En español | With Nov. 3 around the corner, we're finally in the home stretch before Election Day. And no matter what your politics or your feelings about this year's unprecedented pandemic campaign season, we can all agree that Hollywood has come up with some unforgettable takes on our American Experiment, from when Mr. Smith went to Washington to when Tracy Flick ran the world's most aggressive student council president campaign. So why not take a break from cable news, Twitter and Facebook, and settle in with these dozen delightful dabbles in democracy? Winner takes all!
Sometimes elections wind up being the most cutthroat when the stakes are the lowest. In this deliciously dark satire from director Alexander Payne (Sideways), Reese Witherspoon is unstoppable as Tracy Flick, a terrifying, type-A high school Goody Two-shoes running for student council president. Matthew Broderick costars as an underhanded teacher who desperately wants to squash Tracy's ambition and recruits a rival candidate (Chris Klein, perfect as a naive, dim-bulb jock) to run against her. It turns out to be a huge — and hilarious — miscalculation, leaving him as pitiful roadkill in Tracy's unbeatable rise to power. Pick Flick!
The Candidate (1972)
Robert Redford, at the peak of his golden-god good looks, turns political campaigning into a referendum on just how much of your soul you're willing to sell to win public office. As an idealistic, young California lawyer taking on a deep-pocketed incumbent in the race for the U.S. Senate, Redford's Bill McKay stubbornly refuses to play the media's games. And it works so well that this long-shot bid suddenly seems winnable — a prospect that's so seductive that his principles get wobbly. The Candidate is a brilliant meditation on those strange bedfellows, politics and principles, and Peter Boyle is outstanding as an oily strategist who whispers sellout sweet nothings into McKay's ear on the way to each campaign stop.
The American President (1995)
Before he created The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin penned this Capra-esque dress rehearsal about an eminently decent U.S. president (Michael Douglas) running for reelection. What gives the movie its screwball kick, though, is the fact that this leader of the free world, Andrew Shepherd, is a widower who begins dating an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening) on the sly, which gets his Republican rival (Richard Dreyfuss) daydreaming about damaging tabloid headlines. As usual with Sorkin, the dialogue is top notch. And When Harry Met Sally director Rob Reiner gives the film an added touch of fizzy rom-com topspin.
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The War Room (1993)
When Bill Clinton won the Oval Office in 1992, he was called the comeback kid. He'd been way down in the polls and plagued by scandal, but somehow, he mysteriously managed to turn the race around. This riveting documentary from filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus solves that mystery by showing us how two relatively unknown campaign advisers (James Carville and George Stephanopoulos) tirelessly worked the phones and pulled the strings behind the scenes. A classic this-is-how-the-sausage-gets-made peek at the American political process in action, The War Room manages to be both thrilling and a little depressing.
Primary Colors (1998)
Speaking of Bill Clinton, this movie is definitely not about him ... nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Based on the best-selling novel by Anonymous (later revealed to be political reporter Joe Klein), Mike Nichols’ wildly entertaining roman å clef about a horndog Southern governor who can't seem to get out of his own way (or zipper) while running for the presidency is far better than critics at the time would have had you believe. John Travolta and Emma Thompson as Jack and Susan Stanton are both fantastic as they tap dance on the fine line between cartoonish impersonation and psychological revelation. If you skipped this one when it first came out, do yourself a favor and give it a shot now.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Wild political conspiracy theories aren't anything new. They've been around forever. Take John Frankenheimer's harrowing political thriller, which stars Laurence Harvey as Raymond Shaw — a Korean War hero who has been brainwashed by Chinese Communists in league with his own domineering mother (a lip-smackingly sinister Angela Lansbury) and shaped into an unwitting assassin. Her ambition is to get her empty-suit husband elected to higher office using her son as a rifle-wielding pawn. Frank Sinatra, as Shaw's former captain, races against the clock to deprogram him before he can pull the trigger. The melodrama is through the roof on this one, but so is the paranoia and tension. The 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington is also worth checking out.
Wag the Dog (1997)
On the eve of his reelection, the U.S. president is about to be swept into a sex scandal. But before the news can break, his strategists come up with the ultimate distraction — they invent a fake war in Albania to take the public's mind off of his personal life and glued to their TV screens. A crazy-like-a-fox Robert De Niro plays the mastermind of the whole phony war ruse, and Dustin Hoffman steals the satirical show as a leathery, scruples-free Hollywood producer brought in to add some razzle-dazzle to help sell the whole bit. Sure, Wag the Dog is silly, far-fetched fun. But beneath all of the broad guffaws is a scary kernel of truth.
And of course, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Now here's a movie that both sides of the political aisle could stand to watch every election cycle. In this red-white-and-blue Frank Capra classic, James Stewart plays a hick Wisconsin senator who storms into the nation's capital as a messenger of American values and decency just in time to remind his cynical peers that democracy is worth fighting for. If that sounds corny on paper, well, on screen it will put a lump the size of an apple pie in your throat. Claude Rains and Jean Arthur are both perfection as the frozen hearts that most need melting. A masterpiece.
Tanner ‘88 (1988)
Long before HBO kickstarted the era of prestige TV, it bankrolled this ambitious miniseries from director Robert Altman and Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau. The two basically created a fictional presidential candidate from scratch named Jack Tanner (played by Michael Murphy) who wove himself into the 1988 race for the White House. In this revealing and radically inventive 11-part series, you get to see him blur the line between fact and fiction alongside such real-world politicos as Gary Hart, Bob Dole, Jesse Jackson, Ralph Nader and Gloria Steinem. It's fascinating. Also fascinating: future Sex and the City star Cynthia Nixon plays his daughter.
Watch it here: Tanner ‘88, on Amazon Prime
Head of State (2003)
Chris Rock for president? OK, maybe not. But his State of the Union addresses sure would be entertaining. In this skewed riff on Bulworth, Rock plays a low-level D.C. public servant who's tapped to run for the Oval Office and sees his straight-talking, no-B.S. style win over skeptical voters tired of being lied to. The high-concept comedy is thin and breezy, but the stand-up's jokes come at a rat-a-tat clip and conceal the barbed sting of truth.
Game Change (2012)
When John McCain picked an obscure Alaskan governor named Sarah Palin as his vice presidential candidate in the 2008 election, it was so far-fetched that even Frank Capra couldn't have dreamed it up. And once she opened her mouth, she immediately became a deer caught in the headlights to some and an instant media superstar to others. A movie about her overnight rise could have been an easy-target hit job, but thanks to Julianne Moore's layered and empathetic portrayal, Palin comes into focus in a way she never did on TV and in the papers. She becomes human. Only in America, folks. Only in America.
The Ides of March (2011)
George Clooney goes behind and in front of the camera for this sharp, cynical inside-baseball drama about an idealistic young press spokesman (Ryan Gosling) whose belief in his boss, a charismatic governor with his eye on the White House (Clooney), is dashed after discovering that while his mentor talks the talk he doesn't necessarily walk the walk. Based on a play by Beau Willimon (who created the American version of House of Cards), The Ides of March is named after the date when Julius Caesar was assassinated. It was also when ancient Romans settled all of their debts. Considering all of the backstabbing and score-settling on display here, it's easy to see why Clooney went with the title for his film.