In honor of the season — Eleanor’s favorite movies about politics

By Eleanor Ringel Cater

In politically-themed movies, it’s often not whether you win or lose, but how you played the campaign.

Though there are some exceptions (Oliver Stone’s “Nixon” comes to mind), the drama is in the running for office.

Once he’s in, a movie President generally has to deal with aliens (“Mars Attack,” “Independence Day”), terrorists (“The Sum of All Fears”) or Russkies (“Dr. Strangelove,” “Fail-Safe”). Economy and social issues just aren’t movie-sexy; though, if your movie president is sexy enough — like Jeff Bridges in “The Contender” — you might get audiences to sit still while he tries to get a female (Joan Allen) confirmed as Vice President.

A political race is inherently more dramatic. Here are a few of my favorite candidates. But I’m not saying whether or not they won.
When it was released in 1972, Robert Redford’s “The Candidate,” directed by Sidney Pollack, seemed obvious, even a bit shallow. But wow, what a difference a George W (among others) can make.

Redford plays Bill McKay, a left-leaning legal aide lawyer who’s lured into running for office by pro politico, Peter Boyle (Yes, from “Everybody Loves Raymond”). McKay, whose slogan is “For a Better Way,” seems tailored made for inside the Beltway. He’s got good connections (his dad was a governor) and, a better profile.

Hey, it’s ROBERT REDFORD in 1972!

To his credit, McKay is initially skeptical. But Boyle hooks him with the promise that he can do and say whatever he wants because he’s a straw-horse candidate; he supposed to lose.

But once he’s in the race, Redford succumbs to — what else? — runner’s high. Idealism gives way to a very real will to win. So long, fair-minded lawyer; hello, fair-haired political puppet.

Like I said, I’m not giving the race away, but the most famous line in the film is Redford’s semi-rhetorical question: “What do we do now?” What he does in office doesn’t seem to count as much as whatever he did or said while campaigning.

“Power” is a 1980s political film that’s ripe for a remake. Richard Gere is convincingly slick as media consultant; that is, the real power-broker in a campaign. His expertise is worth millions — in dollars and votes. During the movie, he juggles several different candidates. He wins some. He loses some. Either way, he gets paid. As he tells one political wannabe: “My job is to get you in. Once you get in, what you do is up to your good conscience.”

As often happens in Gere’s movies, he has the hardest time sticking with being a bad guy, even though he plays them so well. For a more recent example, see “Arbitrage.”

Anyway, by the end, Gere goes from being a necessary evil to a True Believer whose faith in the system is restored by an earnest young candidate, play by Matt Salinger (As in the late J. D. Salinger’s son.)

Apparently young Salinger’s movie career didn’t go anywhere. I can’t recall seeing him in much since.

By the way, this film has a top-drawer cast; I mean, when Denzel Washington gets 6th billing…though, admittedly, this was in his pre-GLORY days.

Finally, well, it’s a toss-up among “The Ides of March” “Primary Colors” and “The Seduction of Joe Tynan.”

I figure most of you already know about “The Ides of March,” last fall’s supposedly tough look at the inside of a campaign, staring Ryan Gosling as a hard-working, idealistic staffer and George Clooney as his Teflon-coated candidate.

Clooney directed, too, and, given his masterful “Up in the Air” and ”Good Night and Good Luck,” I’ll admit I expected more. However, the picture does have one classic moment, when rival campaign managers — and the oldest whores on the block — Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti meet on-stage, belly-to-belly.

“Primary Colors” by contrast is a superb look at a President Clinton clone, played with eerily on-the-money good cheer and lustfulness by John Travolta. Emma Thompson’s Mrs. Candidate is a fascinating reminder of what we once thought of Hillary Clinton, circa mid-90s, when she was a spurned wife, not Secretary of State and THAT close to being the Democratic nominee for President.

But hardly anyone knows about “The Seduction of Joe Tynan” except, perhaps a few Turner Classic Movies hard-core fans or people who know everything about anyone who was ever on “MASH,” the superb TV series. So, Alan Alda, still the beloved Hawkey Pearce as far as most of the country is concerned, plays a semi-seasoned politician, that is, a good man and a good candidate for office . But when he decides to go for a bigger job, his ethics are put to the test. Where should he draw the line between conscience and expedience?

Much of the movie is about the pre-media-drenched world of closed-backdoor-politics. But at the end, Alda has learned a lot, and his staff is coolly gearing up for something with “more of a national profile.” The movie’s biggest treat is a young Meryl Streep as a Southern girl with a taste for Chinese food and idealistic young politicians. She’s already played Margaret Thatcher in “The Iron Lady.” Maybe a movie-version of a 21st-century Hillary Clinton could be next.

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2 comments
Zuzana
Zuzana

Great picks!  Another I would include is the smart and suspenseful political thriller THE CONTENDER starring starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, and Gary Oldman.  I also enjoyed SWING VOTE for its tongue-in-cheek look at our voting system.

Zuzana
Zuzana

Great picks!  Another I would include is the smart and suspenseful political thriller THE CONTENDER starring starring Joan Allen, Jeff Bridges, and Gary Oldman.  I also enjoyed SWING VOTE for its tongue-in-cheek look at our voting system.