Seeing as how everyone is reeling from the current election, I thought it might be a good time to look at the best political movies.
The challenge here is to find films that do a good job of exploring politics in an interesting and entertaining way without devolving into partisianship. This isn't easy since movies of this type to easily become political propaganda. Nevertheless, here is is my list.
10. The Distinguished Gentleman
This a fun and light-hearted comedy about a con man who worms his way into the US House of Representatives and tries to live high on the hog the way life-long bureaucrats do. Murphy is charming and funny in this, though the script doesn't play to his strengths as much at it should. Rather veering into total cynicism, this film gives a glimpse at how our system can work with some good people in it.
9. 13 Days
From what I understand, this movie goes out of its way to put the Kennedys in the best possible light for this movie about the Cuban Missile Crisis. Regardless, it is a fascinating insight into all of the political dealings that have to be done in the midst of an international crisis while keeping a cool head at all times.
8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier
One of the reasons this is one of the best Marvel movies is that it is a movie about something. The questions of freedom and security are at the heart of this film and the filmmakers do a good job of bringing those timely topics front and center without seeming to come down on the side of any particular political party.
7. Captain America: Civil War
Even though Winter Soldier is a better movie, Civil War is higher on this list because it is able to make the political questions at the center of this conflict so incredibly interesting. I have watched the scene with Steven and Tony arguing at the conference table several times. One of the things I love about what this movie does is that it shows how too people can have unwavering political convictions but neither of them are the "bad guy." Yes, they are in conflict, but they don't demonize the other. That is great lesson for today.
Besides the epic and emotionally devastating music, Hamilton takes us on the founding father's political journey. One of the things that I truly enjoyed about it is how it showed the way political ambition can utterly destroy a person's life, even with the best of intentions.
While the music for Hamilton may be better, I watch this movie every year because I love hearing the arguments from the members of the Continental Congress as to why we needed to be free and independent. This is a movie that is a good reminder why we broke away and created the greatest country the world has ever seen. It is also a reminder that without the work of these incredible but flawed men, we would not be here as a people.
This is an underrated gem about a man impersonating the president who ends up having to become the president. It is a wonderful critique of politics without being nakedly partisan. Kevin Kline is fantastic, not overplaying the comedy and showing just the right amount of restraint and energy. I love his final speech to Congress, as corny as it is, especially when he says about being president that he was sent there to do a job "and a temp job at that." It is a nice reminder that our political leaders should only be there temporarily and we do not elect dynasties.
I don't think I ever truly admired the political genius of Abraham Lincoln until this movie. It is a fascinating exploration of how you can achieve great political progress through compromise, persuasion, and strategy. Watch how Lincoln had to juggle such polarizing members of not only congress, but his own political party. All the while he has a ticking clock and a war to manage while dealing with a crazy wife. Amazing to watch.
2. Wag the Dog
Pure cynicism. This might be the most cynical film I have ever seen and yet I don't find it a turn off. There is something not only incredibly interesting about the way the characters underhandedly try to manipulate the country, but something rings true about the deep corruption of our media/political system. I remember the first time I saw this film, the ending was so shocking to me that I really disliked it. Now I understand that without the film's ending, you completely misunderstand the point of the movie. Brilliant.
1. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The most idealist movie about politics. And yet, if you watch most of the film, it is about how utterly corrupt our politics has become. The story is about a political outsider named Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) who is appointed to the US Senate. He thinks of Congress a place of high ideals and statesmanship, only to be confronted with the its utter depravity. Even his best friends and allies are pure cynics who make fun of goodness and idealism. Eventually, the evil of the system falls upon him to destroy him. But then comes the greatest third act of any political movie.
The filibuster sequence is Jimmy Stewart at his best: sincere, passionate, dramatic, funny, and wise. To this day I get chills when he looks up in despair at the man who betrayed him and says with an incomprehensibly compassionate smile, "I guess this is just another lost cause, Mr. Payne."