Hollywood has used film to examine many aspects of American life, and American politics is no exception. So many of Hollywood’s political films have analyzed all aspects of the political process, from the inner workings of Congress, to McCarthy-era frenzy to the machinations of those savvy enough to make it in the political arena. Here are just 10 of those films that have defined our view of the country’s democracy.
1. Election (1999)
Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick star in this cult classic about a young, ambitious manipulative high school student named Tracy Flick (Witherspoon) as she campaigns for student body president. However, the social studies teacher, Jim McAllister (Broderick) believes she’s not suitable for the role and does what he can to stop her from reaching her goal.
2. All the President’s Men (1976)
The journalistic investigation into President Nixon’s crimes against democracy are dramatized in this recount starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford. Bob Woodward (Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Hoffman), The Washington Post reporters, uncover the extent of Nixon’s Watergate scandal.
3. The Candidate (1972)
Redford starred in this political drama four years before All the President’s Men. However, in The Candidate, Redford is playing the politician navigating the waters of the Beltway. He plays Bill McKay, the idealistic son of former California governor John J. McKay (Melvyn Douglas), who has no shot at winning the Presidency—or so the establishment thought, until political election specialist Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) gets a hold of him.
4. The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and (2004)
Considered one of the pinnacles of political thrillers, The Manchurian Candidate gives viewers a paranoid, gripping story of Cold War politics infiltrating the American political process. Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey), a Korean War veteran and a member of a prominent political family, is brought back into normalcy after being held as a prisoner of war. However, unbeknownst to him, he has been brainwashed to become a sleeper agent meant to carry out assassinations in favor of a vast communist agenda. Army captain Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) becomes aware of Shaw’s victimization and tries to help him before his mother, Eleanor Iselin (Angela Lansbury) issues Shaw to kill to the political rival of her husband and Shaw’s stepfather, Sen. John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), paving the way for Iselin to become President and push his McCarthy-esque ideals.
The film was rebooted in 2004 with Denzel Washington as Marco and Live Schreiber as Raymond Shaw, revamped as a U.S. representative who becomes the vice-presidential candidate. Meryl Streep plays Shaw’s mother and U.S. senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw.
5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
James Stewart captures the hearts of viewers as a newly-elected congressman Jefferson Smith, who wants to change Washington from the inside out. However, he is soon put through the paces by his fellow congressmen, who are comfortable, staid career politicians instead of true civil servants. Smith must rise above the noise and political tactics to win against the Beltway corruption.
6. Widows (2018)
The Viola Davis-starring film hinges on a group of women trying to finish the big robbery their criminal husbands failed to complete. But the subplot simmering throughout the film is how Chicago’s politics is infiltrated by career politicians, in particular the father-son political dynasty of Tom Mulligan (Robert Duvall) and Jack Mulligan (Colin Farrell) and corrupt criminals-turned-politicians like Jamal Manning (Brian Tyree Henry), Jack’s political rival for a seat he’s expected to inherit from his father.
7. Citizen Kane (1941)
There are so many layers to Citizen Kane, but one of the driving forces of this film about elusive self-made man Charles Foster Kane (Orson Wells) is how he ran for the governor’s seat in New York after his successful career as a newspaper publisher.
8. Advise & Consent (1962)
Henry Fonda-starrer Advise & Consent features the U.S. Senate debating on whether to agree to the President’s nominee for Secretary of State, Robert A. Leffingwell (Fonda) because of his expertise on the administration’s current foreign policy. The nomination opens up a can of worms within the Senate, creating factions for and against the nominee.
9. Head of State (2003)
Back in 2003, it was still thought of as impossible for a Black man to become President. This opinion which passed as fact was the basis for Chris Rock’s comedy. In his film, he plays Mays Gilliam, the alderman of D.C.’s 9th Ward. He is surprisingly nominated for the Presidency after both of the party’s presidential and vice-presidential nominees die in a plane crash. Bernie Mac also stars as Mitch Gilliam, Mays brother and the man Mays chooses to run with him as Vice-President.
10. A Face in the Crowd (1957)
One of Andy Griffith’s best performances since his work on The Andy Griffith Show, A Face in the Crowd follows a country drifter-turned-Hollywood star Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes. The film can be thought of as an early look at reality stars and the cult of personality, but it also shows how these stars can rise into political prominence as well (see Kim Kardashian-West rubbing elbows with President Trump to fight for prisoner clemency). In the film, Rhodes is hired to be an image-maker for Republican presidential candidate Sen. Worthington Fuller, who was failing to connect to his audience. Rhodes’ innate marketing talent helps him craft a folksy persona for the candidate.
Which political film is your favorite?