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6 August 2021

Election, Malcolm X and Dick: The 10 best political movies to stream

From Mr Smith Goes to Washington to The Death of Stalin, these are the political thrillers to rewatch this summer.

By Ryan Gilbey

Politics is present in every film, whether it’s a Ken Loach drama addressing social injustice or a Richard Curtis romantic-comedy which pretends that poverty doesn’t exist. “You’re being political simply in the stories you choose to tell,” the filmmaker Richard Linklater once said. But there’s politics and there’s politics. Here are ten films which get right to the heart of the matter.

10. Thirteen Days (2000)

“I thought there would be more good days,” opines President John F Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood) to his aide, Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) as they emerge from another boardroom full of twitchy, cigar-chugging generals trying to abort what will become known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. The screenwriter David Self drew on interviews and White House tapes for the script, and the director Roger Donaldson marshals the evidence with minimum interference and maximum tension.

9. Wag the Dog (1997)

David Mamet’s script indicts Hollywood and Washington simultaneously in its tale of a blowhard movie producer (Dustin Hoffman, channelling the legendary Robert Evans) who helps a spin-doctor (Robert De Niro) fabricate a war against Albania to distract from the president’s recent sexual indiscretions with a teenage girl. The film opened in the US at the end of 1997— shortly before the revelation of then-president Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky. That news undermined the release of Mike Nichols’s Primary Colors, a more straitlaced and sympathetic portrait of the Clinton era which had the bad luck to open a few months after the scandal broke. Wag the Dog, more scurrilous in intent, had legs.

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8. Dick (1999)

Unfairly sent straight to DVD in the UK, this pink-and-pistachio-coloured comedy, which proposes that two blancmange-brained teenagers (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams) were responsible for uncovering the Watergate scandal, is an underrated joy. There’s much to savour, from Dunst and Williams’s sparky rapport to Dan Hedaya’s spot-on portrayal of a haggard Nixon and the send-ups of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose Watergate scoop was already immortalised in All the President’s Men. It’s like watching history rewritten with magic markers.

7. Being There (1979)

Peter Sellers was Oscar-nominated for his penultimate performance as Chance, the dazed gardener at a tumbledown mansion in Washington, who is kicked onto the streets when his employee dies. Having learned everything he knows from TV, he wanders the streets trying to change reality with his remote control before drifting into the orbit of a dying political donor and kingmaker (Melvyn Douglas). Soon, Chance — rechristened Chauncey Gardener after his name is misheard — has the ear of the president (Jack Warden), who starts quoting him in press conferences. Chauncey’s every vapid proclamation (“All will be well in the garden…”) is misinterpreted as metaphorical or profound — a joke that hasn’t aged in this era of populist politics. 

6. Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

The more troubled, postwar James Stewart was likened by the critic Adam Mars-Jones to “a bell with a hairline crack”. Frank Capra’s hopeful political yarn, released on the cusp of war and before Stewart’s time in the Air Corps, shows the actor (who only got the role after Gary Cooper proved unavailable) at his most purely delightful as the small-town idealist and greenhorn catapulted into the Senate, where he gets a harsh lesson in how politics really works. Jean Arthur is also splendid as the cynical secretary who knows her onions.

5. Malcolm X (1992)

No one expected Spike Lee’s biopic of the African-American political leader — which he lobbied to direct after white contenders such as Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night) were in the running— to be anything but incendiary. But beginning with the stars-and-stripes going up in flames, combined with video footage of the beating of Rodney King by four LAPD officers, really showed the filmmaker nailing his colours to the mast. Denzel Washington gives an Oscar-nominated performance that ranks among his most complex and commanding.

4. The Death of Stalin (2017)

As the architect of The Thick of It, its spin-off film In the Loop and its US cousin Veep, Armando Iannucci has some claim on being the foremost satirist of the 21st century so far, as well as an expert in the comedy of panicked political manoeuvring. But it is this romp, about the power-grab following the Communist tyrant’s demise, that stands as his finest work so far. Colloquialisms pepper the script (“It’s been a busy old week”) and the cast don’t even affect Russian accents; Stalin (Adrian McLoughlin) comes off like a cockney crime boss, Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi) resembles a jittery New York stand-up while Simon Russell Beale is a revelation as the head of the secret police, who whips away the seats in this brutal game of musical chairs.

3. The Candidate (1972)

Robert Redford came to the studio with a pitch: “I’d like to make a film about the election process — about how we elect somebody based on cosmetics rather than substance.” He got his wish. In Michael Ritchie’s subtle critique of the political landscape, the actor uses his charm for subversive purposes as the Democratic hopeful who becomes disillusioned as his ideals chafe against reality. Redford, too, was chafing against something — his own pretty-boy persona — and the synchronicity between actor and character adds a frisson to a movie that has scruples as well as teeth.

2. Xala (1975)

Ousmane Sembène’s satire uses the comedy of embarrassment and exaggeration to get to the heart of the corruption plaguing the governments of post-independence African countries. A businessman finds himself unable to consummate his third marriage after a curse is placed on him by those families consigned to poverty by his swindling. In a series of comical attempts to undo the hex, he holds charms between his teeth, wears an ornamental belt, applies ointments to his body, and crawls on all fours to the bed where his bride is waiting. All to no avail — at the decisive moment, he crumples “like wet paper”, no different from the corrupt politicians near the start of the film, who are hamstrung by pay-offs from white puppet-masters in a nation already crippled by colonialism.

1. Election (1999)

Reese Witherspoon has never been better than she is here as school swot Tracy Flick, running opposed in the student presidency elections at George Washington Carver High. Matthew Broderick stomps all over the memory of cool-kid Ferris Bueller in his prickingly funny performance as Tracy’s idealistic but deeply flawed teacher, who resolves to do his bit for democracy by encouraging other students to compete against her. The use of voiceover, switching back and forth between four characters, is highly ambitious, and as a piece of political cinema Election hits all the targets that Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, released the previous year, missed by a mile. It also manages in one polling-booth scene to underline the power of the “X”-in-the-box more effectively than any number of rock-star-endorsed campaigns. What more could you ask for? Election deserves your vote.

[See also: M Night Shyamalan’s Old is all concept and no character]

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