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The 10 best election movies

Friday 4th August 2017

Reality is often stranger than fiction.

 

Reese Witherspoon in 'Election'.
Reese Witherspoon in 'Election'.

Image: Paramount Pictures

Gaylene Preston's My Year with Helen is one of the biggest hits of this year’s film festival.

The doco follows ex-Prime Minister Helen Clark’s unsuccessful bid to be the United Nations’ secretary general, and as The Wireless told you last week, it’s not a story of defeat, but one of strength.

Our own vote on 23 September is fast approaching, and we’ve taken the opportunity to round up the best movies that feature elections. Hopefully we can help get you in the election spirit.

10. GAME CHANGE (2012)

This much overlooked HBO film dramatises Sarah Palin’s involvement in John McCain’s unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2008. Game Change is taut and brisk and manages to pull off the impressive feat of provoking sympathy for Palin. Julianne Moore is terrific as the chipper Alaskan fish out of water and Ed Harris strongly echoes Donald Trump's thorn in the side, McCain.

There are fascinating moments that feel like major revelations - like McCain’s constant use of the f-word, Palin’s inability to stop referring to her vice-presidential rival as Senator O’Biden, and her ignorance of why there are two Koreas. Woody Harrelson plays the campaign’s senior strategist Steve Schmidt. The man himself called the balanced film so true-to-life, he had an “out of body experience”.

9. THE WAR ROOM (1993)

What is it that makes political strategists such fascinating case studies?  

The War Room follows Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992, but its real protagonist is Clinton’s right-hand man, James Carville, who you may remember as the schmuck embarrassed by a debating Will Ferrell in Old School.

Carville, and Clinton’s communications director, George Stephanopoulos, expertly navigate personal attacks and scandals to orchestrate a thrilling come-from-behind victory. We all know the outcome, but due to the filmmakers being allowed extraordinary access to Clinton’s command centre, The War Room is one of the tensest docos you’ll ever watch.

8. THE CAMPAIGN (2012)

This satire of a congressional race in North Carolina is pretty darn silly, even by Will Ferrell standards, but it’s also, in parts, hilarious. Highlights include Ferrell’s democratic candidate punching a baby with a brutal haymaker and releasing a sex tape featuring himself and the wife of his country bumpkin Republican rival, a scene-stealing Zach Galifianakis.

Despite being let down by a few obvious jokes and over-the-top crassness, The Campaign is filled with great ideas and gut-busting set pieces. Perhaps, in the Trump era, this one’s not so silly after all.

7. ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (1976)

From the ridiculous to the sublime. This Watergate thriller did for journalism what Spotlight did two years ago. We are important!

In All the President’s Men, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein doggedly investigate a robbery at the Democratic National Committee headquarters. The compelling, if a little overlong, story culminates with the now overused trope of its heroes typing out their story, as footage of Richard Nixon taking the Oath of Office plays in the background. It’s also the source of a quote still used sincerely in every journalism school - “follow the money”.

The central mystery is now a little less mysterious now we know who “Deep Throat” is.

6. NAPOLEON DYNAMITE (2004)

You’ll still see a ‘Vote for Pedro’ shirt pop-up now and again, but after the release of Napoleon Dynamite they were as common as Nirvana’s ‘have a nice day’ shirt in the 90s. The film has been imitated and quoted to death, but still holds up as a genuinely funny pastiche of high school nerdom and electioneering.

If Andrew Little had performed a dance routine to Jamiroquai, I have a feeling it would have done wonders for his polling numbers. This also happens to be the best Wes Anderson film not directed by Wes Anderson.

5. THE IDES OF MARCH (2011)

George Clooney’s immaculate suits and polished smugness scream politics, so watching him as a conniving governor bidding for the presidential nomination made perfect sense. He directed The Ides of March, but allowed Ryan Gosling the lead as a wide-eyed junior campaign manager.

The film is a savage assault on politics and will be as timely in 20 years as it was in 2011.

It’s not a “big” movie despite its Shakespearean themes of distrust and ambition, rather a pretty simple political drama in the hands of experts. Another example of why the string-pullers behind-the-scenes are more interesting than the talking heads.

4. THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1962)

Hmm, Russian interference in a presidential campaign - sound familiar? The Manchurian Candidate is a savvy parody of Cold War fears and modern politics. One of many highlights is a senator claiming Communist influence in the Government. When asked for numbers, he jumps from 207 to 104 to 275 and later settles on 57. In reality, commie hunter Joe McCarthy was known for switching up his numbers. Of course, in politics, publicity is often far more important than facts.

John Frankenheimer’s classic manages to be surreal, funny, and at the height of Soviet hostility towards the US, terrifying. In a way it still is.

3. MILK (2008)

It would be easy to think of Milk as an important film rather than a great one. It is both. Sean Penn gives his best performance as the activist and politician Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. Rather than focusing on one election, Milk battles for his place in public office over several years, fiercely defending human rights.

Milk is quite a conventional film by director Gus Van Sant’s standards, the man who once made a two hour film of two guys walking. But Milk is also energetic, restrained and subtle. It’s the most optimistic film about politics and its potential to inspire on this list.

2. ELECTION (1999)

When I first saw Election, a few years after its release, I presumed Matthew Broderick was the film’s hero, despite his high school teacher cheating on his wife and rigging an election for student body president. Or perhaps it’s Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick, who has no friends, only ambition, and in her bid for glory destroys her rival’s campaign posters. No? Then it could be Chris Klein’s Paul Metzler, a popular jock manipulated into running against Flick and whose enduring politeness is matched only by his stupidity. He loses, naturally. Or perhaps the point of Election is that there aren’t any true heroes in politics and moral corruption is inevitable. Damn.

1. WEINER (2016)

If you can sit through documentary Weiner without resorting to jumping behind the couch or shielding your eyes with your hands, congrats, you’ll have done better than me.

In 2011, congressman Anthony Weiner resigned after photos of his bulging crotch appeared on social media. Two years later, filmmakers followed his comeback bid for Mayor of New York. It didn’t go well.

Weiner is tough viewing, not for the continued indiscretions of a man once tipped for the highest office, not for the brutal way he is ridiculed by the titillated media, but in the humiliation he causes his incredibly smart and loyal wife, Huma Abedin. Weiner is the fascinating tragedy of a man who can’t stop sending dick pics.



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Max is a journalist who has worked for The Star, Bleacher Report and RNZ News.
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