The political season is well upon us, more vehemently and contentiously so than past presidential primaries, especially given the surprising number of upstarts, lack of usual faces and an arguably unpopular field. If either of the Democratic candidates win, history will be made with the first female commander in chief or the oldest citizen to assume the Oval Office. If Republican front-runner Donald Trump wins, his victory will cap a campaign of shock and awe, bluster and division, the likes of which seemed only possible in a movie.
That said, hitting the campaign trail has not been a particularly vast topic explored on film, but when it has, it’s been done with biting satire or a telling inward look at ourselves, our society and how we value democracy.
Most often those films stoke our fear of big corporations and power brokers seeking to influence control, as well as our fascination with scandal, the politician’s sudden fall and the tabloid train wreck that ultimately becomes a reflection of our impossible expectations, our own hypocrisies and an illumination of the intoxicating stupor of power that leads to self-destructive hubris.
Below is a list of 10 movies that bear particular relevance to the campaign as it is currently unfolding. (The last film in the list, “Weiner,” opens this weekend in select locations.)
“The Best Man” (1964)
Gore Vidal’s seminal skewering of big egos clashing for the White House pit a fictionalized version of Adlai Stevenson (played by Henry Fonda) against a JFK-like incarnation (Cliff Robertson), both vying for a former president’s approval. The shards of political courtship carry the tang of Obama having to mitigate his allegiances with Sanders and his former secretary of state Clinton. Vidal adapted his stage play, Franklin J. Schaffner (who helmed “Planet of the Apes” and “Patton”) directs and Lee Tracy was nominated for an Academy Award for best supporting actor for his turn as the ailing former president, casting an ostensible nod to Harry Truman.
The last pet project that Warren Beatty wrote and directed roils in the anger and resentment for the state of things as they are: entitled, rich and insensitive. What better way to have at it than to have a disillusioned candidate seeking reelection of his Senate seat take out a contract on himself, and with death lurking, begin to speak his honest mind? Beatty’s Sen. Jay Billington Bulworth channels the ire of Peter Finch’s sublime news anchor turned messiah in “Network” and Beatty’s own liberal past as an activist tightly tied to Robert F. Kennedy Jr. The burn-down-the-house message resonates across social, race and generational borders as Bulworth hits the hip-hop scene and ends up with Halle Berry on his arm. Sans the comely Hollywood actress, the message echoes that of another fed-up ideologue and long-shot with crossover appeal.
“The Parallax View” (1974)
Up there with “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Suddenly” and “Day of the Jackal” as one of the very best political assassination thrillers, it makes the list because of the ominous Parallax Corporation (GM, Exxon and Goldman all rolled into one) with the money and influence to control the political machine and world commerce policies. They have the reach of an uber PAC and when things don’t go its way, it has its own sleeper cells to remedy matters. Warren Beatty plays an intrepid reporter who goes undercover to suss out the bigger plot during campaign season in the Pacific Northwest. The beauty of the film is the controlled nuance from director Alan J. Pakula and the enigmatic subtlety throughout. The results fan the fear of big money and elitism gone amok in all-too-real and provocative ways.
“The Candidate” (1972)
Michael Ritchie’s spin about an upstart candidate who jumps into a senatorial race to stir the pot with no shot of winning (may sound tres Bernie on the topographical level), but Robert Redford’s contemplative everyman is far softer — both on the eyes and in demeanor, though no less conflicted. The film’s final scene prompts the pointed question about the ideologue’s real place and in Washington’s machinery. Jeremy Larner won an Oscar for the screenplay, but it’s criminal that Redford, giving one of his career’s finest performances, didn’t at least get a nod.
“The Contender” (2000)
Rod Lurie’s prophetic reach that saw a woman making it to elected office in the White House (if only as a vice president), doesn’t so much challenge our notion and limits of a female attaining new heights, but rather challenges gender double standards. In this case, the vice presidential candidate Sen. Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) suddenly comes under scrutiny from the right for her part in group sex in her younger days. The point isn’t the truth or salacious slander so much as the test of integrity and character under duress and the irreparable negativity lazy accusations can levy. Allen brings a necessary and credible grit to the role and Gary Oldman goes into Kenneth Starr mode as the muckraking senator expunging Hanson while Jeff Bridges is very Dude-like as the president looking for a new running mate.
“Medium Cool” (1969)
Given Trump’s talk of chaos in the street if he doesn’t get the GOP nod this summer, Haskell Wexler’s ingeniously creative blend of live events and fiction set against the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago could be a telling roadmap of what could unfurl in Cleveland. Wexler, the highly regarded cinematographer behind “The Conversation” and “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” plumbs the rising power of televised media with a news reporter (Robert Forster) stepping across the line and into the life of one of his subjects (Verna Bloom) and is subsequently fired. The front office dealings veer into “Network” territory (which came later), but it’s the main characters on the street that most poignantly paint a picture of counterculture America confronted with media expansion and the military-industrial complex.
“The War Room” (1993)
A rare and phenomenal look behind the scenes of a campaign, especially one so perfect yet flawed as Bill Clinton’s takedown of George H.W. Bush. Documentarians D.A. Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back”) and Chris Hegedus couldn’t have asked for more rich drama to come their way with the break of the Gennifer Flowers sex scandal and James Carville and Mary Matalin heading contending campaigns. There are glimmers of Hillary in the wake of the tabloid splash and Bill heaping superlatives upon her, but it’s hard to gather insight with the brief flashes you get. I’m not sure how attuned Carville was to the camera, but there is no scene he’s in that doesn’t crackle with infectious charisma and confidence.
“Primary Colors” (1998)
The fictionalized rendering of the Clinton campaign pales in comparison to “The War Room.” All the personalities feel trumped up and less rich in this Mike Nichols-directed adaptation of Joe Klein’s novel, which he penned as Anonymous. That moniker — the implied insider dishing dirt — and the more lurid nature of the presidential candidate’s indiscretions made the parody concept surefire film bait (the adaptation was penned by longtime Nichols collaborator Elaine May). What makes the film breathe and provides insight is Emma Thompson’s incredible dexterity. As the Hillary figure, Thompson plays a woman struggling with humiliation and her own dignity and is also wrestling with her passion and partnership with a man (John Travolta) who can’t help himself, but can help the country.
“Bob Roberts” (1992)
Deflection and bluster propels Tim Robbins’ mockumentary about a conservative folk singer (Robbins) leveraging his fame to run for a Pennsylvania Senate seat. The cocky candidate, Bob Roberts, may be composed and smooth at the podium, but there are some ostensible ties underneath he doesn’t want to leak out. It’s not quite Trump hiding his tax situation, but Roberts — much like the Donald — remains hotly under the media scrutiny and rightfully so. The pointed and seasoned film marks Robbins’ directorial film debut with the material originating from a “Saturday Night Live” skit he did in the mid ‘80s. Fittingly enough, Gore Vidal plays the incumbent whose seat Roberts is gunning for.
If you thought Bill Clinton stepped on self-laid landmines during his campaign, it’s nothing compared to Anthony Weiner — already fallen from his congressional post due to his infamous sexting scandal — as he runs for mayor of New York City in 2013. What seems like a path for redemption and atonement becomes a 10 car pile-up with hubris gone amok when a buxom phone sex mate falls out of the closet mid-campaign. At the epicenter of Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s film remains is a near mute Huma Abedin — Weiner’s spouse of just over three years, survivor of the previous scandal and a senior aide to Hillary Clinton as she ratchets up her campaign machine for 2016. (Hillary’s involvement in the couple’s domestic struggles is telling and not what you’d expect given her past travails.) Given how things go, you’d think Weiner would have cut the cord on the film and the campaign, but he hangs in resolutely, if arrogantly so.