American political conversation has become inescapable. Between the saturated media environment, the infinitesimal news cycle, an impending election and your uncle who thinks you really need to hear about this thing he saw on Facebook, it’s hard to get a breather. So, your library recommends turning off the news, sitting back and taking a break from all those politicians… perhaps by watching a movie about fake politicians.
Your library offers a wide array of movies for adult audiences about presidents, congresspeople, and cabinet officials, all of whom are every bit as venal, foolish and corrupt as the real thing, but who have the added benefit of being fictional… which is comforting, somehow.
Of course, they aren’t all rotten. At the center of Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is Jimmy Stewart as a senator who’s so earnest and idealistic it’ll make your teeth hurt. Watching an elected official combat malfeasance is inspiring, even if one message of the movie seems to be that side effects of civic virtue may include exhaustion, dehydration and occasional unconsciousness.
On the opposite end of the moral spectrum is Andy Griffith’s character in Elia Kazan’s A Face in the Crowd: a mean-spirited drifter who rises to become an enormously popular TV personality and political demagogue. “This whole country, just like my flock of sheep,” he declares. “They’re mine, I own them, they think like I do. Only they’re more stupid than I am, so I got to think for them.”
The 1962 movie Advise and Consent exists because Otto Preminger decided there was nail-biting drama to be found in the process of nominating and questioning a potential secretary of state. And he was mostly right. Though if you can’t get Congress to agree on confirming Henry Fonda, what can they possibly come together on?
Stanley Kubrick’s 1964 nuclear war comedy Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, uses a global standoff as an opportunity to lampoon the entire military-political complex, from George C. Scott’s bombastic general to Peter Sellers’s recessive president.
Speaking of Peter Sellers, Being There finds his passive, simple-minded gardener rising improbably to become a valued advisor to the president of the United States. It’s a little bit Forrest Gump, a little bit Candide, a little bit Miracle-Gro.
In the funny and amiable Dave, Kevin Kline goes from impersonating the president at birthday parties to pretending to be him for real. It’s every bit as idealistic as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, but not nearly as sweaty.
The American President is an engaging movie with the dullest possible title. It’s like calling Die Hard “The Off-Duty Police Officer.” But it does answer the burning question “What if the president wants to go on a date?” Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin decided that he enjoyed putting his characters in the White House so much that he went on to do it for seven years on TV in The West Wing.
In Clear and Present Danger, watch (and relish?) Harrison Ford as a CIA director who barks like a junkyard dog at the president in the Oval Office. The tension, action and gravitas only keep escalating as the story unfolds.
In Air Force One, Harrison Ford essentially gets promoted: now he’s a president who punches bad guys. Neither this nor Clear and Present Danger’s depiction of Washington bureaucracy seems to involve much in the way of meetings and paperwork, so it’s possible these movies aren’t 100% realistic.
In Bulworth, a 1998 satire about politics and race, Warren Beatty plays a senator who decides he doesn’t have much to live for and starts actually speaking his mind to the public – a reckless and self-destructive move that also happens to have the effect of suddenly making him enormously popular with everyone except insurance companies.
The 1999 film Election is an outlier on this list because instead of being about adult politicians, it’s about high school politicians. But other than that, they’re every bit as clueless and power-hungry as the grown-up variety.