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Tis the Season for the Best Political Films

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If the wall-to-wall political coverage isn’t prompting you to pour cayenne pepper in your eyes while chewing on a ball of tinfoil and you’re up for a topical “escape,” here are our top political movie picks to suit your careening mood swings.

Comedy/Satire

So The Colbert Report is your nightly news source and Keith Olbermann can occasionally make you laugh through your tears? Dow Jones sinking like the Titanic and taking that 401K down with it? Cue up one of these comedic chestnuts for a respite—you’ll feel better for a few hours.


Primary Colors
Just because John Travolta stars as a fairly obvious Clinton clone, don’t think the DVD is the cocktail coaster you’d expect. Barbarino brings his A-game as does an excellent supporting cast featuring Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, James Earl Jones, and Larry Hagman among others, but that’s expected when Mike Nichols directs. Based on the novel of the same name penned by Anonymous (who later turned out to be Newsweek political scribe Joe Klein), the film tells the story of a Southern governor whose unsavory appetites threaten to upend his ambitions of winning the presidential election. At the time of its release in 1998, President Clinton was dealing with the fallout from his own appetites for destruction, so the film largely was dismissed along obvious partisan lines.


But those who avoided the movie, for whatever reasons (political or John Travolta-averse), missed out on one of the best American political films in recent memory. Much more than a thinly veiled Clinton metaphor, it’s a story of modern American politics in the twentieth century that remains as pertinent today as it did when there was talk of a 15,000-point Dow Jones Industrial average.


Wag the Dog
When the President of the United States is accused of sexual misconduct in the Oval Office two weeks before the upcoming election, Washington spin-doctor, Conrad Brean (Robert DeNiro), is summoned to the White House and charged with distracting an unsuspecting public from the scandal. For Brean, the plan is simple. Bring in Hollywood producer, Stanley Motts (Dustin Hoffman), and manufacture a war in some ridiculously far off place like Albania to shift public focus away from the scandal and on the imperative and increasingly patriotic war effort.


A superlative David Mamet script, flawless direction by Barry Levinson and standout performances by DeNiro, and (believe it or not) Anne Heche, Hoffman’s pitch-perfect riff on Robert Evans (Hoffman’s best since Tootsie), the always great Denis Leary and consummate pro, William H. Macy all combine to make Wag the Dog one of the best political satires ever made. The Willie Nelson and Woody Harrelson cameos add over-the-top comic relief that must be seen to be believed.


An American President
If you are a West Wing fan and somehow missed this movie, let your fingers do the walking and queue it up already. Director Rob Reiner scores a nearly impossible hat trick, as Roger Ebert mentions in his review, “It’s hard to make a good love story, harder to make a good comedy, and harder still to make an intelligent film about politics.” Michael Douglas stars as widowed President, Andrew Shepard, who falls head over heels for the wrong person—a Washington lobbyist—at the wrong time at the start of his re-election campaign. Benning gives her character the perfect mix of vulnerable and tough Washington operative. Dreyfus delivers a frighteningly realistic portrayal of the Republican candidate running against Shepard. In typical Sorkin fashion, the dialogue is intelligent, believable, and inspirational. And while we’re pretty sure Sorkin isn’t ghost writing Obama’s speeches, the similarities have been duly noted.

The Real Deal

If you’re “Mad as hell!” like Peter Finch in Network, then these flicks are for you. But keep the sipping bourbon nearby.


All the President’s Men
I’d wager a thousand bucks (or one crisp T-bill) that if there’s anyone left on this planet that hasn’t yet seen this film, they reside in Wasilla, Alaska, where the lone Beta copy was burned in a mass movie melting. One of the finest examples of classic 70s cinema, undoubtedly the best expose on the Watergate scandal and perhaps one of the greatest films ever made—young lion Redford throwing nothing but aces and Hoffman firing when he still dug deep and gave everything. A supporting cast of cinema veterans including Jack Warden, Hal Holbrook, Jane Alexander, Jason Robards, and Ned Beatty round out the cast and help director, Alan J. Pakula, delivers a film as riveting today as the day it was released. The film hauled home eight Academy Awards—and that was before they started handing out nominations to drivel like Scent of a Woman and Titanic


The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara
This film scared the bejesus out of me and made me nauseous and lightheaded no less than three times throughout the course of the film. That said, the movie is fascinating and should be required viewing on college campuses throughout the country.


Culled from extensive interviews with former Kennedy and Johnson Defense Secretary, Robert McNamara, in which he discusses at length his notorious roles in World War II, Vietnam, and the Cold War. Utilizing archival footage, including taped conversations from the oval office, filmmaker Errol Morris probes for answers behind the U.S. commitment to the Vietnam War, the bombing of Japan in World War II, and the Cuban Missile Crisis.


Wesley Morris of the Boston Globe accurately notes in his review that the film’s most fascinating factor is how McNamara—after hours upon hours of questioning comes across “as the confessor who refuses to comment.” Compounding McNamara’s steely rhetoric and ambiguous remorse is Morris’ refusal to provide a counterpoint. What’s left are the ramblings, or “confessions,” of one of the most fascinating foreign policy figures of the last century on one hand, but on the other an eight-five-year-old man in the twilight of his life dealing with the fact that he has more blood on his hands than most branded war criminals.


Let’s Learn Judo with Vladimir Putin
I said, real deal, and, as God is my witness this thing is real, baby. If you’re aiming to work up a sweat and get all yoked with some random gym hack, I’m thinking you’ll see better results with a guy who scoffs at term limits and who’ll likely start the next Cold War. What the hell—who doesn’t love a good sequel? No word yet on when Hunting Humans with Robert Mugabe is due to hit the Netflix racks.


The Good Old Days 


Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Director Frank Capra’s career triumph revolves around a theme he would visit often; the positive difference one individual can make for the betterment of all in the face impossible odds. As usual, Capra nails it delivering a timely and vital classic brimming with hope, conviction, and truth. If the war for this White House coupled with the economic meltdown has left you drawing parallels between your own life and The Myth of Sisyphus, what better antidote can there be than killing a few hours watching Jimmy Stewart fight for the underdog against rampant government corruption?


Don’t mistake that grainy black and white film for a “once upon a time” relic of election years past. The movie holds up beautifully, offering timeless commentary on elected officials—whether past, present or future. In fact, I wonder how closely John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate resembled the film’s version where Jimmy Stewart, a wet (not green) behind-the-ears small town Boy Scout-type leader, gets plucked from obscurity via coin flip by a crooked incumbent seeking a wholesome, easy on the eyes, naive, and pliable patsy.      


If it is common knowledge that Jimmy Stewart’s character represents all that is good in American politics—honesty, character and above all the innate humanity required to serve the interests of the people—then what are we to derive from the needless mudslinging and politicized antics steering this election?


Former President James A. Garfield once said, “The truth will set you free, but first it will make you miserable.”


Hopefully the above films will help ease your collective misery election time.


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