Our Picks for Great Political Movies to Watch While You’re Stuck Inside
It’s late March. We’re supposed to be wrapped up in the final two weeks of the General Assembly session. We’re supposed to be excited about the upcoming Maryland primary. We’re supposed to be looking ahead to an epic presidential election.
Instead, there’s a global pandemic and economic chaos. The legislature has gone home. The Maryland primary is delayed. No one is campaigning. And we’re stuck inside.
What’s a home-bound political junkie to do?
Watch political movies, of course!
As a public service, Maryland Matters staffers, contributors and board members are offering some suggestions for their favorite political movies. We include where we can the online streaming service where you can find them.
But first, we pose this question: What is a political movie? We all think we know, right? Movies with politicians, like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” “The Candidate,” “Seven Days in May,” and so on.
Yet at Maryland Matters we believe there are politics in a lot of movies that we don’t even think about.
Back in 2007, the American Film Institute listed the 100 best American movies. Consider the top three:
No. 1 was “Citizen Kane,” the Orson Wells masterpiece about a mighty newspaper mogul who runs unsuccessfully for office and then suffers a terrible downfall. Political? You bet.
No. 2 was “Casablanca,” arguably the world’s greatest romance. But also Nazis, Vichy France and the resistance. Political? Absolutely.
No. 3 was “The Godfather,” the sprawling, ultimate gangster picture. But the mob bosses have politicians, judges and police officials on their payroll, and a hierarchy all their own. Political? You could make the case.
So what we’re saying is, a political movie is in the eyes of the beholder. The Washington Post published a list of great political movies earlier this year that included “Mean Girls,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “High Noon.” We’re not going to quarrel with anyone’s definition.
So, without further ado, here are some of our favorites:
Robin Bravender, Capitol Hill bureau chief
Does “The Boys from Brazil” count as a political movie? It’s one of my favorites of all time (a fascinating/terrifying concept plus Gregory Peck and Laurence Olivier!).
As a Latin American studies major, I watched (and loved) a lot of movies about Latin American politics. One of my favorites is “The Official Story (La Historia Oficial)” about the desaparecidos in Argentina under the military dictatorship in the 1980s.
As for U.S. political movies (and on a MUCH lighter note), I have always loved the movie “Dave” with Kevin Kline. This seems slightly embarrassing to admit, but I adored it as a kid and it is delightfully goofy.
Angela Breck, managing editor
If you’re looking for inspiration about our political system’s ability to overcome existential threats, look no further than “Thirteen Days,” starring Bruce Greenwood as JFK. The 2000 film depicts the Kennedy administration’s handling of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, facing a potential nuclear war with the Soviet Union while managing a gung-ho, skeptical military leadership. If only our current existential threat lasted 13 days!
The 2012 film “Lincoln,” with Daniel Day-Lewis in the title role, shows how one of our greatest presidents ended slavery, overcoming deep divisions in Congress while fighting the Civil War. Sure, some of the tactics with Congress weren’t pretty, but it reminds us great things can happen when those in our highest offices lead with moral authority and vision.
Maybe the political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate” should be on your list, whether it’s the 1962 version with Frank Sinatra or the 2004 remake with Denzel Washington. You can’t decide which one is better until you’ve seen them both.
Switching gears … how about going for something more lighthearted?
One of my favorite “president movies” is “Dave” (1993). Dave (Kevin Kline) happens to look like the current fictional president Bill Mitchell and often finds work doing impersonations of him. Dave’s hired by the Secret Service for a gig. Long story short, he’s soon sitting in for the real president.
Dave’s just a nice guy who finds himself in a powerful position. There’s a great scene where Dave’s accountant friend Murray comes to the White House and the pair find ways to cut the budget. “Who does these books? If I ran my business this way, I’d be out of business,” Murray says. It’s just a warm, fuzzy, feel-good movie. Makes you wonder why all presidents can’t simply be sensible, nice, honest people.
Another suggestion would be the political mockumentary “Tanner ’88,” an HBO series that ran shortly before the 1988 presidential election. It was written by Garry Trudeau, creator of the Doonesbury comic, and directed by Robert Altman. It involves fictional Michigan Rep. Jack Tanner, who is running for president, and was filmed using the actual 1988 Democratic primary as the background. Very entertaining, with some great cameo appearances. For real.
Frank DeFilippo, columnist
The all-time great political movie is Mel Brooks’ “Blazing Saddles.” It’s so politically incorrect that it couldn’t be made today.
Next on my list is Rob Reiner’s cheeky take on “The Princess Bride” — “Never start a land war in Asia.”
Add to the list another Rob Reiner zinger, “This is Spinal Tap.” The so-named “mockumentary” pricks all the pretentions of the era of petered-out rock and pompous self-importance of fading stars as the social defiance of the 60’s and 70’s came to a feeble close.
Bruce DePuyt, reporter
“Wag the Dog” is one of my favorite movies of all time, political or otherwise. Released in 1997, it’s the story of a Hollywood producer, played by Dustin Hoffman, who is hired by the White House days before an election to fake a war, to divert attention from a burgeoning sex scandal.
The movie was written before the Clinton/Lewinsky and Trump/Stormy Daniels scandals, so it may not have the zing for first-time viewers that it had 23 years ago. But Hoffman’s giddy enthusiasm for the green-screen “war with Albania” carries the film even now. A true gem.
Honorable mentions: “Lincoln,” “Milk” and “Frost/Nixon.”
Adrianne Flynn, president, Board of Directors
I’m a big fan of “Being There” and “The Candidate.” You might add the documentary “The War Room” and the great small town drama “Lone Star.”
What I love about “Lone Star” from a political point of view, is that it avoids viewing politics from the top of the hierarchy, as most movies about politics do, and provides insight into the everyday, small town politics practiced by every elected official. It shows the calculus of re-election, protection and the complexities of ordinary society. It helps that the writing and acting are also stellar. It’s fascinating. I could watch it 100 times.
I like a lot of the political journalism movies, too, like “All the President’s Men” and “State of Play” as well as “The Post.”
But I think you have to expand to TV. “West Wing” is the best show ever, not just a political show. And “Veep” is brilliant.
Danielle E. Gaines, reporter
“The Post”: Politics and journalism … does it get better? While the movie revolves around the notion of — stomach churns — getting scooped, it also perfectly captures the tense relationship between government secrecy and freedom of the press. Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep as the stars doesn’t hurt either.
Other movies I’d nominate for the list: “Milk,” “Selma” and “Lincoln.”
Hannah Gaskill, reporter
“Chernobyl”: This stunning (and award-winning) miniseries is based around its namesake 1986 nuclear crisis. Gripping, but certainly not a feel-good and not recommended for the squeamish.
I know this isn’t a movie, but it’s only five episodes and what else are you doing right now?
“Meeting Gorbachev”: For the documentary buffs out there! Simultaneously intimate and bizarre, this film gives a unique look at the dissolution of the USSR — peppered with moments of dry humor that only Werner Herzog could achieve. A hidden gem.
Margie Hyslop, associate editor
“Official Secrets” is the maddeningly true tale of how a translator working for British intelligence spotted a U.S. National Security Agency plot to blackmail representatives to the United Nations. The agency’s goal was to swing votes and engineer support for invading Iraq in 2003.
For passing evidence to the press, Katharine Gun was charged with violating her country’s Official Secrets Act. Gun’s moment of truth altered her life but did not stop the U.S. and its allies from entering a war – that toppled a dictator but further destabilized the region – on false premises. (An unfortunate “correction” of spelling, from American to British English, in documents that were evidence of the plot, undermined credibility of the news story when it was published.)
Honorable mention: “Bulworth”
Sebastian Johnson, Board of Directors member
I’d nominate “Thirteen Days,” which recounts the Cuban Missile Crisis as experienced by Kevin Costner. Bruce Greenwood is a fairly convincing JFK, and it’s nice to wrap yourself in gauzy memories of Camelot given the political rot all around us. Also nice to see a competent and agile commander in chief in the face of an existential crisis, who ultimately defuses the moment of danger with a — wait for it — naval quarantine of Cuba. Gotta appreciate one additional irony of the title: I’ve been cooped up for 14 days now.
Josh Kurtz, editor and co-founder
It’s a tie for first: “Sleeper” and “Bananas.” Woody Allen isn’t in favor these days — and deservedly so, given his contemptible behavior. But there’s no denying the political pop of these hilarious early 1970’s movies. In “Sleeper,” Allen plays a man who is cryogenically frozen in aluminum foil in 1973, only to be awoken 200 years later to find himself in the middle of a left-wing coup to overthrow a fascist dictator, who turns out to be dead but for his nose. In “Bananas,” Allen is a New York loser who improbably winds up as the revolutionary leader of a fictional Latin American country. Both of these movies have some of the most spot-on political one-liners you’ll find anywhere. And both feature the brief revolutionary ditty, “Rebels Are We.”
“Paths of Glory”: A brilliant 1957 anti-war movie from Stanley Kubrick before he got too weird. Kirk Douglas stars as a French colonel in World War I who commands a group of soldiers who refuse to go into a suicidal battle and face court martial.
“The Manchurian Candidate”: A taut thriller from 1962 starring Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh and Angela Lansbury. The 2004 remake, with Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep, is well-acted and compelling but is kind of a headache and can’t compare to the original.
“Lone Star”: John Sayles’ multi-layered story of a small Texas border town and the political and personal travails of its sheriff — whose father had also been sheriff, though considerably less savory. Deftly and dramatically handles issues of race, immigration, gender and justice.
“Dr. Strangelove”: The ultimate Cold War and scary comedy from Stanley Kubrick, with Peter Sellers equally brilliant in three separate roles.
“All the President’s Men”: The politicians are mostly off-screen — but man, what a story! And put together like a thriller. Read the book, too, if you haven’t. Fun fact: The filmmakers not only recreated The Washington Post newsroom on a Hollywood sound stage, they took trash from the real Post newsroom and stuck it in garbage cans on the set. It’s a cliché for journalists my age to say this, but part of the reason I decided to become a journalist was because of Woodward and Bernstein.
“A Face in the Crowd”: Andy Griffith like you’ve never seen him in this 1957 gem directed by Elia Kazan and written by Budd Schulberg. Griffith plays the scary Lonesome Rhodes, a drifter who becomes a media sensation and later tries to influence presidential politics. With the sublime Patricia Neal as the woman who discovers and sometimes loves him, and a young Walter Matthau, already curmudgeonly, as the writer for Rhodes’ show who loves Patricia Neal. The world is full of hucksters and opportunists, and this movie exposes every one. Seems all the more relevant in the Trump era.
“The Candidate”: Elements of this 1972 masterpiece are dated now, but it’s a dead-on and funny assessment of the politics of the day and the mechanics of a campaign. With Robert Redford as the idealistic legal aid lawyer who is drafted into running for the U.S. Senate from California on the promise that he’ll lose and gradually becomes compromised. Terrific supporting cast, including the grossly underrated Peter Boyle as the campaign’s top strategist, and the great Melvyn Douglas, whose own life was greatly touched by politics, as Redford’s father, a former California governor. Features one of the greatest closing lines in the history of cinema.
“All the King’s Men”: Superb adaptation of the classic Robert Penn Warren book, with Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, the Huey Long-like figure who dominates his state’s politics for a short, combustible period. The movie does not have the time to delve into all the history and the layered relationships in the way the book does, but it packs quite a lot into 110 minutes. Skip the Sean Penn version.
“Duck Soup”: People occasionally accuse me of being a Marxist. I’ll cop to it – I’m the Groucho, Chico, Harpo and Zeppo kind of Marxist. This, the best of their many great movies, is anarchy at its finest, thumbing its nose at political authority, war, the the wealthy, the high and mighty, and hypocrisy at every level of society, with a million zingers and sight gags. It was made 87 (!) years ago, but it never gets old.
Leonard L. Lucchi, Board of Directors member
“All The President’s Men” (1976) – This is the exciting story of how The Washington Post took down President Nixon. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman do a magnificent job of portraying Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. It makes you feel good about our country.
“The Candidate” (1972) – Also a Robert Redford movie, this is about a California U.S. Senate candidate who doesn’t think he has a shot of winning and then suddenly does. For those who have worked in campaigns, this movie is a lot of fun.
“Primary Colors” (1998) – This movie is about a hypothetical Southern governor with a strong-willed wife who runs for president and has to weather revelations about romantic dalliances. It is hysterical.
“Wag the Dog” (1997) – Another Dustin Hoffman movie, this is a chillingly realistic movie about a president on the verge of losing reelection who has to manufacture a war to divert public attention away from his vulnerabilities. This would never happen in real life, right?
“Being There” (1979) – A simple-minded gardener rises to the peak of national power. Peter Sellers delivers a masterful performance. It is a hilarious movie until you think about real life parallels.
“Blaze” (1989) – Louisiana Gov. Earl Long falls in love with Baltimore stripper Blaze Starr. This is one of the best movies about the nuts and bolts of politics ever made.
“Bob Roberts” (1992) – Tim Robbins plays a conservative candidate for U.S. Senate from Pennsylvania who tours the state in an RV, playing his guitar and singing to crowds of adoring voters. He is not above dirty tricks or smearing his opponent. It makes for a very enjoyable movie.
“The Seduction of Joe Tynan” (1979) – This movie is fun to watch because the Democratic Convention was filmed at the Royal Farms Arena in Baltimore with many of the scenes filmed on the campus of Johns Hopkins. It is a little disconcerting because Tynan is played by Alan Alda, who normally plays good guys, but does not play a good guy here.
“The American President” (1995) – This movie, with Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, is a great political movie and a great love story. It’s about an office holder and a lobbyist falling in love – pure fantasy, right?
“The Distinguished Gentleman” (1992) – Eddie Murphy wins a special election to Congress by having the same last name as the recently deceased congressman whose seat he seeks to fill. He is a con man who develops a conscience. This is one of Murphy’s best.
Louis Peck, co-founder and Board of Directors vice president
Here are three of my favorites that didn’t make the Post list of best political films earlier this year…
“Z” (1969)…Made by French filmmaker Costa Gavras, it’s arguably the best political thriller ever — or in the very top tier of that genre. It was inspired in large measure by the Greek coup two years earlier that brought the “colonels” to power. I saw it in a movie theater in Manhattan while in college, and witnessed a scene remarkable for an American movie theater: a standing ovation during the closing credits.
“Seven Days In May (1964). When Burt Lancaster (Gen. James Mattoon Scott) confronts Kirk Douglas (Col. “Jiggs” Casey) and demands to know if he is aware who Judas was, the comeback line of the Douglas character is a classic. And at a time when many long for someone who looks and acts like a commander-in-chief, there’s President Jordan Lyman — played by a silver-haired Frederic March.
“The Candidate” (1972)…The last line of the movie — uttered by the handsome but airheaded upset winner, played by Robert Redford..says it all: “What do we do now?”
Margaret Thale, publisher
We know many of you have young families – those endearing creatures who drop soggy Cheerios onto your laptop and become desperately needy whenever you get on the phone. Togetherness can be beautiful. Especially when you’re watching movies. Here are a few to start you off:
“Hidden Figures”: Here’s a family-friendly film: “Hidden Figures,” the dramatic story of three African American women who made the calculations at NASA that enabled John Glenn to make his historic orbit of the earth. Three brilliant mathematicians navigate the ingrained racism and sexism of the early 1960’s Virginia. Their tenacity is inspiring.
“Dave”: Mischief and mayhem at the White House. Except this is a comedy! Really. In “Dave,” an honest presidential look-alike stands in for the president – a crooked leader with crooked aides. It’s not political hardball, but it’s sweet and charming. And “Dave” is aspirational: what if you were the president? Would you do a better job than the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.?
William F. Zorzi, senior contributor
So many films could be considered “political” or “about politics.” Depending on whom you ask, the field is broad and wide. So, in that sense, this list was a little difficult to wrangle. I tossed out dozens, but here are my final picks:
“Duck Soup”: Hands down, the best Marx Brothers movie ever. The comic barely concealed contempt for the pre-World War II global mindset is hilarious and the absurdity most entertaining. The perfect political foil for sitting around on an otherwise dull afternoon, sheltering in place.
“The Last Hurrah”: All politics is local, and this is one of the best accounts Hollywood ever delivered on the subject, albeit a bit stylized. A true story of the b’hoys and muldoons.
(Aside from mentioning Edwin O’Connor’s brilliant fiction on which the movie was based, this also gives me standing to plug one of my favorite political biographies – in this case, that of James Michael Curley – “The Rascal King” by Jack Beatty.)
“Dr. Strangelove”: The sad comedy that is Washington in black and white. Sort of a cure for all those early 1960’s political thrillers whose main plot point is the threat of nuclear destruction.
“A Man for All Seasons”: For me, it has nothing to do with Catholicism and everything to do with principle and power in politics.
“Being There”: Peter Sellers is brilliant being not. (No wonder writer Jerzy Kosinski killed himself.)
The next two movies have one foot in politics and the other in newspapers, both almost a class of their own:
“Citizen Kane”: Arguably the best film of all time.
“All the President’s Men”: A classic. The sordid tale of newspapermen discovering the depths of the cesspool that was the administration of President Richard Milhous Nixon.
(BONUS: “All the King’s Men,” similar cesspool and title, different decade and circumstances – with Broderick “21-50 to Headquarters” Crawford.)
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”: For those of you who still believe in the promise of America.
“Advise and Consent”: A one-time procedural. And an ugly time at that.
“The Candidate”: Robert Redford as one and the same.
“Bulworth”: A far-fetched — or not — lefty movie, but the raps by Warren Beatty are still laugh-out-loud funny.