Elections bring out the primal nature of our better and worst selves. Normal discussions turn in to shouting matches as our core beliefs are put on trial. With the highest stakes imaginable, elections make for a fantastic sub-genre of political films known as the 'campaign movie.' Brimming with passion, satire or idealism, campaign movies embrace or attack (or both) what makes Democracy so powerful. In the heart of a particularly negative presidential campaign, I've compiled a list of my personal favorite campaign movies. This isn't a 'Best Of ' list, just a list of campaign films I love that also happen to be some of my favorite movies of all-time.
Robert Redford's Bill McKay is a passionate liberal who is reluctantly recruited to run for Senate because his father is a famous former Governor. It's not so bad because part of the deal is that he's supposed to lose the election, so McKay doesn't have to compromise his far left ideology as he campaigns across the state. But as he starts to catch up in the polls to the stodgy incumbent, McKay slowly starts to compromise his values in the quest to win. One of the great film close-ups comes at the end of the movie when McKay's father mutters the haunting line: "You're a politician now." In this moment we know the idealistic candidate has been fully transformed to a politician who abandons principle for victory. Essentially what every candidate has to do win.
Much more famous as an ode to the dreamers and lovers in the country music capitol, Robert Altman's ensemble kaleidoscope has a political campaign running through the spine of the story. Although we never see the candidate, Hal Phillip Walker, his grass-roots campaign for President is Omni-present as he espouses abolishing the Electoral College (great idea), the villainy of lawyers (sure), re-writing the national anthem (crazy), and taxing churches (kind of agree with this one). Walker's campaign is part folksy, part brilliant and part cuckoo for coco puffs, basically Ron Paul meets Ron Paul. The films powerful climax takes place at a campaign rally as country music and politics collide in tragedy. Without ever seeing his face, the candidate's car flees from the violent passions stirred by his angry rhetoric.
Election is a prime example of how the voting process can bring out the worst in us as mild-mannered teacher, Mr. McAllister (beautifully played by Mathew Broderick), recruits a rival candidate for class president to run against annoying overachiever Tracy Flick. The plan backfires as he throws away his entire teaching career to ensure that Tracy looses. Hysterical, edgy and oddly exciting, Election is one of the great comedies of the last 20 years with Reese Witherspoon giving such an iconic performance that 'Tracy Flick' has become a social archetype. It was after watching this movie that I decided I wanted to start writing, so thank you for the inspiration, Alexander Payne!
Tim Robbins brilliant directorial debut about a conservative folk singer running for Senate was a prescient view at the blending of entertainment and politics that would years later take over American political discourse. Wickedly satirical, candidate Bob Roberts usurps the folk stylings of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, but turns it on its head by using the populist art form to espouse ultra-conservative ideology. Some of the most hilarious moments are Roberts conservative folk songs with titles like 'Times are Changing Back,' 'Drugs Stink' and the anti-welfare ditty, 'Complain,' with the priceless lyrics -- "I don't have a house. I don't have a car. I spend all my money getting' drunk in a bar. I wanna be rich. I don't have a brain. Just give me a handout while I complain!'
Please Vote For Me
This is a little known Chinese documentary about a group of kids running for third grade class monitor in Wuhan, China. These adorable 8 year olds quickly learn the lessons of politics as they lie, cheat, steal, make back room deals, bully and bribe their way to victory. Whether it's communist propaganda criticizing Democracy or a humorous look at the human desire to win at any age, Please Vote For Me vacillates from hilarious to horrifying as the kids quickly learn what politics is really all about. One of my favorite moments is when the chubby bully, Cheng, makes the super sweet, Xu, cry during the 'talent' portion of the election. The plan goes awry when the entire class starts to cry too and seeing what he's caused, Cheng cries along with the class. Later, he uses the fact that Xu cried against her, even though it was he that caused her tears. Karl Rove wishes he was this good.
Comic masters Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis run the most vicious campaign in history in a comedy that is supposed to be satirical, but sadly, feels close to the real thing. Directed by comedy giant (and my frequent collaborator) Jay Roach, the film plays as a hysterical broad comedy as the candidates steal wives, punch babies and banish pugs. Amidst the hilarity is a direct attack on the corrupting nature of limitless campaign contributions made legal by the Citizens United decision. I've seen it three times and it gets funnier every time.