Politics as Usual

For those not aware, the first debate in the upcoming U.S. Presidential election is this Friday, September 26th. It’s currently impossible to avoid – whether trolling the internets, turning on the TV, opening a newspaper, or even just walking outside – the crush of political pontificating and posturing on display 24/7 in the weeks leading up to the election (November 4th). With all this inexorably in mind, I’m taking this week’s ToM to touch on a few beloved(ish) pictures set in the political realm – all of which lay bear more truth than 90% of what passes for news reporting these days. There’s no shortage of great films focused on Washington’s glories and gaffes and the genre, if there is one, is endlessly malleable so sound off below – what are some of your favorites?

The Manchurian Candidate - a wildly compelling black-hearted sci-fi / suspense mash-up that laces its machinations with political commentary, John Frankenheimer’s now-classic film has taken its sweet time to garner the level of recognition it truly deserves. Frank Sinatra’s best screen work is on display here, as well as a chilling turn by Angela Lansbury as a Communist sympathizer and great supporting work from the likes of Janet Leigh and Henry Silva, among others. Best to avoid Jonathan Demme’s lifeless 2004 remake, which transplants the film’s Red Scare setting to a modern-day corporate / government landscape and includes references to the Gulf and Iraq wars to little dramatic effect.

The Candidate - recently “rediscovered” when it finally popped up on DVD after years in filmic limbo, maddeningly uneven filmmaker Michael Ritchie hits all the right notes in this satire focused on a free-spirited lawyer (Robert Redford) who finds himself caught in – and changed by – the political machine as he’s pushed into running for office. With great support from a knock-out cast including Peter Boyle (am I the only one starting think this man was a very, very underrated actor?), the picture paints a realistic world in which individualism is forced to give way to broader concerns at unknown costs. Redford’s final line to Boyle is a classic – hilarious, depressing, and completely spot-on.

All the President’s Men - a textbook example of both procedural filmmaking and that rarified, stripped-down ‘70s aesthetic so prized by lovers of American film, Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s precedent-setting investigation into the Watergate scandal ticks forward with Pythagorean precision in relating the facts of the case that destroyed a presidency and upended whatever trust Americans had retained in their political system following the turbulent ‘60s. Headlined by two bonafide stars (Redford again, and Dustin Hoffman) at the height of their respective games and buttressed with a spread of reliable character players, Pakula’s film turns what should be a dense morass of tedious leg work and paper trails into a pitched, completely absorbing thriller.

JFK - whether you agree with writer / director Oliver Stone’s representation of the still-clouded facts surrounding the murder of John F. Kennedy, there’s no denying his command of technique or the power of the performances on display in what many consider to be the most polarizing work in a career noted for films intended to get the public’s collective goose. Ripped to shreds by the historical press upon its release and unfairly characterized as a “conspiracy” film, Stone’s JFK has – if nothing else – the absolute conviction of its creator by its side, something rarer than one might expect these days. In fact, Stone continues stumping for his version of the truth today. Inspired casting and use of archival footage abounds. Stone's latest politically-charged offering, the Bush family opus W, debuts this fall.

Bulworth - a strange, daring film unjustly ignored upon its initial release, writer / director / star Warren Beatty’s dark satire involving a disillusioned Senator who puts a hit out on himself – only to find the emotional freedom engendered by his decision driving his will to live and desire for political change anew – features some jaw-dropping scenes focused on US race relations that probably woudn’t survive the PC gauntlet today, just 10 years removed from the film’s release. Intricate lighting and composition work, as well as a wonderfully menacing / melancholy score courtesy of Ennio Morricone, highlight the proceedings. Beatty hasn’t directed since, which is a shame – it’s easy to forget, but coupled with the sweeping romance of Reds and the outré stylistic excess of Dick Tracy, Bulworth marks the man as something of an auteur.

What did I miss? Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? The Parallax View? Brewster's Millions? (love all three, btw) Let's hear it!

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