Classic Political Films for This Historic Presidential Campaign

05/09/2016 02:12 pm ET Updated May 09, 2017

A surreal reality-TV host emerging as the GOP's front-runner, a democratic socialist making serious impact in an America traditionally allergic to the s-word, a woman making the strongest case to date for the White House, the fervor of populist anger and turnout, and the volatility of the whole mix---this 2016 presidential campaign is not a normal campaign. This one feels truly historic, seismically consequential, even dangerous, if the violence Donald Trump stokes at his rallies escalates to the real bloody thing.

In the world's oldest democracy, America's artists, including those in film, have long grappled with the drama inherent in a system of government by and for The People--the drama of individuals, well-meaning or not, taking The People's pulse and throwing their hat into the ring; the methods, straight or slick, used to sway The People's vote; the tactics, fair or not, used against equally ambitious opponents; the negotiation, conscious or not, with the money-power of politics; and, once in office, with one's hands on power, the potential for corruption. Power, the grail of political struggle, has fascinated artists from the ancient Greeks onward.

Film, being a popular art form, is a natural medium to portray the struggle for power in a setting where The People play a central role. While American cinema generally focuses on the personal and not the political, we nonetheless have many classic titles about campaign politics in the vault.

Some of those films are discussed below. Each addresses some aspect of our present situation, though not the totality of it (about which, more later). Because this presidential election is so consequential and no laughing matter, the films cited are dramas; thus a film like The Great McGinty, the Preston Sturges comedy in which a tramp is elected mayor, is not included. Readers will have their own nominations.

This film, with its chilling transformation of Willie Stark from good-guy small-town politician to despotic governor, manipulator of the law and The People, perhaps best represents the dangers of a Donald Trump presidency---not the good-guy part (it never existed), but the despotic and manipulative part. Interestingly, the first half of the film, when good-guy Willie runs for county treasurer and then governor, he sounds like a Bernie Sanders: "Free medicine for all people, not as a charity but as a right," "My study is the heart of the people." But after losing twice, he "learns how to win": by amping up the populist pitch ("I'm going to soak the fat boys and I'm gonna spread it out thin") while financing his campaign with big-money deals (banks, oil companies)---and he wins the governor's seat. The ensuing corruption is not readily apparent: Willie "builds and builds"---roads, hospitals, colleges---which pleases The People, but the building is done with dirty hands, enforced by Willie's private army.

The tragedy of the film, and of Robert Penn Warren's Pulitzer-winning novel on which it is based, is that plenty of good guys hold their noses and go along, including the narrator Jack Burden (John Ireland), who starts out as a reporter covering Willie's first campaign and ends up the keeper of Willie's list of political favors. Burden's entire hometown circle---his girlfriend, his best friend who's a doctor, that friend's uncle who's a judge who becomes Willie's attorney general (scene here)---all succumb to Willie, with tragic results (suicide, ruin). The film climaxes (spoiler alert) when Willie is assassinated by the doctor friend.

With Trump bragging about his "yuge" numbers, when I viewed the film this time, I noticed especially the surging crowds, beginning with the opening credits, with Willie seen from behind, working the crowd. After the assassination, Burden sees his redemption as telling that crowd, belatedly, what the real Willie Stark was like. That would be a difficult book to write: As Willie said (echoing Trump!), "Just make it up as you go along" (scene here). This film, directed by Robert Rossen, won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actor, for Broderick Crawford as Willie. (Video review here.)

The film most closely portraying the likes of Bernie Sanders has to be Meet John Doe, the Frank Capra classic about an Everyman spokesman for "the little man" set in the Great Depression. Played by Gary Cooper, "John Doe" begins as an accidental Everyman, the brainchild of a columnist (Barbara Stanwyck) who, desperate to keep her own job, fakes a letter from "A Disgusted American Citizen." This fictitious John Doe lost his job four years earlier, can't find work, thought it was all due to "slimy politics" but has come to feel "the whole world is going to pot," so in protest he threatens to jump off City Hall on Christmas Eve. Cooper, an out-of-work baseball player, agrees to the impersonation at first (scene here), enjoying warm food and new clothes, despite his pal Walter Brennan's warnings about the evils of having a bank account and owning things.

But in the movie's second half, John Doe becomes a more intentional Everyman---and more like Bernie Sanders. When John Doe gives a speech on national radio (scene here) pitched to the John Does of America---"We've been in there dodging left hooks since before history began to walk"---and urges all John Does to reach out to each other---"You can't be a stranger to a guy who's on your own team"---John Doe clubs begin popping up all over, becoming a national movement. When he learns ambitious oilman D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold) is bankrolling the clubs as his own path to the White House, declaring there's to be "a new order of things" and what America needs is "an iron hand, discipline," John Doe connects the dots between a corrupt capitalism and the political process and revolts (scene here)---making a moral argument sounding much like the one Sanders has delivered on the campaign trail for months.

Some critics deride Capra for sentimentalism ("Capra-corn"), but his human touch with The People and faith in democracy elevates. As Stanwyck's jaded editor says, "I'm a sucker for this country. I like what we got here." (Full movie here.)

While the odds of a contested convention in either party diminish with each passing primary, it still could happen. Sanders, trailing Hillary Clinton in delegates, vows to stay in til the end. Trump, presumptive GOP nominee now that his last opponents have dropped out, could commit one outrage too many, say, play "the woman card" in a way repulsing even his anti-everybody base, and it's convention on.

If so, The Best Man is the best film dramatizing the raw power struggle of an open convention---the dynamics of candidates and staffs, playing defense and offense to action both actual and conjectured, hatching dirty tricks in desperation. In a smart screenplay by Gore Vidal, based on his stage play, power is the point or the subtext of every line. Henry Fonda plays Secretary of State William Russell, an intellectual who's diffident in his quest for the presidency, not really comfortable with ambition; his wife, estranged because of his infidelities, makes a "treaty" and shows up for him (scene here). His major opponent is Communist-hating Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson): "We gotta get tough" (scene here), echoing today's GOP contenders.

The prize endorsement to be landed is that of ex-President Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy), a pure politician comfortable with infighting and compromise. In scenes that crackle, Hockstader grills both Russell (whom he favors, except for the diffidence) and Cantwell on the uses of presidential power. Hockstader's sudden death hours later, before his endorsement is announced, forces the launching of dirty tricks by both Russell, reluctantly, and Cantwell, energetically. (Spoiler alert): It doesn't work out for either of them---and a dark horse wins the nomination.

The Last Hurrah (1958) and The Candidate (1972)

New media, or more specifically social media, features in the current presidential campaign, with Twitter blasts from the candidates themselves driving much of their own media operation. In the previous era, a new medium---television---begins to feature in the John Ford film, The Last Hurrah, and a dozen or so years later, in The Candidate, assumes the form and force that we know today.

In The Last Hurrah, Frank Skeffington, played by Spencer Tracy, announces he will run for a fifth term as mayor of an unnamed New England city (Boston?). As he tells his sports writer nephew (Jeffrey Hunter), whom he invites on the campaign trail for "historical" reasons, Skeffington knows his kind of campaigning---gathering together any crowd that will listen to him---is "on its way out, just as I am." Henceforth, "It'll all be TV and radio---streamlined, nice and easy" (scene here). The anti-Skeffington coalition supports the telegenic but simpering Kevin McCloskey (scene here), who will undergo a pioneering at-home TV interview, with family involved. At this point the film drops its examination of the impact of TV on political campaigns to focus more on the anti-Skeffington coalition: They are of the old Yankee stock who still resent the Irish newcomers "crowding in." This time (spoiler alert) they win: Skeffington loses. (The director was Irish-American.)

The Candidate, on the other hand, is largely played out before the TV camera, with image coming to dominate over content. In this context, messaging trumps policy proposals, as the hyper-telegenic and smart senatorial candidate Bill McKay, played by Robert Redford, soon finds out (scene here). A leftist lawyer, McKay fights on two fronts: with his campaign manager (Peter Boyle) who pushes him to shift to the center, as well as with his Republican opponent, a popular incumbent. The stress of it all---on mush-speak, on image---causes McKay to have several comic breakdowns (one here). Perhaps most famous is the final scene, in which, victorious but far adrift from his starting point, McKay turns to his campaign manager and asks: "What do we do now?" (scene here). (Redford was the film's executive producer.)

If the present unpleasantness becomes too much---and we haven't even gotten to the general election yet, which likely will pit Donald Trump against Hillary Clinton and which many commentators predict will be historically brutal---there is always the classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, to remind us of the possibilities of politics and the idealism that (spoiler alert) motivates more office-seekers than today's cynicism can acknowledge. The director once again is Frank Capra.

The storyline is well-known: Jefferson Smith, leader of the Boy Rangers organization and played by Jimmy Stewart, is appointed to fill the seat of a senator who's died. Mr. Smith arrives in Washington in full naivete. When he learns of the corruption of Senator Joseph Paine (Claude Rains), his home-state mentor and friend of his late beloved father---Paine is in league with the political machine run by "Big Jim" Taylor (Edward Arnold again) and they have plans for the land Jeff proposes for a national boys' camp---Jeff, disillusioned, packs up and leaves, making a last stop at the Lincoln Memorial. There, his once-cynical but now adoring aide Saunders (Jean Arthur) finds him and begs him to continue the fight. He does, and mounts one of cinema's most famous sequences: his filibuster on the floor of the Senate floor (scene here).

This "Capra-corn" invokes the American ideal of "looking out for the other guy," an ideal we've lost sight of today. It also satisfies in this regard: The corrupt Sen. Paine tries to shoot himself and, failing, rushes to the Senate floor to exonerate the exhausted Mr. Smith (scene here). Cured of his naivete but not his decency, Mr. Smith will go on. (Full movie here.)

Another positive reminder of what politics can achieve is the upcoming All the Way, about President Lyndon Johnson's battles to pass the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964. Based on the first part of Robert Schenkkan's superb two-part play and starring Bryan Cranston, All the Way airs May 21 on HBO.

Finally: Unless I am blanking, there is no American film that captures the totality---and danger---of our present campaign mix: a populist anger so great on the Trump side that it's ready to wreck our governmental institutions, and on the Sanders side, that urges "political revolution" without much of a roadmap; a dangerous demagogue (Trump) who destroyed his primary opponents with Pinocchio-level lies and insult, who prizes unpredictability in foreign relations, and who's fine with torture; and a growing anxiety in the conscientious public that the fabric of American democracy---and decency---are giving way.

Part of the present totality is Hillary Clinton's campaign for the White House, for which Hollywood has no story, thus we have not discussed it here. Shamefully, Hollywood has never treated a serious woman's quest for political power seriously.

Can Mr. Smith---and now, of course, Ms. Smith too---still get to Washington? If they can, can they resurrect the mechanisms of our democracy? Once upon a time, movies gave us possibility, but movies today, and the arts in general, are more about destruction and decay (tragedy), not rebuilding and reform (renaissance).

Analyze that, Hollywood---all of it, seriously. Can Mr. or Ms. Smith get to a New Day?

Carla Seaquist's latest book is titled "Can America Save Itself from Decline?: Politics, Culture, Morality." An earlier book is titled "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character." Also a playwright, she published "Two Plays of Life and Death," which include "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks" and "Kate and Kafka," and is at work on a play titled "Prodigal."