Loop

Director Iannucci doesn't waste a frame as he whips the story to a heady froth, with the poor unfortunate who gets thrown under the bus getting it in the most banal manner possible, while In the Loop's relentless, profane sardonicism demands full attention for the full hilarious effect. The only knocks are with the barrage of cultural references in danger of becoming stale—although the details of the invasion are suitably vague enough to avoid pigeonholing—and that there isn't anyone likeable or sympathetic here, a serious omission for a film looking to excoriate everyone within sight.

Selma (2014) *****

Directed by Ava DuVernay. Written by Paul Webb.

Voting-rights struggles during the Civil Rights era come to a head in Selma, the Alabama city that became a flashpoint for white resistance to African-Americans' registration efforts led by Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo), and a series of peaceful protest marches whose brutal suppression shocked the world and prompted federal legislation championed by President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) as director DuVernay's absorbing, affecting docudrama makes those historical events sear with the immediacy of a contemporary news flash—all too contemporary in the wake of 2020's Black Lives Matter confrontations.

Selma

Webb's thoroughgoing script encompasses a historian's dream of personages and events—from Malcolm X (Nigél Thatch) to J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963 Birmingham—before sending King into 1965 Selma to support registration efforts, only to be rebuffed by city leaders ultimately supported by Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth). Meanwhile, internecine struggles between King's Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee also hamper the efforts as Hoover's zeal to discredit King foments alienation between King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo). (Hoover gets his own spotlight in the Presidents and Pretenders to the Throne section below.)

As waves of personal anguish highlight the iconic, horrific confrontations at Selma's Edmund Pettus Bridge, Oyelowo, tasked with portraying an icon, makes King human, not symbolic, while Wilkinson, similarly challenged, delivers a yeoman performance, although final credit for Selma's triumph belongs to DuVernay's sweeping, empathetic vision.


 

Presidents and Pretenders to the Throne

Movies discussed in this section, listed here alphabetically although not discussed in alphabetical or chronological order below:

The American President (1995) ****

J. Edgar (2011) ***

Kisses for My President (1964) **

Lincoln (2012) ****

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) **

Sunrise at Campobello (1960) ****

Vice (2018) ***

W. (2008) **

With two exceptions, these movies deal with actual personages although there must be many Democrats who still wish that the fictitious President Andrew Shepherd, played by Michael Douglas, in The American President was really, really who Bill Clinton was supposed to be. Otherwise, these movies based on real political figures, most of them US presidents, present them in various shades of equally varying effectiveness ranging from adulatory to sympathetic to less than either.

We'll begin with the movies depicting the two fictional presidents before moving onto the movies that portray actual presidents—as well as two remarkable characters in American politics who might as well have been president given their power and ambition.

Kisses for My President (1964) **

Directed by Curtis Bernhardt. Written by Claude Binvon and Robert Kane, adapted from a story by Kane.

Kudos to Kisses for My President for an unprecedented premise: The United States elects its first woman president, Leslie McCloud (Polly Bergen). Unfortunately, this light-hearted but ultimately patronizing comedy treats that premise as a joke while focusing on how hubby Thad (Fred MacMurray) reacts to being the "First Gentleman" left to twiddle his thumbs while his wife is preoccupied with—you know, being president and all—until a situation unique to women forces a reappraisal of the chief executive's priorities. Barely ensconced in office, Leslie faces political pressure from opposition Senator Walsh (Edward Andrews), who pushes for renewed aid for visiting Latin American dictator Raphael Valdez, Jr. (Eli Wallach).

Kisses for My President

Dispatched to entertain Valdez, Thad embarrasses the president in a well-publicized altercation at a strip club. Then Thad's old flame Doris Reid (Arlene Dahl) offers him a job to boost her company's brand. Finally, their kids (Ahna Capri, Ronnie Dapo) begin to run wild. What's a mother to do? Bernhardt steers this narrative between slapstick and smarts: Valdez, despite Wallach's parodic stereotype, symbolizes the dark side to American foreign policy while maneuvering by the Soviet Union's ambassador (John Banner) signals Cold War intrigue, all captured in Robert Surtees's crisp black-and-white photography. Meanwhile, MacMurray emerges as the polished politician as Kisses for My President delivers a kiss-off to the first woman President with a rushed, contrived, egregious ending that says a woman's place is indeed in the house—just not the White House.

The American President (1995) ****

Directed by Rob Reiner. Written by Aaron Sorkin.

Speaking of unprecedented, how would the public—and the media that shapes public perception—react to a sitting president, in the television era, who begins dating? The delightfully savvy romantic comedy The American President explores this intriguing question as President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), a widower with a bright, sassy teenage daughter (Shawna Waldron), begins to date attractive environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening)—which then attracts the nation's scrutiny including that of conservative Senator Bob Rumson (a chops-licking Richard Dreyfuss), who attacks their morality as part of his quest for his party's presidential nomination.

Sorkin's superb screenplay displays an absolutely contemporary grasp of personal and political issues, but his sharp, snappy dialogue harkens back a half-century to the smart comedies of Howard Hawks and Preston Sturges while embracing the idealism of Frank Capra's inspirational best—check Shepherd's climactic press-conference speech for proof—heralding what Sorkin would develop with The West Wing.

American President

True, too much of that dialogue can become glib, and you have to pay attention to the business about the crime and environmental bills that become contentious between Andrew and Sydney, but Douglas and Bening sparkle, singly and together, while backlit by a colorful entourage that includes Martin Sheen as the sage, supportive chief of staff (a role for Sheen later upgraded to president himself in The West Wing); Michael J. Fox as the George Stephanopoulos-like speech writer; David Paymer as the sardonic numbers-cruncher; and Anna Deavere Smith as the high-strung press secretary.

Lincoln (2012) ****

Directed by Steven Spielberg. Written by Tony Kushner.

Turning now to actual personages, Spielberg's mission to be the Baby Boomers' vivid if conventional historical tribune continues with Lincoln, although he wisely avoids hackneyed biography of the iconic 16th president by adopting Kushner's august script chronicling Republican Abraham Lincoln's (Daniel Day-Lewis) efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed in the House of Representatives in early 1865. That amendment eventually outlawed slavery, reinforcing Lincoln's 1863 Emancipation Proclamation and, indeed, one of the reasons for the Civil War, although he faces challenges to getting the amendment passed even with the Union sure to win the war.

Despite a majority Republican House and support from Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) and influential abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones), Lincoln must rally support from across the aisle while assuaging both his son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who wants to join the army, and his wife Mary (Sally Field), who won't forgive him if Robert is killed.

Lincoln

Kushner's dialogue exhibits a little too much period affectation while Spielberg cannot resist an extended denouement that, inevitably, touches on Lincoln's assassination and legacy. Still, Spielberg's framing and pacing rightly makes Lincoln an epic—even John Williams's score cannot overwhelm the narrative—with Day-Lewis's tremendous portrayal of Lincoln bringing the entire film into sharp focus as Lincoln's broad strokes, safe for all historical and political sensibilities, grandly and without controversy reinforce that old schoolyard generality: "Lincoln freed the slaves."

Sunrise at Campobello (1960) ****

Directed by Vincent Donehue. Written by Dore Schary, adapted from his eponymous play.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt became one of America's greatest presidents by overcoming a handicap that was crippling not only physically but potentially politically had he not skillfully harnessed it to his advantage, as demonstrated at the climax of Sunrise at Campobello. Set between 1921 and 1924, Schary's labor of love Campobello depicts FDR (Ralph Bellamy), recently defeated as the Democrats' 1920 vice-presidential candidate, struggling with the paralysis that had struck him down while vacationing with his family, including wife Eleanor (Green Garson), on New Brunswick's Campobello Island. Early scenes of the initially-stricken Roosevelt veer between saccharine and melodrama as Bellamy and Garson seemingly overplay the Roosevelts' distinctive blue-blood accents.

Sunrise at Campobello

Then Hume Cronyn's Louis Howe, FDR's key early advisor, catalyzes Donehue's workmanlike framing as Franklin gains strength—and Eleanor, domestic and timorous, gains confidence as she becomes Franklin's external emissary, delivering speeches and developing her own political acumen, as Franklin must eventually make his own crucial speech. Campobello exhibits its period politesse—the Roosevelts' relationship is storybook, the children are properly well-behaved—but both Bellamy and Garson, spurred by Cronyn's droll tartness, coalesce into the budding icons Franklin and Eleanor both became as Franklin's interactions with Governor Al Smith (Alan Bunce) and especially political gadfly Lassiter (David White) hint at FDR's incipient greatness.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (1977) **

Written and directed by Larry Cohen.

From 1924 to 1972, J. Edgar Hoover served as the obsessive, autocratic, ruthless Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, released at the height of 1970s investigations into Vietnam, Watergate, and other governmental malfeasance, functions as a distilled exposé of those revelations that often displayed Hoover's fingerprints on them. However, in his attempt at a sweeping look at 20th-century American history through the lens of Hoover's FBI, Cohen's reach exceeds his grasp: Not only does he have too many targets to shoot at, but he adopts a lurid tone—trumpeted by Miklós Rósza's hyperbolic score—further hampered by the joint schizophrenia incurred by having James Wainwright and Broderick Crawford portray, respectively, the young and old Hoover.

Nevertheless, Cohen pulls no punches with unsparing vignettes illuminating Hoover's various crusades against, among others, immigrants, communism, organized crime—at least initially—and the civil rights movement, particularly Martin Luther King (Raymond St. Jacques), as he compiled compromising dossiers on individuals, often focusing on their sex lives—all while being a "confirmed bachelor" with a suggestively close relationship to FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Dan Dailey). Amidst this overstuffed narrative, the thread involving Hoover's antagonistic relationship with Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Michael Parks), detailing Hoover's quest for power, stands out best and illustrates how Cohen should have selected just a few Private Files and not them all.

J. Edgar Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar (2011) ***

Directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dustin Lance Black.

For a half-century across the heart of the American 20th century, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director J. Edgar Hoover stood at the center of public life: he built, maintained, and often overextended the nation's premier domestic law-enforcement agency, holding political figures in thrall to him, and even inflaming the cultural imagination (The F.B.I. television series, which was stage-managed by the Bureau), while fending off speculation that he was gay. In J. Edgar, Eastwood and Black attempt to examine the personal and public faces of Hoover but rarely dive beneath the surface and, crucially, are not able to put Hoover into a definitive historical or popular context.

As Hoover, a compelling Leonardo DiCaprio holds the center of J. Edgar, but the film itself lacks a center, specifically, examination of Hoover's demons and how they impacted American society. Not helping is an elliptical, looping narrative that juxtaposes events from throughout the decades: The Palmer Raids at which Hoover cut his teeth while still living with his mother Annie (Judi Dench), the investigation of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping that established the FBI, and—all too briefly—Hoover and the FBI's counterintelligence role in the civil rights and antiwar movements, particularly Hoover's pronounced animosity toward Martin Luther King, Jr.. Ultimately, though, Eastwood and Black cannot find the spark to ignite the tinder they've gathered. J. Edgar Hoover's legacy was larger than life, but J. Edgar regretfully scales it back.

W. (2008) **

Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Stanley Weiser.

You might well expect Stone to take an antagonistic approach to the legacy of George W. Bush, but Weiser's conspicuously underwhelming script delivers an oddly hagiographic biopic with W. and its scattershot, elliptical path to Bush's becoming a president whose two terms were defined by the September 11, 2001, terror attacks and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq that ensued from them. W. spans Bush's life from college wastrel to born-again reformed alcoholic to politician called by God in a non-linear narrative that not only lacks definition but fails to be definitive.

Josh Brolin performs yeoman service as Dubya, yet his portrayal, straddling imitation, parody, and conviction, informs most of the other performances—often it's difficult to tell if W. is supposed to be a put-on or if Stone and his cast are even aware of that effect. Furthermore, W. has no closure—it simply applies newspaper-thin coverage to too much territory. Moreover—and shockingly for Stone—there are no politics here, only shallow sound bites save for Dick Cheney's (Richard Dreyfuss) Machiavellian outline for renewed American imperialism that comes much too late to establish any context—or content. Elizabeth Banks, Ellen Burstyn, James Cromwell, and Dreyfuss are the best supporters in a cast chosen for their resemblances to actual players surrounding Dubya as W. makes him an empty suit hardly misunderestimated.

W. Vice

Vice (2018) ***

Written and directed by Adam McKay.

Speaking of Machiavellian, Dick Cheney became the most influential vice president in modern American history, truly the power behind the throne with two crucial advantages—one, the vice-president receives little scrutiny as a "ceremonial" post; two, Cheney has always been a laconic enigma; thus, he has remained largely incognito. McKay attempts to solve Cheney's mystery in Vice, and while Christian Bale effects a remarkable depiction of Cheney, Vice lacks incisiveness, its flashy but scattershot delivery biting off more than it can chew as McKay struggles to use Cheney as a metaphor for the last fifty years of American governance, which has exacerbated economic disparity, perpetuated militarism, and, after 9/11, restricted civil liberties.

Snapped into focus by driven wife Lynne (Amy Adams), Cheney becomes an intern to Nixon-era Representative Donald Rumsfeld (a terrific Steve Carrell), who instills in Cheney a lust to secure and hold power through the Unitary Executive Theory, first as Gerald Ford's chief of staff, then as George H.W. Bush's defense secretary, and finally as George W. Bush's (Sam Rockwell) vice president, pushing for the 2003 Iraq invasion, which spurs the creation of Islamic State terrorists.

By casting his net wide, McKay's non-linear narrative becomes a series of shallow sound bites splashed onscreen by Hank Corwin's febrile edits and punctuated by McKay's audacious cinematic stunts—witness Dick and Lynne's mock-Shakespearean pillow talk, or the jokey false ending midway through—capped by self-conscious closing sequences that are already dating badly. Vice does little to illuminate or dispel Cheney's public image, riffing on obvious biographical points and leaving him incognito still.

Nixon's the One

Movies discussed in this section, listed here alphabetically although not discussed in alphabetical or chronological order below:

All the President's Men (1976) ****

Dick (1999) ***

Elvis & Nixon (2016) ***

Frost/Nixon (2008) ****

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017) **

Nixon (1995) ***

Ah, Richard Nixon. The man we're still kicking around even a quarter-century after his death, a president whose imprint on the national consciousness was so singular that he deserves his very own section.

Growing up in a poor Quaker home in Southern California, Richard Milhous Nixon married Pat Ryan, became a lawyer, and served in the US Navy Reserve during World War Two before he began his political career in 1946 as a red-baiting Republican Congressman and Senator—he once described Helen Gahagan Douglas, his Democratic senatorial opponent, as "pink right down to her underwear." Then in 1952 he became Dwight Eisenhower's powerful and influential vice president groomed to become president himself in 1960 until John Kennedy, largely by positioning himself as even more anti-communist than Nixon, narrowly defeated him.

Following a defeat in the 1962 California gubernatorial race, Nixon infamously declared that, "You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore," and retired to private law practice, but in the tumultuous political year of 1968 Nixon returned to be elected as the 37th President of the United States, promising to end the Vietnam war ("peace with honor") and return law and order to the conservative "Silent Majority." Nixon scored foreign policy successes by opening relations with Communist China and furthering détente with the Soviet Union through arms-limitation talks, but he also widened the Vietnam war into Cambodia and oversaw a 1973 CIA-instigated coup in Chile.

Domestically, he battled inflation with wage and price controls and established both the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration—but he also unleashed the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service on his political opponents as the existence of a White House "enemies list" became known. That culminated with the June 1972 break-in at the Democratic National Headquarters in the Watergate hotel and office complex, which implicated Nixon when the burglars were quickly tied to the White House.

The Watergate investigations proceeded slowly and quietly—Nixon was still able to score a landslide re-election victory over Democratic candidate George McGovern in November—but Nixon's resistance to the investigations built toward impeachment charges of obstruction of justice, abuse of power, and contempt of Congress fueled in part by revelations of a tape-recording system in the White House containing incriminating information on Nixon, including evidence of a "dirty tricks squad" sabotaging the McGovern campaign, which eventually forced him to resign in August 1974, the only president ever to resign while still in office.

With such a colorful résumé, you can see why we have a section devoted entirely to Tricky Dick. We begin with an overview of Nixon before delving into his signature association, Watergate, with both serious and satirical movies exploring this celebrated scandal, then ending on a curious historical footnote that straddles politics and pop culture.

Nixon (1995) ***

Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Stone, Stephen J. Rivele, and Christopher Wilkinson.

Expecting a hit job on Richard Nixon from Stone? Admittedly, Nixon does not miss many of Tricky Dick's well-known dirty tricks—while insinuating others that are not so well-known—throughout his long political career, but thanks to Anthony Hopkins's quirky, oddly absorbing, but finally indefinite portrayal of Nixon, Nixon generates surprising if guarded empathy for the complex, cunning, contradictory, and ultimately needy man you loved to hate.

The overstuffed screenplay indulges that psychodrama, rooted in his humble, tragic Southern California upbringing and perpetuated in his sometimes-contentious marriage to Pat Ryan (an effective if underused Joan Allen), while using the Watergate scandal, Nixon's downfall, to anchor Stone's non-linear narrative. Beginning as a staunch anti-communist Congressman, Nixon eventually became Dwight Eisenhower's vice president, positioning him to be president in 1960 until upset by John Kennedy. Finally attaining the Oval Office in 1968, Nixon's quest for power and control delivers the inevitable hubristic comeuppance he is unable to accept.

Nixon2

Similarly, Stone's kinetic, frenetic pace delivers an overwhelming blizzard of images, personages, and events that defy viewers to process them adequately even within Nixon's mammoth running time. Fortunately, a formidable cast, particularly Paul Sorvino (portraying Henry Kissinger) and James Woods (H.R. Haldeman) as some of the president's men who add ruthless realpolitik, mitigates Stone's sprawl and inability to focus effectively as Nixon still has Nixon to kick around some more.

All the President's Men (1976) ****

Directed by Alan J. Pakula. Written by William Goldman, adapted from the eponymous book by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward.

Although the end result of the Watergate investigation was spectacular—the resignation of President Richard Nixon and the criminal convictions of several of his staff—the mechanics of the initial investigation was painstakingly methodical, even plodding, as was the non-fiction account All the President's Men by Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein. Thus, it is remarkable that the investigation by Woodward (Robert Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), which starts with a break-in at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex in June 1972, manages to sustain interest and even suspense regarding mundane and now-archival material that mirrors faithfully actual persons, events, and timelines in this powerful film adaptation.

All the Presidents Men

"Woodstein" quickly discover the burglars' apparent connections to the Nixon White House, but with little to go on the reporters slowly piece together how the burglars received funds from the Committee to Re-Elect the President. Even with Woodward's notorious anonymous source Deep Throat (Hal Holbrook), who famously advises Woodward to "follow the money," they still have to convince Post Executive Editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards) that they have a story while battling the rival New York Times for scoops even as the continuing story, a dull daisy-chain of names linked by money connections, barely engages the public. Hoffman's Bernstein is pushy, almost impetuous, while Redford's Woodward is sober and meticulous, but their joint determination provides the narrative thrust, effectively framed by Pakula and cinematographer Gordon Willis, whose visuals provide the tense, dogged atmosphere in the lucid and engrossing All the President's Men.

Mark Felt: The Man Who Brought Down the White House (2017) **

Written and directed by Peter Landesman, based on the book A G-Man's Life by Mark Felt.

Even after President Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation resulting from his role in the Watergate break-in scandal, one enduring question remained: Who was "Deep Throat," the government insider whose anonymous tips to reporter Bob Woodward helped the Washington Post connect a "third-rate burglary" attempt at Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate office complex to the Nixon White House, which tried to cover up its involvement.

In 2005, Mark Felt, a former Associate Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, revealed that he had been Deep Throat, with Landesman's oversized title alone attempting to thrust Felt, portrayed with imposing gravitas by Liam Neeson, into heroic status as the architect of Nixon's historic downfall. Expecting to succeed FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover following his 1972 death, loyalist Felt instead sees Nixon insider L. Patrick Gray (Marton Csokas) appointed to control the FBI's investigation into the Watergate break-in, to Felt's chagrin—although, ironically, Felt himself is later prosecuted for ordering break-ins of radical groups.

Mark Felt The Man Who Brought Down the White House

Landesman attempts to portray complex events through Felt's eyes, but he struggles to keep that many plates spinning without their crashing while penning conspicuously expository dialogue uttered by a parade of supporters including Julian Morris, portraying Woodward, and Tom Sizemore, portraying former FBI agent William Sullivan, a Hoover critic at loggerheads with Felt. Daniel Pemberton's quietly insistent, naggingly persistent score inflates the clandestine melodrama and stagy portentousness as Mark Felt broadcasts importance but without convincing relevance.

Dick (1999) ***

Directed by Andrew Fleming. Written by Fleming and Sheryl Longin.

But wait a minute—what if Mark Felt wasn't Deep Throat? Fleming and Longin's broad political satire Dick (made before Felt's 2005 admission) offers another tongue-in-cheek possibility in their waggish, if ultimately middleweight, reimagining of the burglary scandal that ended Richard Nixon's (Dan Hedaya) presidency that deftly blends events and personalities to provoke knowing guffaws. However, Dick nearly stalls before it begins as a Larry King-like television interviewer (French Stewart) attempts to learn from bickering, childish Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Carl Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) the real identity of Deep Throat.

Fortunately, Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams appear to shift Dick into cruising gear. While living at the Watergate, high schooler Arlene Lorenzo (Williams) and her best friend Betsy Jobs (Dunst) stumble upon the burglary. Then, on a school tour of the White House, they are recognized, and, to keep them under surveillance, Nixon offers to make them White House dog-walkers to First Dog Checkers (Brunswick). Lo, the pair's lives intertwine with Tricky Dick's through marijuana, Vietnam, and arms control with the Soviet Union until they discover incriminating Watergate evidence—and when Arlene's crush on Dick sours, well, we can guess the rest of the story.

Dick

Dick plays like sketch comedy writ large with its inevitable peaks and valleys, but twin peaks Dunst and Williams are adorable—animated, engaged, resourceful—with Hedaya slyly skirting the temptation to caricature Tricky Dick as the soundtrack's parade of period-appropriate AM-radio hits drives Dick to its heartwarming, hilarious closing shot. At least now we know what was on that tape with the eighteen-minute gap.

Frost/Nixon (2008) ****

Directed by Ron Howard. Written by Peter Morgan, adapted from his eponymous play.

With a potential to become a real-life farce, Frost/Nixon, which dramatizes the landmark television interviews English presenter David Frost (Michael Sheen) conducted with Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) following his 1974 resignation, suggests initially that Frost, known only as a light-entertainment reporter, will be routed by the far more politically-savvy Nixon, expecting to shore up his reputation on such easy pickings. Morgan's incisive script, admittedly laced with dramatic license, nevertheless examines the dynamics behind Frost's attempts to fund and stage the interviews, not to mention Nixon's buy-in, with Sheen assuming a foppishness that disguises Frost's ambition while Langella adopts Nixon's mannerisms without outright imitation.

Frost Nixon

By 1977, Frost had managed to launch the project—a neophyte David confronting Nixon's political Goliath, according to Morgan's part-narrative, part-reflective script. As the interview tapings progress, Nixon seems in command of the proceedings, to the dismay of Frost's research team (portrayed by Matthew Macfadyen, Oliver Platt, and Sam Rockwell). Then Nixon makes a boozy late-night call to Frost—an obvious plot twist that did not actually occur—that spurs Frost to redouble his efforts for the final interview segment about Watergate, which prods Nixon into a shocking admission. Never an incisive director, Howard, with the script and the performances of Langella and Sheen driving his story, accents effectively with lively pacing and framing, making Frost/Nixon one of his most satisfying films, keeping you tuned in throughout.

Elvis & Nixon (2016) ***

Directed by Liza Johnson. Written by Cary Elwes, Hanna Sagal, and Joey Sagal.

Finally, light entertainment returns as pop culture meets politics in a decidedly offbeat manner in Elvis & Nixon, which would seemingly be fanciful Boomer wish-fulfillment were it not based on an actual December 21, 1970, encounter between the King, Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon), and the President, Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey), in this amusing but slight vignette. And it's pop culture that rules the day as this true-life shaggy dog is told primarily from the Elvis camp's perspective, with Elvis crony Jerry Schilling (Alex Pettyfer) the fulcrum between the King's desire to serve as a "Federal Agent at Large" in the Nixon Administration's "War on Drugs," and White House staffers Egil Krogh (Colin Hanks) and Dwight Chapin (Evan Peters) who try to convince their boss, Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman (Tate Donovan), and then their über-Boss, Nixon, that this could help court the youth vote.

Elvis Nixon

Not surprisingly, the actual meeting is anti-climactic, with director Johnson opting for a farcical recounting as Spacey, deftly underplaying Nixon's too-easily-caricatured mannerisms, nevertheless winds up looking buffoonish while the hip counterculture seems to put one over on the uptight Establishment—or does it? Shannon captures Presley's quietly bizarre behavior during this era without much insight into what produced it against the soundtrack's classic rock and soul songs as Johnny Knoxville and Tracy Letts provide support. Engaging and economical, Elvis & Nixon is ultimately Baby-Boomer ephemera.


 

American Coup

Movies discussed in this section, listed here alphabetically although not discussed in alphabetical or chronological order below:

The Birth of a Nation (1915) ****

Executive Action (1973) ***

Gabriel Over the White House (1933) ****

JFK (1991) ****

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) ****

Parkland (2013) **

Seven Days in May (1964) ****

Suddenly (1954) ***

The Tall Target (1951) ***

Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977) ****

Although the United States prides itself on the peaceful transfer of power epitomized by the succession of the presidency, four US presidents—Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, William McKinley, and John Kennedy—have been assassinated while in office, forcing an immediate, involuntary transfer of power to the vice president.

Furthermore, the Electoral College, which is the body that actually elects the president—not the public voting directly—has elected presidents who did not receive the majority of the popular vote, more recently in 2000, which saw the Electoral College elect George W. Bush, and in 2016, when it elected Donald Trump—with Trump now insisting that it is up to him to decide whether he will leave office regardless of the 2020 election results.

And while it does not touch directly on that scenario, one of our movies in this section, which examines various scenarios in which a coup, or overthrow, of the American government could occur, touches on several of Trump's dictatorial tendencies—more than eight decades before he began to exhibit them.

The movies discussed below begin with examinations of two presidents, Lincoln and Kennedy, who were actually removed from office by assassination, before delving into various other fictitious scenarios that could disrupt or displace the peaceful manner of governance we were all taught in school, demonstrating that even the movies are not immune to "the paranoid style in American politics," to borrow the title of the famous 1964 essay by political scientist Richard Hofstadter.

The Birth of a Nation (1915) ****

Directed by D.W. Griffith. Written by Griffith and Frank E. Woods, based on the novel The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Jr.

Like Citizen Kane (discussed in the media section Pageantry and Personalities above), Griffith's sweeping, notorious The Birth of a Nation encompasses many threads; here, they are from before, during, and after the US Civil War, most of them affecting the Northern Stoneman family and the Southern Cameron family, friendly in the antebellum period but partisan during the war—and hostile when, after the war, abolitionist Congressman Austin Stoneman (Ralph Lewis), based on Thaddeus Stevens (portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, from the Presidents and Pretenders to the Throne section above), brings his mulatto protégé Silas Lynch (George Seigmann) into the South to enfranchise freed slaves.

Thus, Abraham Lincoln (Joseph Henabery) is a background figure in Nation although of course Lincoln's policies dictate the events portrayed in this landmark silent-movie saga. However, depiction of his April 14, 1865, assassination at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC, marks the climax of the first half of Nation, conveyed dramatically as Lincoln is shot by Southerner John Wilkes Booth (Raoul Walsh, later to become a notable director), who then escapes by leaping from the theater balcony onto the stage while shouting (silently, of course) "sic semper tyrannis!" ("thus always to tyrants").

Birth of a Nation

However, like much of The Birth of a Nation, the accuracy of these events is subject to dramatic license—as indeed is the historical revisionism of the movie overall, which paints Southern whites as victims of black and Northern oppression after the war, thus justifying the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and the defense of the "Aryan birthright" (as one intertitle puts it). In any case, the dramatic depiction of Lincoln's assassination and Booth's escape remains an iconic scene in the history of cinema.

The Tall Target (1951) ***

Directed by Anthony Mann. Written by Art Cohn and George Worthing Yates, based on a story by Yates and Daniel Mainwaring.

But prior to Lincoln's actual 1865 assassination, he was the subject of an attempted assassination even before he officially became president as the reputed "Baltimore Plot" pegged him as The Tall Target to be killed in late February 1861, just ahead of his March inauguration, itself followed by the start of the Civil War in April. And by a curious coincidence, a New York police superintendent named John Kennedy became involved in trying to thwart the plot although in retrospect it could make for a warped if intriguing time-travel story to have the John Kennedy involved in some capacity.

Tall Target

For our purposes here, though, we have John Kennedy (Dick Powell), now a police sergeant, trying in vain to warn his superintendent about an assassination attempt on Lincoln, then surrendering his badge and boarding a Baltimore-bound train in New York to take action on his own. Although he discovers his colleague, already aboard, has been murdered, Kennedy gains a seeming ally in militia Colonel Caleb Jeffers (Adolphe Menjou), but Kennedy soon discovers that Jeffers is part of the conspiracy that includes West Point sharpshooter Lance Beaufort (Marshall Thompson) and his sister Ginny (Paula Raymond) as he's cut off from help with the conspirators closing in on him—and on Lincoln. Amidst period sets of train interiors and railway stations given a tense film noir atmosphere, smooth, confident Powell negotiates his evasions and persuasions as sometimes-heated talk about the incoming president and the possibility of war swirls fitfully in a rendezvous with The Tall Target.

Executive Action (1973) ***

Directed by David Miller. Written by Dalton Trumbo, based on research by Donald Freed and Mark Lane.

Two decades before Oliver Stone's JFK posited a conspiracy theory in the John Kennedy assassination, Executive Action presented its story of a businessmen's cabal that plotted to kill the president and frame a patsy, Lee Harvey Oswald, as the lone gunman. Trumbo's lean script, based partly on Rush to Judgment, Lane's early critique of the Warren Commission's conclusions, keeps the storyline simple while the film's modest budget, coupled to Miller's journeyman direction, gives Executive Action a mundane feel that greatly underwhelms the subject matter's momentousness.

Yet the film's very laconic matter-of-factness lends plausibility to its conspiracy theory by avoiding grandiosity. As a clutch of businessmen led by Foster (Robert Ryan) tries to convince influential oilman Ferguson (Will Geer) to support an "executive action," or assassination, against President Kennedy in response to his liberal policies that threaten the established order they all represent, shadowy black-operations expert Farrington (Burt Lancaster) posits that a "triangulation of fire" shooting that his teams are already practicing will right the situation. When Ferguson finally agrees, the operation begins in earnest for the hit in Dallas's Dealey Plaza with three shooters positioned strategically for the kill.

Executive Action

Editor George Grenville maximizes the use of archival Kennedy footage, particularly during the shooting, to present the contrast to the live action, while the vaguely ominous conclusion to Executive Action suggests a more sinister conspiracy than that told by its modest story. Paging Oliver Stone? (And don't think we've seen the last of Burt Lancaster, either. Far from it.)

JFK (1991) ****

Directed by Oliver Stone. Written by Stone and Zachary Sklar, based on the books On the Trail of the Assassins by Jim Garrison and Crossfire: The Plot That Killed Kennedy by Jim Marrs.

Two decades later, Stone, armed with an A-list budget and an all-star cast, did produce a grandiose version of the John Kennedy assassination conspiracy theory; in fact, Stone and Sklar develop JFK into an assassination-theory omnibus that augments the actual investigation of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) with other elements, thus fashioning an expansive myth to explain the greatest unsolved crime of 20th-century America.

Probing possible New Orleans ties to accused assassin Lee Harvey Oswald (Gary Oldman), including the curious David Ferrie (Joe Pesci), right after the assassination, Garrison finds nothing initially but returns three years later when he suspects prominent businessman Clay Shaw (Tommy Lee Jones) of being a conspirator. Then Garrison meets with a mysterious government operative (Donald Sutherland), who unfurls a grand conspiracy involving the CIA, the Mafia, the military, and Vice President Lyndon Johnson, with its goal of preventing JFK's putative withdrawal from Vietnam.

JFK

Despite its complex framework of players and events, JFK maintains focus thanks to Oscar-winning cinematography by Robert Richardson and editing by Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia. Costner is bland but believable as the crusader leading his staff (which includes Laurie Metcalf, Michael Rooker, and Jay O. Sanders), although Pesci, still in Goodfellas mode, chews scenery, and Sissy Spacek, never lovelier, is saddled with playing Garrison's shrewish wife. JFK has cinematic flaws beyond its polarizing conclusions, but it remains compelling and provocative moviemaking that injects enough reasonable doubt into the Big Daddy of conspiracy theories that still sparks heated debate decades after the fact.

Parkland (2013) **

Written and directed by Peter Landesman, based on the book Four Days in November: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy by Vincent Bugliosi.

Balancing the JFK conspiracy theories is Parkland, with Landesman using Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas as the touchstone for his rushed, scattershot study of the ripple effect immediately following John Kennedy's assassination while using Bugliosi's exhaustive defense of the Warren Commission's conclusion that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin to reinforce that position even as it plays coy with other aspects of the event.

Personifying those events are key figures including Dr. Charles Carrico (Zac Efron), the first emergency-room physician to attend to Kennedy; Secret Service head Forrest Sorrels (Billy Bob Thornton), who assesses responsibility for the shooting—especially his own; local businessman Abraham Zapruder (Paul Giamatti), who is besieged once word escapes that he managed to film the shooting in progress; and FBI agent James Hosty (Ron Livingston), who realizes that his prior interaction with Oswald is another kind of smoking gun—one that indicts the Bureau. Meanwhile, Oswald's scheming mother Marguerite (Jacki Weaver) claims he was a government agent as sober Robert (James Badge Dale) berates younger brother Lee (Jeremy Strong) for his actions during a brief jail visit.

Parkland

What ultimately sinks Parkland is a sprawling cast scrambling to inject keynote incidents into an intensively scrutinized historical narrative, with no one establishing more than rudimentary dimension as Landesman's sole direction to his cast seems to have been to deliver angry outbursts, then leaven them with pensive stares; only Giamatti manages much depth as the anguished bystander thrust into immortality—but only fleeting peeks at his famous home movie betrays Parkland's refusal to take any meaningful stand on the assassination.

Gabriel Over the White House (1933) ****

Directed by Gregory La Cava. Written by Carey Wilson, adapted from the novel Rinehard: A Melodrama of the 1930s by Thomas Tweed.

What if Jeffersonian democracy—"the greatest good for the greatest number"—arose through dictatorship? Gabriel Over the White House explores this fascinating premise, realized during the tumult of the Great Depression, with a simple, direct impact that leaves a profoundly mixed impression while the suggestion of divine intervention only makes this political fantasy even more bizarre.

Newly-elected President Judd Hammond (Walter Huston) is the Party's man, contemptuous of the press, dismissive of the day's critical issues—unemployment, homelessness, poverty, racketeering spawned by Prohibition, and growing social unrest—and eager to install his young mistress Pendie Molloy (Karen Morley) in the White House. (Amazing to think that they anticipated a Donald Trump even back then.) But when he lapses into a coma after a self-inflicted auto accident, he awakes as a crusader determined to rectify those issues.

Gabriel Over the White House

Hammond, who Pendie speculates to presidential secretary "Beek" Beekman (Franchot Tone) might be possessed by the Archangel Gabriel, fires his cabinet, coerces Congress to adjourn indefinitely, and declares martial law, vowing to right these injustices. Thus the conundrum: Can a dictator be a force for good? Italy's Benito Mussolini claimed to have made the trains run on time, and Gabriel portrays Hammond as sincere but ruthless in his quest to right all wrongs. La Cava guides Wilson's brazen, hardly-subtle script with efficiency and delicacy, softening Huston's fascistic edges as they carry Gabriel Over the White House.

Suddenly (1954) ***

Directed by Lewis Allen. Written by Richard Sale, adapted from his story "Active Duty."

The attempted assassination of the American president thrusts assassins and victims of circumstance into a tense crucible in Suddenly, which is the (fictitious) name of the California town about to host the president in this taut if contrived tale. Sale's script packs both melodrama and psychology into a parlor tale heightened by Allen's efficient, economical pacing that sidesteps all political ramifications while proffering a telegraphed narrative that carefully ties up its loose ends. Tipped to the president's arrival, Sheriff Tod Shaw (Sterling Hayden) is informed of the assassination attempt by Secret Service agent Dan Carney (Willis Bouchey) while John Baron (Frank Sinatra) and his two cronies (Christopher Dark, Paul Frees) also arrive in Suddenly, masquerading as FBI agents.

Suddenly

Visiting Pop Benson's (James Gleason) house opposite the train station, they warn that assassins could find it an advantageous location—then prove to be those assassins when Shaw and Carney also investigate the house and encounter Baron's gang as Suddenly hunkers down for the climax. Benson's grandson Pidge (Kim Charney) and daughter-in-law Ellen (Nancy Gates) are also in the house, with Pidge's handgun a convenient happenstance emblematic of Sale's unsubtle manipulation and transparent moralizing. In his first dramatic role, Sinatra, his Baron inevitably revealed to be a homicidal psychopath trained in the military, delivers a quietly chilling performance as Suddenly hits its narrative targets but misses the artistic bullseye.

(Following John Kennedy's 1963 assassination, Sinatra, a Kennedy supporter, tried to have Suddenly pulled from circulation based on the rumor that Lee Harvey Oswald had seen the movie just prior to the assassination.)

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) ****

Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by George Axelrod, adapted from the eponymous novel by Richard Condon.

Frank Sinatra returns in another assassination-themed political thriller, but this time his character is trying to prevent an assassin from acting in The Manchurian Candidate, which pushes Cold War paranoia to a chilling peak as a brainwashed assassin becomes the deadly tool for a communist takeover of the United States unless he can be stopped. Axelrod retains elements of Condon's droll, biting, absurdist humor while Frankenheimer's direction stresses the tension and quiet lethality swirling within Laurence Harvey, whose impassive yet unsettling portrayal of American soldier Raymond Shaw trumps first-billed Sinatra's performance—although Angela Lansbury almost tops them both in less screen time.

During the Korean War, Shaw, awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving his platoon, had actually been captured, brainwashed in communist Manchuria, and returned to the States as a programmed assassin for his American-based handlers. Shaw's commanding officer Ben Marco (Sinatra) was also captured, and he begins to investigate Shaw, whose mother Eleanor (Lansbury) is the puppet master to Shaw's stepfather, Senator Johnny Iselin (James Gregory), a Joseph McCarthyesque buffoon whose allegations of communists in the Defense Department give him new political life—and disguise the nefarious communist plot.

Manchurian Candidate

Lansbury's perfidy and incestuous insinuation is doled out in glorious degrees while Janet Leigh, as Marco's love interest, has a meet-strange with Marco aboard a train is a marvel of non sequitur; meanwhile, the climax in Madison Square Garden became a template for assassination thrillers. After watching The Manchurian Candidate, you might think twice about playing solitaire ever again.

Seven Days in May (1964) ****

Directed by John Frankenheimer. Written by Rod Serling, adapted from the eponymous novel by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II.

Burt Lancaster returns to intrigue and conspiracy as hawks and doves collide with the fate of the United States in jeopardy in Seven Days in May, a Cold War political thriller centered on a military coup poised to usurp power from President Lyman Jordan (Fredric March) over his signing a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union. Serling's adaptation focuses on the players and their often-tense interactions, which results in a number of fine performances, particularly by Lancaster, whose General James Matoon Scott, Lyman's Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spearheads the putative junta, and by Kirk Douglas, who as Scott's aide Colonel "Jiggs" Casey is the crucial fulcrum.

Seven Days in May

With his popularity sagging because of the treaty, Lyman receives more distressing news from Casey: a mysterious Army unit called ECOMCON plans to seize communications as Scott, seemingly grooming himself for public office as a right-winger, takes control of the government on a specific date in May. Shocked but convinced, Lyman assembles a team to investigate and neutralize the threat as the clock ticks toward the confrontation. Back at the helm of a smart thriller, Frankenheimer generates suspense through cinematographer Ellsworth Fredericks's distinctive shot framing as Jerry Goldsmith's martial-like score ratchets the tension. March is reliably strong but Lancaster, resisting the temptation to play the ideologue, is ultimately impressive, especially during his showdown with March. Not subtle but nevertheless compelling, Seven Days in May imparts a still-timely warning.

Twilight's Last Gleaming (1977) ****

Directed by Robert Aldrich. Written by Ronald Cohen and Edward Huebsch, adapted from the novel Viper Three by Walter Wager.

In case (like me) you can't get enough of Burt Lancaster in edgy political thrillers, he is back again in Twilight's Last Gleaming as General Lawrence Dell, a Vietnam veteran railroaded into prison on a murder charge because of his uncomfortable insistence on revealing ugly truths about that war. Leading a team of escaped military prisoners, he commandeers a Montana nuclear-missile silo. Dell's demand? That President Stevens (Charles Durning) make public a classified National Security Council document that explains why the United States continued to fight a war it knew it couldn't win—and Dell is prepared to use nuclear blackmail to back up his demand.

Twilights Last Gleaming

Indeed, for that reason alone, Twilight's Last Gleaming stands as one of the best Vietnam movies: Compared to most Vietnam movies that never rise above squad-level comprehension, it is practically alone in articulating America's geopolitical impetus vis-à-vis the war. To be sure, this military political thriller is overlong and occasionally fallow, and Aldrich's liberal use of split-screens not only seems quaint but, along with Jerry Goldsmith's urgent score, reeks of made-for-television movies, while the bursts of danger, including a commando raid on the silo, are pro forma action moves.

The real excitement is the callous realpolitik played out by Stevens's cabinet staffed by Joseph Cotten, Melvyn Douglas, and William Marshall, with Richard Widmark as a correspondingly cutthroat general—and when Dell insists that Stevens journey to Montana to ensure the hijackers' safe passage, Stevens realizes that not even he is indispensable. Suggesting his appearance in Seven Days in May, Lancaster is effective but subdued, while Durning supplies the plainspoken humanity in Twilight's Last Gleaming.

It Can't Happen Here?

Movies discussed in this section, listed here alphabetically although not discussed in alphabetical or chronological order below:

Cabaret (1972) *****

Hidden Agenda (1990) ****

Missing (1982) ****

Triumph of the Will (1935) *****

Z (1969) ****

The American Coup section above presents ample examples of American political paranoia, but assassinations, overthrow, revolt, and other abrupt, usually violent means of seizing power are known throughout the world and have been for centuries.

This section offers just a taste of movies from or about other countries that have, or could have, experienced the kind of coups described previously. They are chosen because they contain elements that can be easily repeated in an American context—if they have not been so already.

We begin with the signature example of repressive, totalitarian terror, Nazi Germany, before touching on the fascist turn Greece experienced in the late 1960s, a similar right-wing turn—aided by the United States—in Chile, and a fictitious scenario in Great Britain rooted in actual events.

Triumph of the Will (1935) *****

Directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Written by Riefenstahl, Walter Ruttmann, and Eberhard Taubert.

The only documentary discussed in this voters' guide, I included Triumph of the Will because of its enduring influence on both documentary and feature movies and because so much of its imagery and iconography has been repeated so often not just on film but also in real life. Indeed, Leni Riefenstahl's landmark documentary, which introduced many modern cinematic techniques, is a spectacular pageant that lionizes Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party not long after their 1933 rise to power. Filmed at the 1934 Nuremburg rally, Triumph portrays the thrilling parades and formations, the passionate oratory, and the adoring throngs all designed to paint the Nazis as Germany's savior and unifying force.

Ignoring the brutal tactics that paved the Nazis' rise, Riefenstahl creates a hagiography replete with impressionistic shots, sweeping pans, and stirring music to create probably the most (in)famous propaganda film of all time. In the fair faces of the phalanxes of the Hitler Youth and Labor Service ranks lay the incipient blitzkrieg machine, glimpsed later in the form of the fearsome Schutzstaffel (SS) marching through Nuremburg.

Triumph of the Will

Meanwhile, Hitler's speeches stress the strength of the people that buttresses the party and the state—as much courting as exhorting, although the adoration showered on Hitler, lovingly framed by Riefenstahl, defines the führerprinzip (leader principle) that drove the Third Reich. Triumph's legacy perpetuated itself in columns of tanks rumbling past the Kremlin's Communist leaders, and in an American president preaching relentlessly to his base about how only he can tell them the truth about the dangers they face from socialists, Democrats, antifa, and fake news, the "enemy of the people," reinforcing the power of media to shape perception as politics regardless of ideology.

Cabaret (1972) *****

Directed by Bob Fosse. Written by Jay Allen, based on the book Cabaret by Joe Masteroff, the play I Am a Camera by John Van Druten, and the novel Goodbye to Berlin by Christopher Isherwood.

Before the Nazis came to power in Germany, its Weimar Republic was a liberal democracy with overtones of risqué attitudes, and Fosse's dynamic, outré musical drama Cabaret, set in 1931 Berlin, conveys this bold juxtaposition of casual decadence and incipient menace with a frisson that transcends the trivial concerns of its principal characters. They include Sally Bowles (Liza Minnelli), an American entertainer at Berlin's Kit Kat Klub looking for love and a career break, and Brian Roberts (Michael York), an Englishman in Berlin to complete his German studies while working as an English tutor who becomes Sally's friend and, eventually, lover.

Amidst Germany's social sea-change, the Kit Kat Klub promises refuge within its seedy walls, where the leering, luridly compelling Emcee's (Joel Grey) exhortations border on demonic and the musical numbers (John Kander and Fred Ebb's "Wilkommen," "Cabaret," and "Mein Herr") border on salacious thanks to Fosse's sizzling choreography, respites from growing unrest that threatens Brian's student Fritz Wendel (Fritz Wepper), who has fallen for another of Brian's students, Jewish department-store heiress Natalia Landauer (Marissa Berenson).

Cabaret

Yet that unrest cannot help but seep in, reflected in the Emcee's pointed observation "If You Could See Her (The Gorilla Song)," professing his love for a Jewish woman while depicting her as Untermensch (subhuman), and especially in the fascistic beer-garden rouser "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" that marks Cabaret's chilling pivot point. Grey and Minnelli are both tremendous as Cabaret, even tamed from its darker, growling stage version, remains a feast for the senses, adroitly combining its musical numbers with its character sketches and historic backdrops into riveting, thoughtful, and at times unsettling entertainment.

Z (1969) ****

Directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras. Written by Costa-Gavras and Jorge Semprún, based on the novel Z by Vassilis Vassilikos.

Brash and blunt if sometimes sketchy and diffuse, Z gains power as it relates in docudrama form the events that led to the 1967 right-wing coup d'état in Greece that established a dictatorship by military junta, which banned many political and cultural elements including the letter Z, whose then-contemporary Greek meaning was "he lives." The flashpoint is the 1963 assassination of leftist politician Grigoris Lambrakis (Yves Montand, although simply referred to "the Deputy"), struck down in a vehicular attack during a peace-and-nuclear-disarmament rally that launches the investigation into his assault and its revelations that form the heart of Z.

Z

Costa-Gavras brooks no subtlety: The disclaimer in the opening credits asserts that resemblances to actual persons are intentional before the government's security chief (Pierre Dux) lectures government ministers on the dangers of leftist "mildew" infecting the political mind. When the Deputy's autopsy findings contradict the official story of a drunk-driver hit-and-run, the examining magistrate's (Jean-Louis Trintignant) investigation eventually uncovers the right-wing organization behind the assassination—and the high-level assistance it received—although the seeming victory proves tragically Pyrrhic. Broadness creeps into a few of the performances, and Costa-Gavras prompts disorientation with abrupt flashbacks, but with Mikis Theodorakis's evocative, if occasionally incongruous, score, Z becomes an ultimately chilling political thriller.

Missing (1982) ****

Directed by Constantin Costa-Gavras. Written by Costa-Gavras and Donald E. Stewart, based on the eponymous book by Thomas Hauser.

Costa-Gavras returns to examine the 1973 coup d'état in Chile that overthrew the left-wing government led by socialist President Salvador Allende and installed a military junta led by fascist General Augusto Pinochet, a coup that was facilitated by the Nixon Administration in response to Allende's campaign to nationalize Chilean industries monopolized by American companies. This comes as a shock to Ed Horman (Jack Lemmon), the archetypal conservative Middle American who learns that his son, idealistic journalist Charles (John Shea), goes Missing in the coup's quietly terrifying aftermath as dissidents foreign and domestic are rounded up in this chilling story based on Hauser's true account of Charles Horman's disappearance.

Journeying to Chile—although, curiously, Costa-Gavras never makes that explicit despite the obvious signposts—Ed joins Charles's wife Beth (Sissy Spacek) in the search for Charles, who had inadvertently learned of American involvement in the coup, and gets a bracing lesson in Chilean and American deception and duplicity as Costa-Gavras weaves incisive institutional machinations with perceptive interpersonal dynamics to produce a hard-hitting political film with substantial emotional impact. Missing profiles Ed's rude introduction to realpolitik as he and Beth pursue false leads and dead ends while receiving slick reassurances from American officials, all while stumbling toward an answer to Charles's disappearance.

Missing

Lemmon is compelling if perhaps too mannered, but Spacek, challenged to transcend potentially an accessory role, matches him step for step; their chemistry, rarely overdone, is at the heart of Missing. Meanwhile, Costa-Gavras creates an atmosphere of veiled yet palpable deceit and dread—punctuated by periodic gunfire that shatters the feigned civility—while using effective flashback techniques to backlight the engrossing narrative that make Missing an intelligent political thriller that doesn't ignore the personal turmoil that makes it relevant.

Hidden Agenda (1990) ****

Directed by Ken Loach. Written by Jim Allen.

Beginning as a compact political thriller based partly on actual events during "the Troubles" in Northern Ireland, Hidden Agenda takes a final turn into far-fetched conspiracy territory, but up until then it maintains a taut focus centered on human rights investigator Ingrid Jessner (Frances McDormand) and British police investigator Peter Kerrigan (Brian Cox) as they chase leads, witnesses, and dead ends trying to learn more about the killing of Paul Sullivan (Brad Dourif), an American human rights lawyer and Ingrid's lover killed by operatives of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), in a manner reminiscent of Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek in Missing; indeed, Jessner alludes to the human rights commission's work in Chile.

Sullivan was killed while en route to meet with an ex-army intelligence officer (Maurice Roëves) who claimed to have explosive evidence about Margaret Thatcher's rise to power. The RUC's initial story blaming the killings on the Irish Republican Army dissolves in the glare of international publicity, prompting the British government to send Kerrigan to investigate. Cox then becomes the center of Hidden Agenda as his Kerrigan zeroes in on the evidence Sullivan pursued, discovering indications of a right-wing coup that usurped control of the British Labour government, which then leads to Kerrigan's crisis of conscience.

Hidden Agenda

Unlike American political films, which tend to baste their subject matter in exaggerated melodrama or sentimentality, Loach's effort delivers a sure and economical narrative that is easy to follow even for viewers not familiar with events in Northern Ireland, ensuring that Hidden Agenda maintains its intelligence and sobriety without abandoning its storytelling interest.


 

And Now for Something Completely Different. Kind of.

Movies discussed in this section:

The Deal (2003) ****

The Queen (2006) *****

The Special Relationship (2010) ***

Offering an alternative to the American political and presidential system, albeit with eventual American crossover, these movies, which comprise playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan's "Tony Blair Trilogy," indeed provide an insight into top-level British politics, specifically, the prime ministry in the wake of the reign of Margaret Thatcher, Britain's prime minister from 1979 to 1990, often likened to the British Ronald Reagan (although Thatcher took power before Reagan did) as both shared a hardline conservative ideology and worked hard to implement it, subsequently altering the political landscape of both Britain and the United States.

To redress the impact of Thatcher and John Major, Thatcher's successor and fellow member of the Conservative Party, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, both leading lights in the Labour Party, which was falling into disarray, inevitably became rivals when Labour had a shot at retaking power in the 1997 elections, as The Deal details. And although The Queen, set following the death of former Princess Diana in 1997, centers on the royal family, specifically, Queen Elizabeth II, the incoming Blair administration has a better grasp of the impact of Diana's death—will it share that with the royals? Finally, The Special Relationship sees Blair reaffirming that titular US-British alliance with President Bill Clinton, already in his first term and sharing advice when Blair becomes the leader of the Labour Party in 1994—will Clinton maintain that bond when Blair becomes prime minister in 1997?

The Deal (2003) ****

Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Peter Morgan.

Taking a deep dive into British prime ministry politics in the 1990s, following Conservative rule since 1979, the compact docudrama The Deal examines the power struggle between two of the opposition Labour Party's heavyweights, Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) and party golden boy Gordon Brown (David Morrisey), the heir apparent to the "big job"—the prime ministry—and the agreement they struck that enabled Blair to leapfrog Brown into that "big job."

Working from Morgan's lean, sharp, scrupulously researched script, Frears pares the drama to the essence, focusing always on the central dynamic, the relationship between colleagues-turned-rivals Blair and Brown, while parsing out the larger national context that drives their relationship, such as Thatcher's fall from power, Labour's subsequent failure to win the 1992 elections, and the 1994 death of Labour's leader John Smith that created the power vacuum into which Blair stepped. Portraying Brown, Morrisey conveys effectively the Scot's brusque, dour public persona while manifesting his drive and acumen for both political process and public policy. Portraying Blair, Sheen moves from being Brown's junior partner to a party mover-and-shaker with a seamlessness that compensates for missing hints to Blair's ultimate ambition.

Viewers expecting a dramatic confrontation will find a more pragmatic resolution instead, and the ramifications of the Blair-Brown "deal," presumably understood by Brits, are not addressed, while Frears's documentary atmosphere ensures a modest cinematic scope. For thoughtful viewers, though, The Deal is a smart, reasoned insight into recent British politics.

The Queen (2006) *****

Directed by Stephen Frears. Written by Peter Morgan.

Make no mistake: A brilliant Helen Mirren is firmly at the center of The Queen as Elizabeth II in this compelling dramatization of events surrounding Princess Diana's 1997 death. Mirren's absorbing, richly nuanced portrayal forms the fulcrum between the royals' detached attitude and the mass outpouring of grief—a popular sentiment that the Queen eventually realizes she might have misjudged badly as public displeasure with the royals' official silence mounts.

However, it is incoming Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair (Michael Sheen) who correctly gauges the public mood—his communications director Alastair Campbell (Mark Bazeley) famously dubs Diana "the People's Princess"—and who grasps that the royal family has failed to do so save for Prince Charles (Alex Jennings), who surreptitiously forges ties with Blair. Overcoming the politely imperious treatment Blair, accompanied by his anti-monarchist wife Cherie (Helen McCrory), got initially from Her Royal Highness, he urges the Queen to reverse the official course as Diana's funeral approaches.

Queen

Mirren's resignation and dignity in these scenes are masterful, with Roger Allam's turn as crucial royal advisor Robin Janvrin subtly rendered, although performances by Jennings, James Cromwell (portraying Prince Philip), and Sylvia Syms (the Queen Mother) teeter on parody at times. Alexandre Desplat's quietly magisterial score underpins Morgan's crackling script and Frears's assured, unobtrusive direction, buttressing Mirren's stellar performance and Sheen's solid one at the center of The Queen.

Deal Special Relationship

The Special Relationship (2010) ***

Directed by Richard Loncraine. Written by Peter Morgan.

The third of Morgan's profiles of Tony Blair, The Special Relationship focuses on the British Prime Minister's interaction with U.S. President Bill Clinton with less acuity than Morgan's previous efforts as Michael Sheen returns to portray Blair and Dennis Quaid portrays Clinton, in his first term when new Labour Party leader Blair gleans political pointers from Clinton staffers. By 1997, those pointers have helped Blair become Prime Minister, and he continues the "special relationship" Britain enjoys with the United States and its president, now becoming embroiled in the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

Morgan's customary schematic depicts Blair as the neophyte with an intriguing blend of guileless ambition and genuine fellowship to learn from the established public figure before emerging as the ascendant one. Here, Blair's insistence on escalating NATO's offensive role in the relief of Kosovo ushers him past Clinton and onto center stage, to Clinton's private chagrin as Quaid chooses to portray Clinton as more brooding and manipulative than his public image suggested.

Once more emphasizing the leaders' domestic lives, Helen McCrory reprises her solid portrayal of Cherie Blair, a shade more astute than her husband but still supportive, but Hope Davis, immediately evoking Hillary Clinton without mimicry, practically steals every scene she's in, particularly those with only Quaid. Lacking Stephen Frears's incisive guidance, The Special Relationship does exhibit the punch-pulling of the made-for-cable production it is, and as it ends with Clinton's departure, the next story that surely needs to be told is Blair's much more momentous relationship with George W. Bush.

Sublimely Ridiculous

Movies discussed in this section, listed here alphabetically and discussed chronologically below:

The Great Dictator (1940) ****

Idiocracy (2006) *

Mars Attacks! (1996) ****

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) ****

The President's Analyst (1967) ***

Red Planet Mars (1952) ***

Rufus Jones for President (1933) ***

Wild in the Streets (1968) **

We end our voters' guide on a tongue-in-cheek note with eight movies that use the presidency and politics for sublimely ridiculous purposes. Humor, whether spoof, satire, or silliness, is the most prevalent purpose, although one or two movies with ostensibly serious intent might not be in on the joke. Because the settings for these wacky gems range across both time and space with no other unifying theme, it is perhaps safest just to discuss them in order of when they were unleashed upon an unsuspecting viewing public.

Rufus Jones for President (1933) ***

Directed by Roy Mack. Story by A. Dorian Otvos and Cyrus Wood.

Rufus Jones for President might be the most provocative movie in this guide. On its surface, it's a pleasant fantasy about mother and child sharing an actual dream of his becoming president of the United States before they wake up to reality again. But with an almost entirely African-American cast making this musical short in the Jim Crow era, this lively flight of fancy exhibits both admirable ambition and, to contemporary eyes, cringe-worthy stereotypes and tropes of black culture and behavior that seem to reinforce then-current prejudices.

Harassed by an older neighbor boy, Rufus Jones (Sammy Davis, Jr.) returns to his mother's (Ethel Waters) arms on the porch of their modest house where she cautions him to "stay on his side of the fence" while also encouraging him with speculation that he could also grow up to be president. After both fall asleep—voilà!—each dreams that he has been elected president, one who presides over the Senate as it debates the appointments of (ahem) the "dice president" and a "commissioner of poultry."

Rufus Jones for President

Is this really winking satire? That's difficult to gauge although the overriding focus on musical entertainment tips the scales toward blithe mockery. Already a Broadway star, Waters delivers marquee renditions of "Am I Blue?" and "Underneath the Harlem Moon" as seven-year-old Davis wows them with amazing tap-dancing in this historical curio that provides a fascinating yardstick on racial attitudes while also packing an entertaining musical wallop.

The Great Dictator (1940) ****

Written and directed by Charlie Chaplin.

With an audacity that borders on scandalous, Charlie Chaplin almost single-handedly confronts Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, already in control of much of Europe, with the biting satire of The Great Dictator, which hardly disguises Chaplin's political targets as it unloads its moral lambasting through the twin barrels of slapstick and wit. Wielding broad humor throughout—including the deathless mistaken-identity gambit—Chaplin pauses for thoughtful reflection while this silent-film icon embraces sound to deliver an impassioned closing speech redolent of his trademark pathos.

Great Dictator

As Tomainia is defeated at the end of the First World War, a Jewish barber (Chaplin) saves a wounded pilot, Schultz (Reginald Gardiner), before succumbing to his own injuries. When the Barber regains his memory 20 years later, Adenoid Hynkel (Chaplin) and his Double-Cross Party have seized power in Tomainia, subdued the Jewish ghettoes, and are poised to invade neighboring Osterlich. Schultz, now a party leader, nevertheless protests Hynkel's crackdown on the Jews; he and the Barber, a dead ringer for Hynkel, are imprisoned but escape to enact the final twist. Chaplin's caricature of Hitler is brilliant but not one-dimensional, posturing boorishly, then ruminating privately at the piano and during his unforgettable ballet with an inflatable globe in this rich, brave, fervent political broadside.

Red Planet Mars (1952) ***

Directed by Harry Horner. Written by John Balderston and Anthony Veiller, based on the play Red Planet by Balderston and John Hoare.

A fascinating example of Cold War propaganda, the heavy-handed Red Planet Mars uses science fiction as a cudgel to bludgeon viewers with Western superiority over the godless communism behind the Iron Curtain. In fact, driving force Balderston had been a member of President Woodrow Wilson's Creel Committee, the propaganda body that tried to muster enthusiasm for America's entry into the First World War. Despite the polemics pounded home throughout and at the ginned-up ending, Red Planet Mars sustains interest as a historical curio.

Two attempts to contact Mars immediately establish the dichotomy: Affluent suburban couple Chris (Peter Graves) and Linda Cronyn (Andrea King) run a cozy mom-and-pop transmitting station near San Diego while former Nazi scientist Franz Calder (Herbert Berghof), now working for the Soviet Union, huddles in a transmitting hovel high in the icy Andes while being threatened by his communist handlers. The Cronyns begin to receive messages from Mars that astonish the world before causing global sociological and economic panics; the increasingly Biblical nature of the short but pointed Martian messages also sparks a religious war behind the Iron Curtain.

RedPlanMars

Even though plausibility is highly suspect at this point, Red Planet Mars proceeds with self-righteous confidence as Calder delivers a startling revelation in a finale that tries to paint a more credible—and terrestrial—explanation before going blooey as this nominally sci-fi thriller boldly oversells its message.

The President's Analyst (1967) ***

Written and directed by Theodore J. Flicker.

Psychiatry, politics, paranoia, and psychedelia intertwine wickedly in The President's Analyst, a warped vision of the 1960s that takes aim at so many different targets that it's bound to hit a few of them now and then. Flicker's smart satire now looks dated but it digs deep enough into larger, more timeless truths to transcend that while his lampooning of specific institutions never seems to get old as psychiatrist Sidney Schaefer (James Coburn) is recruited by "Central Enquiries Agency" operative Don Masters (Godfrey Cambridge) to be The President's Analyst.

At first, Sidney is elated to be the president's analyst, although his need to be on-call at any time—those interruptions are often hilarious—and the ultra-secret nature of his service strains his relationship with girlfriend Nan (Joan Delaney). Moreover, Sidney begins to feel paranoid—only there really are people out to get him: spies from all over the world, including Russian assassin Kropotkin (Severn Darden)—and when Sidney goes on the lam to escape them all, he discovers the truth about who is really running the show.

Presidents Analyst

As the focal point, Coburn displays a relaxed charisma as his Sidney encounters violent suburban liberals, hippie musicians, and a robotic utility-company head. Clever but diffuse, The President's Analyst teeters between broad spoof and intellectual satire, imparting some comedic insight but lacking a clear breakthrough.

Wild in the Streets (1968) **

Directed by Barry Shear. Written by Robert Thom, adapted from his novel The Day It All Happened.

Dripping with period audacity, Wild in the Streets satirizes its own warning and almost succeeds as a definitive 1960s statement, delivering a passel of period flashpoints from sex, drugs, and rock and roll to politics and especially the generation gap, with flashes of cogency that skirt parody even as events veer from unlikely to downright ludicrous. Max Flatow, Jr. (Barry Williams, then Christopher Jones), grows up with suburban middle-class parents (Bert Freed, Shelley Winters), but by adulthood he's discovered LSD and explosives and, as Max Frost, has become a rock star.

Meanwhile, to court the youth vote, senatorial candidate Johnny Fergus (Hal Holbrook) invites Max and his band to perform at his rally, where they call to lower the voting age ("Fourteen or Fight!"). And when band member Sally LeRoy (Diane Varsi) becomes a Congresswoman and introduces a Constitutional amendment to lower the office-holding age to 14, the youth movement spikes Washington's water supply with LSD to facilitate its passage, with Max eventually becoming President—as a Republican!—and instituting radical countercultural reforms as an even younger constituency begins to take shape.

Wild in the Streets

Credit the cast for their credulity amidst material ripe for campiness although Wild in the Streets still holds its tongue firmly in cheek. Jones displays limited presence as Winters fares best in an obviously over-the-top role. But despite producing a hit single ("Shape of Things to Come") along with its provocative potential, Wild in the Streets never grows up.

Monty Python's Life of Brian (1979) ****

Directed by Terry Jones. Written by Monty Python (Graham Chapman, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones, Michael Palin).

A British satire set in Judea at the time of Christ might seem to have no relation whatsoever to American presidential politics, but if Monty Python's Life of Brian can splice in a jab at Star Wars and make it work, then anything is fair game in this outrageously funny spoof that certainly takes knowing shots at radical politics and factional infighting.

Brian (Graham Chapman), who had the misfortune of being born next to the baby Jesus, attends—in a riotous scene of misinterpretation and petty squabbling—Jesus's Sermon on the Mount and winds up joining a political sect opposed to Roman occupation of Judea. In a wicked spoof of radical politics and factional infighting, Brian finds himself carrying out actions against the Romans that eventually land him before Pontius Pilate (Michael Palin). He escapes, but soon finds himself mistaken for the Messiah; despite his best efforts, he develops a rabid following, including a tryst with attractive rebel Judith (Sue Jones-Davies), that winds up getting him crucified.

Life of Brian

Brian's linear narrative and Jones's economical direction focus the story and enable the comic set-pieces to embellish the narrative, making Brian the best of the Python films. Sly swipes at Spartacus and, absurdly, Star Wars further enliven this terrific satire, although the crowning moment is the famous closing musical number, which is its own charming encouragement—we've all got to look on the bright side of life, right?

Mars Attacks! (1996) ****

Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Jonathan Gems, based on the trading-card series Mars Attacks by Topps.

More pungent, outrageous satire descends on an unsuspecting audience in Mars Attacks!—and this time there is an American president right in the middle of the chaos, President James Dale (Jack Nicholson), in this wicked spoof that lampoons so many targets at so many levels that it's a wonder it manages to remain both accessible and cohesive. It does, thanks to a tightly focused story that is intentionally modest, paying homage to 1950s sci-fi B-movies with deliberately cheesy special effects.

President Dale, alerted to a huge Martian armada orbiting Earth, gets advice from General Decker (Rod Steiger), who urges him to attack, and from Professor Donald Kessler (Pierce Brosnan), who urges him to welcome the Martians. But when Dale's emissary, Colin Powell parody General Casey (Paul Winfield), is vaporized by the Martians, the war of the worlds is joined as, in a sly twist, the eventual heroes (played by Annette Bening, Jim Brown, Pam Grier, Lukas Haas, Tom Jones, Natalie Portman, and Sylvia Sidney) are the misfits and the disenfranchised, the byproducts of tossing narrative convention into the pop-culture Cuisinart.

Mars Attacks

Both in appearance and attitude, Mars Attacks!, with its galaxy of stars, is as much a poke in the eye to lavish, hero-worship science-fiction films (I'm looking at you, Independence Day) as it is droll homage to classic sci-fi and the cult trading-cards series that give the film its distinctive look—along with its extravaganza of simultaneously shocking and cartoonish violence. After watching Mars Attacks!, you'll never listen to Slim Whitman the same way again.

Idiocracy (2006) *

Directed by Mike Judge. Written by Judge and Etan Coen.

Idiocracy contains a brilliant premise: Natural selection goes haywire when smart people make rational choices about whether to have children—or not—while stupid people breed indiscriminately, spurring a de-evolutionary Gresham's Law that a few centuries later yields an intellectually retarded America that has degenerated into a base, moronic, barely functioning society. Unfortunately, Idiocracy's execution functions at the same level, and you can't hide behind the excuse that this is a comedy because its humor is just as lame and witless.

Judge and Coen, the Beavis and Butthead behind a dystopian vision based on the most simplistic and obvious gags, are to blame for this painful series of skits that becomes unbearable even over an admittedly modest running time. Even worse, the pop-culture memes five centuries from now—Starbucks, monster trucks, hip-hop chic, train-wreck television programs like Jackass—were already embarrassingly dated during production, while the tired time-travel trope puts Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) and Rita (Maya Rudolph), two hapless volunteers from a military hibernation experiment carelessly abandoned, into predictable fish-out-of-water predicaments—

—Wait! Maybe that's the joke: We're already in an Idiocracy. Naw. We're not even in a Mediocrity when Joe, a more-average-than-average soldier, and Rita, a prostitute trapped in stereotype, have to find a time machine to escape the mindless consumption and entertainment that distracts from the problems plaguing the year 2505. Judge and Cohen couldn't even make it 2525 for a Zager and Evans joke (they were one-hit wonders with their 1968 song "In the Year 2525") that wouldn't have been worse than what made the final cut. Welcome to our brave new world, idiots.

Idiocracy

Exit Poll

Perhaps it is appropriate that we end this Voters' Guide to Presidential Movies with a movie that not only paints our future as being idiotic but is just as idiotic itself in depicting that future. But we truly are in a brave new world, politically and otherwise, and we face challenging times ahead, not the least in the social and political realms.

To offer a respite from those challenges, this Voters' Guide to Presidential Movies has profiled an array of movies that have ranged from the campaign trail to the media, from a specific political ideology to presidents and would-be presidents to one distinctive president in particular. It has also profiled scenarios of political upheaval in the United States and in other countries while taking a glimpse at politics in Great Britain, which has a "special relationship" with the US, and, to show that we can't take even serious matters seriously all the time, a wacky and humorous look at our political world.

Those last movies offer up distractions, and, indeed, all of our movies are at some level distractions from our lives and our society. But they also provide perspectives, even insights, into our personal and political worlds, informing and maybe even enlightening as they entertain.

Finally, this guide presents merely a drop in the bucket of movies with a political, and specifically a presidential, theme. What are some of the movies in this vein that are not profiled here? What are some of your favorite political movies? This is the exit poll—make your voice heard!

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 October 2020 19:15

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