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11 great political films to watch during election season – Haaretz

Here are some of the best political movies to help take your mind off the real-life political dramas in Israel and the U.S.
When the news broke Sunday that Lula had staged an astonishing comeback to defeat far-right incumbent Jair Bolsonaro in the Brazilian presidential election, my first thought was: this sounds like the stuff of Hollywood movies.
That’s because the big screen and politics have always been synonymous – as inextricably linked as Tom and Jerry, Hollywood and liberals, and Elon Musk and dumb tweets.
And it’s not hard to understand why. Politics boasts all of the ingredients that movies thrive on: high stakes and low morals; big winners and even bigger losers; hubris and sophrosyne (but much more the former); fat cats and underdogs; and, most importantly, conflict; lots and lots of conflict – and sometimes without a drop of blood even being spilled.
Israel just held an election on Tuesday that ended in a victory for Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right allies. Meanwhile, the United States is in the midst of a midterm election that, we are told, will be the most important ever, or at least since the last one – because that’s something else politics and movies share: a love of hype.
There are so many classic movies about politics that it was hard to narrow this list down to just 11. Indeed, you may have 11 completely different ones of your own – perhaps the Israeli drama “The Unorthodox,” about the foundation of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party in the 1980s; or “The Iron Lady,” in which Meryl Streep takes on Margaret Thatcher’s unique voice and mannerisms, and somehow emerges triumphant.
Whatever your politics, there’s plenty to enjoy in the films listed below – most of which can be found on a streaming site of your choice (Prime Video was mine in most cases)…
‘All the King’s Men’ (1949)
Ignore Sean Penn’s inferior 2006 remake and revel instead in this Oscar-winning tale about Willie Stark (played by Broderick Crawford), an “honest” Southern politician who becomes a corrupt populist faster than you can say the words “Donald Trump.”
Has any other Hollywood film so brilliantly captured politics at its most venal and, ultimately, dangerous? Or painted such a vivid portrait of how a man can rise to power on the backs of the working classes (“Now listen to me, you hicks!”), then use that power to buttress his own in a political ploy as old as time?
“You know what good comes out of? Bad. Because you can’t make it out of anything else,” Stark tells us, outlining his political worldview. And it’s truly stark to see how the film predicts a certain future president, as Stark organizes a people’s militia to try to stay in power. And all without the aid of social media.
‘All the President’s Men’ (1976)
I think I’ve watched Alan J. Pakula’s award-winning film more times than any other (if I don’t include “Shrek” and those other films I watched with the kids when they were young), yet each time it feels like I’m watching it anew.
From its opening shot – typewriter keys striking a blank piece of paper with the force of a blunt weapon – this is a masterclass in storytelling and showcases screenwriter William Goldman at his very, very best.
“Forget the myths the media created about the White House. The truth is, these are not very bright guys,” a key informant states early on – and the film brilliantly demonstrates just how dumb they were. Oh, and what journalism looked like in the days before the internet, as rookie Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) work the phones and knock on doors to uncover the scoop of the century.
The Watergate scandal celebrates its 50th anniversary this year – hence two TV series, Starz’ “Gaslit” and the upcoming HBO drama “The White House Plumbers” – but “All the President’s Men” remains, well, unimpeachable.
‘All the Way’ (2016)
There is little appetite these days for conventional political biopics like the abovementioned “The Iron Lady” or Oliver Stone’s “Nixon.” But stories about key political moments that forever changed a country will never go out of fashion.
The most obvious candidate here is Steven Spielberg’s 2012 masterpiece, “Lincoln,” about Honest Abe’s historic efforts to secure emancipation in the South. But flash-forward a century and President Lyndon B. Johnson was engaged in another crucial fight: to get the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Or as he puts it here, “I’m gonna out-Lincoln Lincoln.”
“All the Way” may be classic liberal Hollywood filmmaking (even if, ironically, it was made for the small screen by HBO), but it’s delicious “print the legend” stuff about the 36th president. And even though Bryan Cranston looks as much like Magic Johnson as he does Lyndon Johnson, he has great fun spitting out lines like “Politics is war by other means? Bullshit! Politics is war. Period.” And you will too.
‘The American President’ (1995)
Writer Aaron Sorkin would go on to make television history four years later with his White House drama “The West Wing.” But first he gave us this smart romantic comedy starring Michael Douglas as a widower trying to rekindle his love life after meeting an environmentalist lobbyist (Annette Bening) while serving as president.
Rob Reiner’s film is the kind of liberal Hollywood schmaltz that would have a neocon reaching for their revolver – an honorable man in the White House as far removed from the womanizing ways of JFK, Johnson, Bill Clinton et al as it’s possible to get. I love it, but this is probably the one film on the list that Republicans will want to avoid.
‘The Candidate’ (1972)
Robert Redford’s second film on this list is a delightfully scrappy drama – an “indie” film before there even was such a thing, about an idealistic young Democratic running against the Republican incumbent in a California Senate race. (Yes, there used to be such a thing as GOP senators in California.)
Director Michael Ritchie captures the chaos of an election race – the baby-kissing, the dramas of the TV debate, the campaign advisers spewing out advice nonstop – as Redford’s community lawyer Bill McKay goes from long-shot outsider to possible senator.
The film mines the dramas inherent in any good political race to brilliant effect, as the photogenic, would-be politician struggles with setbacks and constantly questions why he is even standing. There’s also a killer final scene that really should be more widely known.
‘Election’ (1999)
Politics takes many forms, and humble high school presidential races have provided Hollywood with lots of rich material over the years (2014’s “Napoleon Dynamite” being one of the best examples).
But the pick of the bunch for me is Alexander Payne’s black comedy “Election,” about shamelessly ambitious young Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) and dweeby teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), who will increasingly do anything to thwart her political ambitions.
Despite the high school setting, this is very much an adult film as Jim wrestles with marital problems outside of the classroom. But it is also very much a film about what politics is – or, as Jim explains to the lovable school jock he’s trying to convince to stand against Tracy: “Do you want an apple or do you want an orange? That’s democracy.”
‘The Front Runner’ (2018)
I’m a sucker for films set on the campaign trail: all of that testosterone, all of that mess, all of that fast-paced walking and talking. And one of my favorites is Jason Reitman’s underlooked drama about the ill-fated 1988 Democratic run by Sen. Gary Hart (played here by Hugh Jackman), whose bid was ultimately scuppered by personal rather than political peccadillos.
Should our politicians be squeaky-clean, holier-than-thou folks with uncomplicated private lives? Or should we judge on them on their political deeds and allow them to be real people with the same flaws as the rest of us? Herschel Walker, best if you let someone else field this question.
“The Front Runner” sees Hart’s fate as a turning point in American politics, when the Washington Post and New York Times started competing with the National Inquirer for salacious stories about political leaders. All of which makes sense except for the small point that, just four years later, Bill Clinton became president (see “Primary Colors” for more on that).
‘Game Change’ (2012)
Is it possible for a liberal industry to portray right-wing conservatives in a sympathetic light? Usually I’d say no, but the HBO movie “Game Change” is an exception to the rule.
This is another movie on the campaign trail, this time following GOP candidate John McCain and his 2008 race against Barack Obama – and his choice of Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin as his running mate.
Julianne Moore’s portrayal of Palin is, of course, the second best-known by an actress – after Tina Fey’s devastating depiction of the “pitbull with lipstick” hockey mom on “Saturday Night Live.”
“Game Change” brilliantly shows how the campaign put the rookie politician through the wringer and shone a painfully bright light on all of her flaws (“She didn’t know why North and South Korea were different countries”). It’s a film I return to every few years, and it never fails to delight.
‘In the Loop’ (2009)
How many great comedies are set in the world of politics? Well, TV has given us several – from “Yes, Minister,” “Yes, Prime Minister” and “The Thick of It” in Britain, to “Servant of the People” in Ukraine, to “Veep” in the United States.
“Veep” and “The Thick of It” were both created by Armando Iannucci, and he’s also the brains behind “Thick of It” spin-off “In the Loop” – which for me is one of the funniest movies of all time, period.
The not-so-special relationship between Britain and the United States gets skewered in hilarious fashion, as both countries compete to make the case for going to war against Saddam Hussein. This is satire in its sharpest form with rat-a-tat dialogue that repays repeated viewings. It also wins my vote over 1997’s “Wag the Dog” every single time.
‘The Manchurian Candidate’ (1962)
Political films take many guises and John Frankenheimer’s 1962 drama is one of the best politically-themed thrillers our there (again, ignore the superfluous 2004 remake with Denzel Washington and stick with the original).
This is wonderfully bonkers stuff: the brainwashing of U.S. soldiers fighting in the Korean War, which lends itself to some great surreal scenes early on when the head of Russia’s “Pavlov Institute” demonstrates how he can get soldier Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) to kill comrades without thinking.
There’s a terrific ending at a party convention at Madison Square Garden, one of the most buffoonish portrayals of a U.S. senator ever committed to screen before Mitch McConnell saw it and said “Hold my beer,” and a chilling performance by the late Angela Lansbury as Shaw’s overbearing mother.
You don’t need brainwashing to call this one of the great political thrillers.
‘Our Brand is Crisis’ (2005)
There is no shortage of great documentaries about politics (two of my favorites from recent years are the Apple TV doc “Boys State” and HBO’s “537 Votes,” while “The War Room,” about the 1992 campaign to elect Clinton, is an all-time classic).
Yet one of the most interesting is a cheap-and-cheerful 2005 doc following a group of U.S. political consultants trying to bring a U.S.-style presidential campaign to Bolivia – and the disastrous repercussions that follow.
What’s truly amazing is that, as civil unrest spills onto the streets of La Paz after the election, anyone in Hollywood could have possibly thought: This is great, let’s remake it as a comedy vehicle for Sandra Bullock.
You really need to watch both the documentary and 2015 comedy-drama of the same name back-to-back, if only to marvel at seeing the names “Steven Mnuchin” and “George Clooney” juxtaposed on the big screen as two of the latter film’s producers. It’s as if they didn’t get the message underlying the original documentary: “Only in the United States can you believe that people can be changed by information.”

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