Politics and film have a long, intertwined tradition. Politicians have been screen villains, heroes or sometimes even both. We’ve seen the scourges of City Hall being fought by crusading newspaper me. Jimmy Stewart rallied for the common man in the halls of Congress and Morgan Freeman was Presidential when facing a nation to tell them that the disaster movie they were in was about to get stomped on by the similar one Michael Bay had coming.
This election day, we at FilmBuffOnLine urge you to get out and vote. Then, when you’re done, pick out a movie about politics to pop into your DVD player, order a pizza and relax while waiting for the returns to be announced later this evening.
As a suggestion, after the break are three of our favorite films about politicians.
The Great McGinty (1940)
According to John McCain, the recent flap about ACORN registering fake voters is “one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country maybe destroying the fabric of democracy itself.”
My God, the destruction of democracy itself? This form of government known as far back as the ancient Greeks since 508 BC is about to be destroyed because of a couple of voter registration forms have the name “Dick Hurtz” on them? Who knew democracy was so vulnerable!
I’m not condoning voter fraud, but forgive me if I try to keep things in perspective. Wake up, vote fraud in has been a robust and comical affair for a long, long time. One of the funniest movies ever made about vote fraud and politics is the 1940, Oscar-winning film The Great McGinty from writer/director Preston Sturges.
The Great McGinty begins in a sleazy bar in a wretched Banana Republic frequented by lost Americans. In trying to cheer up a depressed customer, the bartender tells him a story of how he was once the governor of a state and how he lost it all to end up serving cheap rum in a two bit bar.
Our bartender is Daniel McGinty, played by the beefy Brain Donlevy and we see his story in flashback. Starting off as an out of work bum on a soup line, McGinty gets involved in a vote fraud scam and for two bucks a vote, he actually casts 37 ballots in one night which impresses the big boss (Akim Tamiroff) who pulls the political strings behind the scenes.
But this boss doesn’t think graft in politics is a bad thing, in fact he says at one point, “If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition!” The big boss finds that McGinty is quite ambitious and little by little, through one crooked election after another, he manages to push Daniel McGinty all the way up to the governorship!
But then as Governor, in a moment of weakness, McGinty decides he should actually start doing a few things for the regular citizens and it is when this essentially bad man decides to do something good that he fails miserably and is ultimately forced to leave the country.
The Great McGinty is an acid tongued political comedy that still bites hard. It is also the perfect antidote if you have just watched the saccharine Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. I’ll take the no-nonsense grifters of Preston Sturges over the sugar sweet idealists of Frank Capra any day.
Directed By Michael Ritchie
In director Michael Ritchie’s 1972 film The Candidate, Robert Redford plays a storefront lawyer who is asked by the Democratic Party to run for Senate against the Republican’s four-term incumbent candidate. The realization that he doesn’t have a snowball’s chance of winning frees him up to eschew the normal political stump speech and speak what is really on his mind. But then the unthinkable happens. People begin to gravitate toward the candidate, excited and energized by what he has to say. But as his popularity grows in the polls, so to does his desire to win the race. But to do so means making the same type of compromises to his ideals that have slowly corrupted his opponent over the years. Slowly, we see the breakdown of the idealist and the build up of the politician. (Ironically, this film was released twelve days before the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, an event which would leave the country cynical about its politicians even now, three and a half decades later.)
Intended as a subtle satire on politics, I think the film can also work as a cautionary tale. We all know that power has the ability to corrupt if not wielded responsibly. Spider-Man taught us that. But The Candidate does a good job of illustrating what a slippery, insidious slope that corruption can be if one is not vigilant. It can start with a one-time dalliance with a campaign groupie but will end with an appearance at a debate giving out scripted non-answer answers. Interestingly, many of the issues mentioned in the film – abortion, health care, the environment – are still problems that are hot button topics for today’s candidates. In fact, if it weren’t for the obvious 70s clothing and hair, the film could be set in modern times.
Now and then Redford mentions the possibility of a sequel. While it would be interesting to check in with the political career of Redford’s Bill McKay, I have to admit that I am a little leery at the prospect. One doesn’t want their cinematic heroes to be tarnished, and I can’t help but think that a 36 year career in Washington DC has not left McKay the better for the wear. Has he learned any lessons in the trenches of Capital Hill? I would like to think so, but question that possibility when it appears that so many of his real life counterparts have not.
Today, The Candidate remains an often overlooked film. This is a shame, as its message rings as true today as it did to audiences in the 1970s. As I write this, a charismatic young politician has a very good chance of being the next President of the United States. I’ve read that he is a bit of a movie fan. I hope that a DVD of The Candidate has made its way to his campaign bus and that in watching it, he has taken its warnings to heart.
An American President
I have greatly deliberated over the best choice for president in this uneasy time of economic slowdown and warmongering. In my devotion to celluloid American leaders, I considered Henry Fonda in Ford‘s Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), Tim Robbins as Bob Roberts and even Donald Pleasance as the president in 1982’s Escape from New York. However, after much time, I am proud to endorse Michael Douglas’s role as Andrew Shepherd in The American President.
Director Rob Reiner’s well executed film presents some topics eerily familiar; it in fact pre-dates the close race of 2000 and mentions an action from “Barrack,” yet embraces realistic situations of conflict, gun control, environment and airline strikes near the holidays.
President Shepherd is aiming to pass a gun law which he feels uncomfortable with, while faced with a growing necessity to offer an environmental bill. To complicate matters, he must confront a tough lobbyist, one who captures his widowed heart. Should Shepherd’s character be questioned as his affections grow? Can he still maintain a reputable presidency and be accepted by the people of America?
Shepherd’s presidential prowess is initially tested when presented with the uneasy task of responding to Libya’s actions, but he exhibits unwavering strength by scheduling a quick retaliation, an action not punctuated by political gain. Instead, he does so with a humanitarian nod, a ‘proportional response’ in which the least amount of human casualty must be sacrificed. In this one act, Shepherd shows the American people what we sometimes forget, that the president is a man of strength and still a man of willful devotion and genuine emotion.
In many circles, a show of emotion and compassion might be viewed as a character flaw, yet I think these qualities amplify personal integrity. The president is shown to be human, not a programmable robot or lifeless puppet controlled by the machinations of his trusted staff.
I raise this question – why can’t the president possess a good sense of humor, a good heart and good honesty? Shepherd proffers an equitable balance; the president can be both the most powerful man in the world and yet can still be a regular guy with a big heart. He can settle an airline strike and still dance with his new girlfriend. When he is forced to confront these issues, he delivers a speech that rivals the best of speeches given by many presidents before and exits as a man embodying human conviction and White House tenacity while embracing the qualities of American heart.
So, I ask you, my fellow film buffs, what’s not to like about President Shepherd, The American President – a man who manages to give a woman flowers and be president at the same time?
– John Gibbon