Somehow, if you think that the American political system doesn't have enough pageantry or drama, the only possible place for you to turn are the movies. You can find a campaign movie for just about every level of politics. For the most part, they all tell the same story. You have your candidate, and there's an election going on, and from high school to the presidency, there's going to be a debate on using negative campaigning, a starry-eyed speech about sticking to your ethics, and then some sort of sex scandal. Sounds about right.
It seems that the chance for a person to put their horrible, world-crushing ambition to use comes a bit sooner than adulthood. In Election we follow politics on a high school level, which really, in most respects, is worse in its tendency to destroy lives and devour souls. As high school troubadours MXPX
once said: "Teenage politics, they're too confusing, politics schmolitics, it's too confusing."
In the film, a mild mannered civics teacher (Matthew Broderick
) finds himself caught in the middle of a cut-throat three-way election between an over-ambitious wench, a thoughtless quarterback, and his outcast little sister. It's been said that the film parodies the 1992 presidential campaign between Bush 1.0
, Bill Clinton
, and H. Ross Perot
. Aside from the fact that Perot wasn't a fifteen-year-old lesbian, the movie does make for an interesting parallel. This high school election has more lying, sex and cheating than any major political campaign in history. It just makes you wish more elections were like this one. If all our local congressmen slept with underage girls, think of the voter turnout! Write your local congressperson today.
By the way, please don't hold it against us for bringing up MXPX-we at Starpulse in no way condone anyone listening to MXPX.
The Candidate (1972)
At first glance, The Candidate seems like a pretty predictable movie. It stars Robert Redford
as Californian lawyer Bill McKay, a man who wants to help the less fortunate and clean up the environment. When he's chosen to run for Senate against a heavily entrenched Republican incumbent, no one thinks that McKay stands a chance. Now here's where you may think that McKay comes in and wows his party and the people of California with his off the cuff campaigning and mildly outrageous but lovable stunts. Well, you'd be wrong. The movie tells a story that feels genuine. It chronicles the life of a political campaign, and the toll it takes on the person running. It's definitely not the movie you'd expect based on its poster which features McKay blowing a gum bubble half the size of his face.
Just when you think you know where the movie's going, it rips the floor from beneath your feet. McKay defies all advice and actually speaks his mind, but rather than gaining the respect and support of the public, McKay's speech flops and ultimately drags him further away from his cherished values. The film shows how a campaign can take a hard-working, progressive minded youth and grind him down into something unrecognizable. While The Candidate may be a cynical parable of our political system that strays a bit too fiercely into melodrama for its own good, it manages to resonate over thirty-five years on.
Primary Colors (1998)
Moving forward in the political process we come to a film that basically amounts to John Travolta
and Emma Thompson
doing their Clinton impersonations for over two hours. Pepper that with the occasional ideological rant and you come up with Primary Colors. It's easy to see how this movie could be a hard sell in a country where half of the populous equates the Clintons to Mr. and Mrs. Anti-Christ, but director Mike Nichols manages to make the story dreamy-eyed and amusing enough for any political palate. The movie was largely successful when it was first released in 1998, as its release coincided with a time when the Clinton/Lewinski scandal dominated American culture. Still, as the Clinton years fade from memory and their outfits look more and more ridiculous the movie starts to take on new weight. Travolta's hammy performance still feels pretty gut wrenching ten years on, but everything else makes for an amusing jab at the political process. It also makes you wonder how much they pay people like Geraldo
and Larry King
to appear in movies like these-how do you give acting advice to Charlie Rose
The Best Man (1964)
Here's a movie you can flaunt to your movie snob friends. 1964's The Best Man never saw a DVD release so you'll have to dust off the ol' VCR to watch it, and even then it's fairly hard to come across (although it will play on Turner Classic Movies around elections). To top things off, it's based on a Gore Vidal play. If there's one thing uppity movie types enjoy, it's something based on Gore Vidal play. What's with that anyway?
Despite the somewhat movie club allure of the film, it's actually pretty good. It takes place during the Democratic National Convention back when these conventions were more than just blatant pandering to the balloon industry. Two candidates, played by Henry Fonda
and Cliff Robertson
, vie for the top spot of their party but neither has clenched the requisite number of delegates to win. Of course, like any good Henry Fonda movie, it has a strong message on political ethics. Both sides have evidence that could crush the other, but when ambition threatens to ruin another's life how far until you ruin what you've fought for? It may be hokey, but it's definitely easier to stomach than the real conventions we saw this month.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Rather than digging up something like Man of the Year
which follows a full presidential campaign, we'll spare you the Robin Williams
and go for something actually worth watching. The Manchurian Candidate is one of those movies you don't seem to hear too much about anymore. When the American Film Institute first released its list of the one-hundred greatest American movies, The Manchurian Candidate came in at number sixty-seven. Last year, when the list was updated, the film was nowhere to be found. Maybe movies stop counting when they get a crappy remake. Sorry, Psycho.
Even by today's standards, this story of espionage and mind control feels hardcore. Some moments in this film are flat out daring. It's a thoroughly sophisticated and modern film that plays upon Americans' penchant for paranoia. After all, look at today's election. The Manchurian Candidate gives us Communist spy Presidential candidates; today we have people raving about secret Muslims, corporate driven war crimes and shape-shifting reptilian humanoids. Just what the hell is our problem?
In 1962, The Manchurian Candidate came out on October at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even though it wasn't exactly the best movie to ease Cold War tensions, the movie performed remarkably. After the Kennedy assassination in 1963, the film practically disappeared until the late 1980s. Honestly, the film itself doesn't concentrate much on the pending election, and concentrates more on the nutso spy story. But come on, after watching four movies about the pains of the election process, you just want to watch someone get shot.
Story by Kris King
Starpulse contributing writer