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Reel Politics

In the spirit of the season, Metroland takes a look at some of our critics’ favorite political movies

by The Staff on November 8, 2012


The Great McGinty

No discussion of political flicks would be complete without Preston Sturges’ hilarious The Great McGinty. With this portrait of a classic pre-World War II big-city political machine, Sturges pulled off the impossible: an honest representation of American politics.

At the start of his career, the titular hero, Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy, left, in the role of his career), is down and out—but he’s no bum. When the cook at a breadline tips him off about a way to make a couple of bucks, he quickly discovers that all he has to do is vote in the place of some poor citizens who can’t make it to the polls because they’re inconveniently dead. McGinty bounds around town and manages to vote 37 times before the polls close. (It was amusing when, this year, Republicans campaigned against this type of voter fraud; they were, typically, a hundred years too late.)

McGinty is thus the perfect man to rise in the city’s graft-driven machine. (As the party hack played by William Demerest beautifully argues, “If it wasn’t for graft, you’d get a very low type of people in politics. Men without ambition. Jellyfish!”) And rise he does, from collecting protection money from speakeasies to winning election first as alderman, and then mayor. (McGinty explains his rise with rough wit: “You have to crawl before you creep.”) It’s a burlesque on the classic rags-to-riches tale that has the virtue of being true to life.

McGinty’s sophistication grows. In one of the best scenes, Mayor McGinty turns a discussion about sports into a negotiation for a bribe. He directs his mark’s attention to a photo of a packed baseball stadium, and asks how many people are in the picture. The mark mumbles a number, and McGinty intensifies his gaze: “You’re not even warm, Mr. Maxwell.” The mark gets it, and suggests another insufficient figure. McGinty smiles and says, “There’s 75,000 people in that stadium, filling their lungs with nature’s sunshine!” Deal done.

Sturges gets away with all this by wrapping the outré political content in a love story that’s tucked inside a framing device set in a Latin American exile after McGinty’s fall. But those parts of the comedy work, too.

Also: If you want to know how things were run in Albany in the old days, this is the movie for you.

–Shawn Stone


Milk is ultimately not a gay-rights movie, or a biography—it is a treatise on how and why politics should matter to everybody.

The connection to his community and sexuality drive San Francisco camera-store owner Harvey Milk to run for office. He fails countless times, but he knows one way or another he is sticking up for his community, and letting the powers that be know that he represents a group of people with the same values. Sean Penn (left, with Victor Garber, and not a favorite actor of mine) perfectly captures the moment of complete exhaustion and frustration when Milk first decides he has given all he can to his community, only to realize he has been elected—and now has an even larger responsibility to carry. Josh Brolin’s performance as “something is not quite right about him” councilman Dan White—Milk’s eventual assassin—is captivating and eerily familiar. He paints a perfect picture of a desperate man who is involved in politics for all the wrong reasons—praise, validation and a paycheck. For White to survive—just like the modern day Tea Party—he needs an enemy, and when the enemy finally bests him, he is left more desperate than before.

What should be most striking to younger viewers is that the political battle portrayed in the movie between uneducated hate groups led by Anita Bryant and gay-rights groups is that it took place more than 30 years ago. While a lot has changed, politics remains a realm for bored politicians to meddle in the lives of others, foster hate and legislate their version of morality—no matter the human toll. I left Milk hoping a lot of teenagers would see the movie and realize that politics matter.

–David King

Thirteen Days

As he demonstrated in the taut No Way Out, director Roger Donaldson has a deft hand blending suspense with realpolitik, something he showed us again in 2000 with Thirteen Days. What could have been a CliffsNotes version of the Cuban Missile Crisis geared to post-boomers like me, who were born after the 1962 event that almost brought the world to an end, is instead a real nail biter, somehow more thriller than documentary. That’s saying a lot, since we all know who “won” the showdown between the United States and the Soviet Union.

The movie dispenses with the obvious question that audiences bring to it: Do the actors playing John (Bruce Greenwood, on the right) and Bobby (Steven Culp, center) Kennedy, not to mention secondary characters like Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (Dylan Baker) and advisor Dean Acheson (Len Cariou), effective embody these historical figures? The answer—yes—is almost beside the point, as the action is told primarily through the viewpoint of JFK advisor Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner, far left), who serves as the person we’d want to be in a similar situation: calm, quick-witted, close to the prez but also willing to wing it as necessary, to get things done.

Thirteen Days captures the atmosphere of tense conference rooms, almost making us smell the perspiration, hours-old coffee and Camels. It’s hard to imagine the current administration working so hard across party lines and various government branches to preserve peace, or carrying the burden of democracy and freedom to the extent that the public servants in Thirteen Days do. The movie earns its PC quotient by having the bureaucrats go head-to-head with the old gray generals, as if it’s easier to make them, not Khrushchev, the villain of the story. Nevertheless, it’s a thrilling reminder that work and sweat, not just style points, preserve our freedom.

–Laura Leon


Step right up ladies and gents to the greatest show on earth! But before the media circus became a full-blown three-ring affair, it was a boxing match, or at least it was in 1977, when a pioneering (in media terms) interview with disgraced president Richard Nixon by TV personality David Frost was an unexpected ratings monster. We will leave Barbara Walters out of this, though Frost/Nixon, which deserved its across-the-board praise for being “sharply observed,” does slip in, in literally less than a minute of screen time, a cutting portrait of the young Diane Sawyer. The film also deserved its five Academy Award nominations, though it should’ve been six: Add one for Michael Sheen (below right), who is as incisive as Frost as Frank Langella (below left) is as Nixon.

During the waning years of serious newscasting, Frost risked it all to go on camera with the reviled Nixon. As the film reveals, the former comedian had no idea what he was getting into—until his aides clued him in with their voluminous and impassioned research. A series of four 90-minute sessions (unthinkable in today’s sound-bite society), the program actually brought Nixon to an on-air mea culpa—the very opposite of the onscreen rehabilitation he and his advisors were anticipating. Yet the escalating blow-by-blow between the charmer (Frost) and the manipulator (Nixon) is even more riveting than the result.

Nixon starts to lose confidence when Frost plays a newsreel of atrocities in Cambodia. And here we see, for the first time, the monumental power of television in politics. Vietnam was the first American war to be televised (and the last American war journalists had unrestricted access to), and it was this war, almost as much as Watergate, that turned a nation against its president.

Compare, for a moment, that public outrage over the deaths of Americans overseas to contain communism, with the relative complacency of the public in regard to the blood-for-oil wars. Or compare how deceiving the public about a wiretapping scheme led to the brink of a presidential impeachment to the ease with which Halliburton and other politically connected entities evade public scrutiny of their transgressions, even those as serious as violating the Trading with the Enemy Act. In 1977, as Frost/Nixon illustrates, the layer of media artifice between the electorate and the elected was thin and fragile. Thirty-five years later, it is nearly impenetrable.

–Ann Morrow

Advise and Consent

My parents used to get the annual hardcover Readers Digest Condensed Books, which had several edited examples of the year’s best literature bound into one. Being very young, I didn’t realize that “condensed” was probably the reason I found many of the stories so unfulfilling, but I do remember being intrigued by the excerpt from Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent. The illustrations depicted a retro Washington, D.C., in spring, with cherry blossoms in bloom, hinting promise—and yet the text illuminated a disturbing undercurrent.

Appropriately, Otto Preminger, who enjoyed poking at social taboos, directed Advise and Consent, which, for all its titular reference to the U.S. Constitution and the president’s authority to nominate officers of state, is really a veritable potboiler rife with backroom politicking, intransigent grudges, kingmaking and, of course, secret homosexuality. Younger audiences might have to think hard at why all this amounts to a hill of beans; slightly older viewers will be reminded of the soap opera that was the first Clinton administration.

Advise and Consent doesn’t bear much resemblance to what we see in these days of political hearings on C-SPAN. Our modern pols don’t have dialogue written by Drury or screenwriter Wendell Mayes, nor do they come close to capturing our attention like when Walter Pidgeon’s (near left, with Charles Laughton) Senate majority leader says “Mr. President, with the chair’s permission, I shall be very brief,” and Lew Ayres’ vice president responds, “The chair gladly gives any senator permission to be brief.”

–Laura Leon

J. Edgar

What makes J. Edgar such an impressive political film? It sure ain’t Leonardo DiCaprio . . . or is it? His stymied manchild, temper-tantrum acting is always transparent, but in this case he is playing a man who was always putting on masks, hiding his true intentions and puffing himself up to be much more than he ever was. So maybe DiCaprio (below) does help make the film. But what really makes J. Edgar so great is that it is a lie, a lying, liar, lying kind of narrative made up of all sorts of fibs, mistruths, distortions, fabrications, horseshit, tall tales and innuendo of the kind that have floated around Hoover since he and the press started propagating them.

Director Clint Eastwood doesn’t clue in the audience that longtime FBI head J. Edgar Hoover is an unreliable narrator. He wants us to buy his version of the truth until it’s too late, and DiCaprio is Hoover’s bloated, choking corpse. And yet even when Eastwood draws the curtain back, he only does it halfway. Yes, Hoover was lying about how the FBI was formed, his influence in forming it, the outlaws he claimed to have captured and host of other things. That becomes clear. But Eastwood allows other lies to remain. Hoover never watched presidential inaugurations from his balcony—the window didn’t face that way. Eastwood fails to mention how Hoover fed Joe McCarthy the information he needed to destroy countless lives, only to turn on him when McCarthy’s power started to eclipse his own.

So why is the movie still a great political film despite all its gaping flaws? Because it is so obviously political! Those who have studied Hoover’s 40-year reign as the top law enforcement official in the country know that what they are being fed is the director’s political propaganda. This is how Clint Eastwood chooses to see Hoover—flawed but perhaps justified?—though it’s never really clear where Eastwood comes down in the end. Eastwood is torn, but maybe he just never made up his mind.

–David King

The Best Man

Gore Vidal’s dark dramedy, set in the early 1960s, takes viewers behind the scenes of a national political convention where two candidates who don’t really deserve to be president are slugging it out for the nomination. One is William Russell (Henry Fonda), a capable intellectual who has, among other deficiencies, an infidelity problem. The other is Joe Cantwell, a Commie-baiting, he-man political animal with a bombshell wife (Edie Adams). Cantwell is played, ferociously, by Cliff Robertson (below) as if he’s always sniffing for blood. Poised between the two is an ex-president (modeled on Harry Truman, and played by the Oscar-nominated Lee Tracy) with the power to throw the nomination to either man.

What follows is a battle that’s polite when the TV cameras are on, but bitter behind the scenes. Cantwell combines the worst traits of Nixon and Kennedy, and is a figure so appalling that only a voter could love him. To Fonda’s credit, the cool and remote Russell is just marginally more appealing. The most sympathetic character is the dying ex-president; Tracy infuses his character’s path from dry amusement to shock and ultimate dispair with something like grandeur.

Franklin J. Schaffner directed. Like Vidal, Schaffner came out of 1950s live TV, and this experience—along with the genius of cinematographer Haskell Wexler—infuses the struggle with energy.

The film was shocking in its day; today, the jaundiced views of religion in politics expressed by the characters, and the vicious use of sex smears as blackmail, are warmly familiar to voters. What remains engaging are Vidal’s patrician point of view, cynical tone, and oddly optimistic hope that his fellow American will become less naïve about their politics and themselves.

–Shawn Stone

The Dark Horse

This fast-paced comedy also highlights a chaotic political convention. While Alfred E. Green’s The Dark Horse is lighter in tone than The Best Man, it’s ultimately even more cynical.

The action begins at a hopelessly deadlocked state political convention. None-too-bright maneuvering results in a “dark horse” candidate, Zachary Hicks (Guy Kibbee, left), getting the gubernatorial nomination. The joke is that the filmmakers have shown us that Hicks is perfectly named—he’s a moron, a rube, a hack with no political virtues and unsuited for any office.

Stuck with a sure loser, the party elders hire a savvy campaign operative, Hal Samson Blake (Warren William) to salvage the situation. Blake interviews Hicks, and breaks the bad news to the party chief in a brisk exchange.

“How dumb is he?”

“Every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.”

In recent decades, earnest writers have been giving such types a conscience. In Power, Richard Gere’s slickster has a change of heart; in The Ides of March, Ryan Gosling’s mastermind becomes grim and humorless when he realizes how the world really works. The Dark Horse, released during the last year of the Hoover administration, has a Depression-era toughness; Warren William’s fixer has no qualms about getting an idiot elected.

Alas, the filmmakers had no qualms about slipping a romantic subplot into this otherwise dark concoction, and a young Bette Davis is a drag on the fun. Still, the final twist turns on a sex scandal that the adroit operative finesses, and with a cheerful cynicism, the idiot becomes governor. Just like in the real world.

–Shawn Stone