Ah, the thrills of an election: the unabashed moral compromises, the public gaffes that find eternal life on news broadcasts. With Donald Trump outdoing anything a certain Frank Underwood could even think of on House of Cards maybe truth really is stranger than fictions.
With House of Cards finding excellent approval ratings on Netflix and the UK dealing with the whole Brexit in/out issue, as well as the US facing it’s most incredible Presidential election run in ever, it’s clear that politics are the pop-culture flavor of the month — giving us the perfect opportunity to survey election films of days gone by.
It would be difficult to ignore the two granddaddies of the modern election film, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Frank Capra’s populist valentine to the ideals of American politics, and Citizen Kane (1941), Orson Welles’ landmark study of a publishing tycoon’s Machiavellian ambitions. Put together, this pair of disparate classics offers a fascinating distillation of Depression-era attitudes towards politics. These films have become such inextricable parts of our popular culture that images of Jimmy Stewart’s impassioned filibuster and Welles at the podium now signify the two extremes of American politics: the noble underdog striving to serve the people and the corrupt tyrant seeking to subvert the system to his own desires.
John Frankenheimer’s 1962 Cold War thriller The Manchurian Candidate has justly earned a place in movie history, if only for its sheer weirdness. Simultaneously satirizing paranoia over Communist conspiracies while building suspense around the same, George Axelrod’s loopy screenplay doesn’t tip its cards (literally) until the climax. It’s up to the viewer to piece together the puzzle involving a brainwashed Congressional Medal of Honor recipient (Laurence Harvey) and the political aspirations of his domineering mother (Angela Lansbury). Starring Frank Sinatra in his best on-screen performance as the intelligence officer charged with uncovering the conspiracy, The Manchurian Candidate remains a breed apart from other election films. Back in circulation in repertory cinema and on video after being withdrawn for many years in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, The Manchurian Candidate remains a political thriller fan’s must-see.
Between the riots of the 1960s and the Watergate scandal that brought down President Nixon, confidence in American politics hit a new low in the 1970s. This cynicism found light on screen in two films starring the Sundance Kid himself, Robert Redford. Director Michael Ritchie’s scathing 1972 drama The Candidate maintains its provocative edge despite its beige 1970s patina. Released just as Watergate started to percolate, The Candidate charts the erosion of Redford’s Bill McKay from a straight-talking liberal outsider to the ultimate empty suit, a “viable” senate candidate toeing the party line. Redford’s McKay and his shifty campaign manager (Peter Boyle) create a subdued tension representing the schism between the ideals and the business of politics. The Oscar-winning screenplay by Jeremy Larner astutely observes an election race as the sport of strategists and politicos, one that offers little hope to idealistic candidates struggling to stay that way.
Redford found himself on the other side of the ballot box four years later in All the President’s Men. Alan J. Pakula’s no-nonsense adaptation of the book by the Washington Post reporters who broke Watergate open, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Among the most authoritative political dramas in movie history, William Goldman’s screenplay skewers not just the corrupt Nixon White House, but the crusading press as well. As Woodward (Redford) and Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) conduct their quest, it becomes clear that the media’s motivation for telling the truth is as much grounded in exploitation and the need to sell papers as it is in serving justice — a theme Orson Welles explored Citizen Kane 35 years earlier.
Perhaps appropriately, given the president’s unabashed Hollywood worship, the Clinton era brought with it a regular flow of election-oriented movies. As Clinton campaigned for his first term, Tim Robbins made his writer-director debut with 1992’s Bob Roberts (1992), a mockumentary following a right-wing folk singer’s run for senate. As a result of Robbins’ propensity for wearing his commitment to liberal causes on his sleeve (as evidenced in his more recent efforts, Dead Man Walking and Cradle Will Rock), today Bob Roberts stands more as an excoriating send-up of Reagan/Bush era social conservatism than as an insightful election satire. Nonetheless, with a stellar and cameo-laden cast, Bob Roberts remains a cheeky pleasure — at least to those on the left.
While Bob Roberts suffers for its overbearing political sensibilities, The War Room offers a truer portrait of the inner workings of a campaign. Documentarians D.A. Pennebaker (Don’t Look Back) and Chris Hegedus set their sites on the two minds behind the Clinton candidacy, the “Ragin’ Cajun” campaign director James Carville and youthful communications director George Stephanopolous, and capture the tone of the campaign immediately as the Gennifer Flowers accusations hit the headlines. As the documentary limns the slings and arrows of a particularly tumultuous bid for the White House, Pennebaker gives viewers an intimate look behind the press lines to see the idealism that fueled the Herculean efforts of the campaign that catapulted Bill Clinton into office. Coincidentally enough, the film’s most rhetorically inspiring moment comes not from a speech by Clinton, but by Al Gore, leading a crowd in a revival-style call and response. It’s surprising the Gore campaign didn’t dust off this nugget for a grand example of the current Democratic candidate’s flair on the stump.
As the Clinton administration settled in for a second term of scandalous prosperity, Hollywood’s fascination with the inner workings of the elected only increased. Mike Nichols’ glossy adaptation of Primary Colors, (based on the “anonymous” novel by Newsweek’s Joe Klein) barely registered with moviegoers, appalled at the prospect of watching John Travolta strut his a Clinton impression for two-plus hours. Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog, released mere weeks before the Lewinsky scandal claimed the headlines, failed to live to its impressive pedigree. Dustin Hoffman and Robert DeNiro sleepwalk through David Mamet and Hilary Henkin’s screenplay, resulting in a movie whose provocative implications never quite hit their targets.
Arguably the most successful political satire of the 1990s, Warren Beatty’s Bulworth (1998), offers something to offend everyone. Beatty stars as an incumbent Democratic senator who takes out a contract on his own life. With his political career’s exit clearly marked, Bulworth finds himself at liberty to say anything on his mind, regardless of its effect on his reputation, his constituency, or his aides. Hiding out in South Central Los Angeles, the senator finds a renewed purpose in the beleaguered African-American community (and in the heart of Halle Berry). Though some viewers may be put off by the notion of seeing Beatty rap, Bulworth brashly probes the causes underlying the racial and economic standoff that keeps American politics in gridlock. Beatty’s provocative film caught the notice of Senator John McCain, who incorporated some of its antagonist views of mainstream politics into his bid for the Republican nomination.
On the lighter side, Rob Reiner’s 1995 sleeper The American President became something of a Friday night perennial at the video store. Michael Douglas (in his most likeable role since he patrolled The Streets of San Francisco) stars in this fairy tale as a president whose personal romance with a lobbyist threatens to destroy his reelection chances. While Annette Bening acquits herself handily as the president’s best gal, the most colorful characters are the eclectic White House staffers led by Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox. Writer Aaron Sorkin would strike critical gold a few years later with The West Wing, a prime-time series looking at life behind the scenes in the Oval Office, this time with Sheen as the chief.
To finish where we started House of Cards, which has recently finished it’s fourth season on Netflix, plays out like a thinly veiled account of the Clinton administration. It’s most recent season saw Frank and Claire (Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright) campaigning as President and Vice President. Once upon a time that might have seemed very much to belong in the realms of fairy tale but quite frankly nothing can match the current Trump/Clinton dust up when it comes down to it.