So, it’s Oscar weekend. My vote goes to Boyhood. Just an astonishing piece of work on so many levels. But you don’t need me to tell you that. What you might need me to tell you about, however, are political movies. So here, cheaply yet cunningly pegged to Oscar weekend, is the somewhat idiosyncratic list of Tomasky’s Favorite Political Movies.
A note on methodology. First, I make no claim that I’ve seen every political movie under the sun, so there are surely many great ones that I’ve missed. Second, since we’re pegged to the Oscars, no foreign films for now, so no Battle of Algiers or The Conformist or the more recent Waltzing With Bashir, all of which would obviously be on any list that was international in scope. Ditto, for me, Persepolis.
Although: Is Persepolis a political film? It is and it isn’t; it’s partly a coming-of-age story, which brings me to stipulation three, which is that I’m limiting this to films that are at their core about politics and the political process, and not half political-historical saga, half love story (Reds, say, which I thought was great at the time and pretty much so again about 10 or 12 years ago when re-watched most of it). Some of my movies are about Washington, some are about the swirling political winds of their day, but they’re all in my admittedly subjective view chiefly about the real politics of our nation and world. Hence no Election, which was great but doesn’t meet either of my criteria. And Casablanca is political, but it’s out because it just transcends category.
Fourth, my list tends toward older fare, only because I know it better. My movie-going record in more recent years has been spotty. I never saw Wag the Dog, for example. I just somehow missed it at the time, and it later seemed to me very of-the-moment and not worth revisiting X years later, although maybe I’m wrong about that. I did see In the Loop, which I imagine a number of you would put on your lists; I liked but didn’t love it. And 4B, I’m leaving out stuff that I know is great but that I haven’t seen in half a lifetime, like The Candidate and Z, because I can hardly remember anything about them.
Fifth and last, note that I said this is a list of favorites, not “the best.” I’m well aware that some of my choices wouldn’t make a collective critics’ list. But I don’t care about that. I’m the columnist here, and my take is my take! I include for your delectation a few oldies that are quite obscure today but were great in their time, and I hope what I have to say about them here leads some of you to go stream them.
All that said, let us dive in. I’m doing this by genre, which I think is more interesting than just a top 10 list. And I’m not giving plot summaries, by the way, but the links are all to Wikipedia, for the curious among you.
We start with Best Cold War Movie because this one is my #1 favorite political film of all time. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer, 1962) might well make my list of top 10 movies of any kind ever. It’s just great movie-making. There’s not an unnecessary minute in this movie. Every scene, every shot, is near-perfect. And the way the plot unfolds is mesmerizing: You have to pay attention and think, but it’s never confusing or obtuse. Frankenheimer doesn’t hand you everything on a platter; he meets the viewer halfway, the way a great novelist does the reader.
Laurence Harvey, with that weirdly enigmatic face of his, simultaneously boyish and sinister, is so perfectly cast and plays it so well. Angela Lansbury! What a performance. Every scene between the two of them is so intense they can be almost hard to watch; like cutting your skin with broken glass. And the breathtaking dream scene, Frank Sinatra’s dream, in which one circular-panning camera sweeps the room as it goes back and forth between the old bitties’ garden club meeting that they’ve been brainwashed into thinking they’re attending and the North Korean indoctrination session that they’re actually attending, is just mind-blowing; the greatest single scene in any movie ever.
It’s interesting that all the principals are Republicans. The buffoonish reactionary Senator Johnny Iselin, sure. But surprisingly by today’s lights, the heroic, liberal-minded Senator Thomas Jordan, too. This wouldn’t have seemed odd at all in 1962. The Republican Party had people like that in those days.
Honorable Mentions: The Third Man of course; Dr. Strangelove, obviously; From Russia With Love (imagine that there had never been a Bond franchise, and this had just been a one-off Cold War movie with this character named Bond); The Spy Who Came in From the Cold; and I’m gonna throw in Breach, the Robert Hanssen movie, because Chris Cooper rocks it, even when he says things like “the world doesn’t need any more Hillary Clintons.”
Best Washington Politics Movie Mainly About Congress: This is a tough call, but I’ll go with Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger, 1962). Two things make this movie great. First, it’s a very realistic portrayal of Senate life. Charles Laughton, as the conservative, seersucker-wearing Southerner, in particular captures the senatorial affect of that age of genteel hypocrisy quite well. And second, the stunning homosexual-related plot theme is still pretty frank even by today’s standards—or, let me say, it was still frank by the standards of the early ’00s, when I first saw the film. It had to be just mind-blowing in 1962. How many movies back then had a scene inside a Greenwich Village gay bar? And how weird is it that what are probably my two favorite political films are both from 1962? Well, they’re both amazing.
Also in this category, yes, one can’t deny Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939). Call it corny if you want, and of course in some ways it is. But I watched it recently and there are many aspects of it that are surprisingly hard-boiled. The basic corruption plot between Claude Rains and the Boss Taylor character (Edward Arnold) is totally credible, exactly the kind of swindle that senators in the pre-ethics committee age used to pull all the time. And Rains’s lecture to Jimmy Stewart toward the end, after Stewart has figured it all out, as to why the swindle is in fact in the best interest of the people of Montana, and why it would be in the best interest of the august United States Senate for Stewart/Smith not to blow the whistle, is very realistic and almost even convincing. Given how much more cynically we see politics now vs. then, it’s actually amazing how well this holds up.
Honorable Mention: On a recent re-watching, Bulworth hit me as a lot better than I’d remembered.
Best Washington Politics Movie Mainly About the Presidency: Loads of contenders here, but All the President’s Men (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) takes it. About two years ago, this was on TV, on some directionless Saturday afternoon, and I figured, “Well, I’ll watch a few minutes of this, see if it’s as good as I remember.” It was as spellbinding as if I’d never seen it in my life and had no idea how it was going to end. Now that’s good filmmaking. It’s one of those movies where, even if the plot is embellished a little here and there, everything still feels true, like you’re getting it the way it really went down. All great performances, of course. I met Ben Bradlee on a couple of occasions in recent years and could never shake his hand without thinking of Jason Robards. And remember that awesome ending—the teletype machine, Nixon resigns, and it goes silent. Great stuff.
Honorable Mention: Too many to name, but I loved Frost/Nixon. Maybe this should just be a Nixon category. Although of course there is Lincoln, which is magnificent.
Best Supreme Court-Themed Movie: The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942). This one is mostly forgotten today, which is a shame, because it’s surprisingly current, and it’s one of those old movies that could be remade today with various updates to the plot, and it would be great (and if anyone in Hollywood is reading this, I have some very well worked-out ideas about how!). Ronald Coleman and Cary Grant were two of the greatest actors of their time, and don’t forget Jean Arthur. She starred in this and Mr. Smith, which makes her a formidable player in political movie history.
Best Civil Rights-Related Movie: This is so obviously To Kill a Mockingbird (Robert Mulligan, 1962) that it doesn’t even need to be discussed (and look—again with the 1962!). There was Peck, of course, but don’t forget how great Brock Peters was as Tom Robinson—even better than he was in the later Star Trek films!
Honorable Mentions: In the Heat of the Night (I love Sidney Poitier); Mississippi Burning; and—yes—Hairspray, the non-musical original. In real life, The Buddy Deane Show did not integrate as jauntily as The Corny Collins Show did in the movie—you can read about that in this shimmeringly brilliant book. But so what, it’s a great film.
Best Feminist Movie: I guess this is Thelma and Louise (Ridley Scott, 1991), and I liked it a lot, although they sort of lost me when they locked that cop up in the trunk of the car. I haven’t seen it for a while, but I remember thinking it was a little too morally ambiguous for me to be just celebrating them.
Honorable Mentions: This is a somewhat more amorphous category, because anything featuring a strong female lead is a feminist movie, so in other words, loads of Kate Hepburn movies, Meryl Streep, etc. Norma Rae should be here. And how about Penny Marshall’s A League of Their Own? Just the idea of making a movie about that topic was smart, and then, it was very well cast and executed on top of that. And I’m just going to mention Persepolis again because it’s so brilliant.
Best Corrupt Machine Politics Movie: The Great McGinty (Preston Sturges, 1940). Sturgesian humor, a kind of oxymoronic madcap drollery, is a bit of an acquired taste, and I’ve experienced it in hits (The Palm Beach Story) and misses (Unfaithfully Yours). But here, acerbic directorial weltanschauung meshes with subject matter (big-city bossism) perfectly. And oh that Akim Tamiroff. He’s the big corrupt boss. There’s this great moment when somebody says that unless the machine cleans things up a little, the woolly headed reformers actually might win the next election, and he says something like, “That’s okay, I run the reform movement too!”
Best Dark Underbelly of America Political Movie: I would reckon most of you have never heard of Black Legion (Archie Mayo and Michael Curtiz, 1937), but how can you not be interested if I tell you that the Ku Klux Klan sued Warner Bros. over this movie? (A judge tossed the case, a patent-infringement claim.) Humphrey Bogart is passed over for a job that’s given to a “hunky,” and he joins a white supremacist group, and the ugly grows from there. The picture painted here of the ethnic stewpot that was 1930s America feels very real and comports with everything my parents ever told me about the coal-mining towns they grew up in on Morgantown’s fringes.
Best Barely Disguised Social Security Propaganda Movie: Make Way for Tomorrow (Leo McCarey, 1937) is a propaganda film, but unless you knew the back story you’d never know that from just watching, it’s so lightly and skillfully and movingly done. Go watch it if you’ve never seen. It will remind you that before 1935, old people were in a position that, well, one error and bam, they had nothing. Nothing. McCarey also directed the much more famous The Awful Truth that year. He won the Oscar for it, and when he got to the podium, he said, “Thanks, but you gave it to me for the wrong picture.” Orson Welles said of this film: “It would make a stone cry.”
Best Nazi Movie: A great and rich category with many fine contenders, but I cast my ballot for The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage, 1940). It was a brave movie made in real time, as the storm gathered all its baleful force. MGM did pull a punch or two—the suits decided not to use the words “Germany” or “Jew,” because the German market for American films was at that point still big. But Herr Goebbels and his men couldn’t possibly miss the point—no one could—and the Nazi government subsequently banned not only it but all MGM films.
Honorable Mentions: I guess Schindler’s List is probably superior to The Mortal Storm in most ways, but I like offbeat choices. I loved The Pianist. Can’t overlook The Great Dictator. Goddang it I will defend Valkyrie. And is it a reach to call Marathon Man a Nazi movie?
And finally, Worst Political Movie Ever: All right, I’m kind of violating my own ground rules here by calling this a political movie, but the hell with it. Let’s start with the fact that the author of the novel was just a wretched reactionary racist down to the soles of her shoes. True, MGM did soften some of the harder and more overtly racist edges. But the whole enterprise was steeped in race hatred. The theater that hosted the Atlanta premiere was whites-only, meaning that Hattie McDaniel, who won an Oscar for her role in the movie, couldn’t attend. But they let some blacks in: there was a whole live stage presentation that preceded the screening of the film, for which a number of local “colored” youths were recruited to sing while dressed in pickaninny costumes. One of those youths was named Martin Luther King, Jr..
Yes, I mean the execrable Gone With the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939). All right, it’s captivating movie-making in some ways. And it is partially redeemed by the early and brief scene that features George Reeves of later Superman fame. But this is a cinematic whitewash of history, and it’s is a movie that young Margot Tomasky will never see if I have anything to do with it.
Have at me. Happy Oscaring!