It’s been a while since Hollywood produced a really good political film. With the exception of Primary Colors and Frost/Nixon, I’m hard pressed to name another really good recent film with a political theme. I’ve got to go back to the 60’s to begin my “best of the best” list.
So, lets go to the movies and consider politics on the big screen.
Gore Vidal, to the extent he is remembered at all these days, is recalled as a relic of the 60’s thanks to his feuds with Norman Mailer, his lefty politics, etc. Vidal, a really fine writers, deserves much better, not least for his play – and screenplay – for one of the best political movies ever – The Best Man.
The 1964 movie has a superb cast – Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson and Lee Tracy (who won an Academy Award). Order it up on Netflix and revel in the black and white, 1960’s atmosphere of a vicious campaign for the White House. See if you can match up the characters with the real politicos of the time. JFK, Truman and Stevenson, according to some, were Vidal’s inspiration. It is a very good film and good political theater featuring a cameo from the great ABC newsman Howard K. Smith. If Vidal did nothing else in his long, literary life (and he did) this screen play would stand alone as a worthy piece of work, worthy of a great writing career. One of my all-time favorite movies, and a great play, too.
Other favorite “political” movies:
- Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, the Frank Capra classic from 1939. Capra had the misfortune to make his great political film in the same year with Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Stagecoach and The Wizard of Oz, among others. Still the story of naive, freshman Sen. Jefferson Smith endures. True story, members of the Senate hated – absolutely loathed – Capra’s film. Majority Leader Alben Barkley went to the premier in Washington, D.C, left in a huff and condemned the movie the next day as an outrage. Senators didn’t behave like that, Barkley fumed, and Capra had dishonored the U.S. Senate. Then, as now, the Senators didn’t get it. The public loved Capra’s film. The filibuster scene, Jimmy Stewart in a sweat trying to uphold the honor of the world’s great deliberative body, is a classic of American cinema.
- Seven Days in May. The John Frankenheimer film, also from 1964, is a classic story of ambition, honor and respect for the American tradition of civilian control of the military. Kirk Douglas is superb as the Marine colonel who helps thwart a military coup. The authors, Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, reportedly got the idea for their novel after interviewing Air Force Gen. Curtis “bomb them back to the stone age” LeMay. JFK read the book and thought it not all that unthinkable that the kind of military coup depicted in the film could occur in the USA. Great film, cautionary tale
- In 1957, Andy Griffith – yes, that Andy Griffith – starred in a terrific movie – A Face in the Crowd. Elia Kazin directed the film as an early cautionary tale about the incredible power of television as a source of personal power and political propaganda. The film has a great cast, including the wonderful Lee Remick in her debut role. As a post-McCarthy piece of Hollywood magic, this is a a great film.
- And, number five – so many to chose from – Judgment at Nuremburg, All the President’s Men, Michael Collins, Citizen Kane, but I have to pick All the Kings Men, the original version from 1949 with Broderick Crawford. A not-so-fictionalize account of the career of Huey P. Long, the film was based on the Robert Penn Warren novel of the same name. It won the Best Picture of 1950 and awards for the top actors, too. A great story about political power and the good, and not so good, it can accomplish.
So many films, so little time. If you love politics and the great American story, any of these will be worth a couple of hours. I’m betting you’ll still be thinking and talking about them days after the credits fade. See you at the movies.