October 24, 2012

12 for 2012: the top political movies

Ok, so this isn't strictly about television today, but for those of you who've just about had enough of this year's political campaigns, I present my choices of the ten best political movies, guaranteed to take your mind off the nightly news. Some of them are theater movies, others are made-for-TV movies or episodes of regular series.  Many of them may be familiar to you, while I think there are a couple you might be hearing about for the first time. In any event, check them out - on Netflix, Amazon, Turner Classic Movies, or just read about them at IMDB - and prepare yourself for November 6.  After seeing them, you might even ask yourself whether we really have it so bad after all?

By the way, they're in no particular order except for that in which I came up with them, which may or may not be a clue as to which are my favorites.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Dir. John Frankenheimer
Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Angela Lansbury

There’s not much to add to the classic thriller about an assassin brainwashed to infiltrate the American political scene. It was a movie ahead of its time, boasting terrific performances by Sinatra and Lansbury, who makes you forget all about Jessica Fletcher. If you haven’t seen it, get it. And, yes, this happens to be the number one film on my list.  Frankenheimer was a veteran of Golden Age anthologies such as Playhouse 90 (directing well over 100 in total), and won four Emmys in his return to TV movies in the 90s.  You can see his experience with live TV in the way he used a TV camera and monitor during a scene where James Gregory's bumptious Joe McCarthy-knock-off confronts a general.  It's a small touch, but light-years ahead of how it would have been done by other directors of the time.
What to watch for: Most people would choose the hallucinatory brainwashing/tea party scene, which is memorable – but look for the scene late in the movie when Sinatra scans Madison Square Garden in search of Harvey's agonized Raymond. Even during the National Anthem, when protocol demands that Sinatra’s Colonel Marco stand at attention, his eyes are everywhere, darting back and forth in search of any kind of a clue.

Seven Days in May (1964) 
Dir. John Frankenheimer
Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March, Ava Gardner

Another Frankenheimer political potboiler, this time concerning a plot by the Joint Chiefs of Staff to overthrow the U.S. government and replace a weak president (March) whom they fear is unable to stand up to the Communists in Russia and China. While not as good as the best-seller that inspired it, Rod Serling’s screenplay takes extraordinary chunks of the book’s dialogue and presents it whole in the movie. The heavyweight matchup is between Lancaster, as the strong-willed JCS Chairman, and Douglas, not only trying to save the American system of government but also to preserve the integrity of the armed forces and the American tradition of civilian control of the military.  The plot has been borrowed for various mediocre TV movies, but the original still packs a wallop.
What to watch for: For techno-geeks, look for Frankenheimer’s use of closed-circuit cameras throughout the JCS offices.  As a TV veteran, it must have been old hat for him.

Fail-Safe (1964)  
Dir. Sidney Lumet
Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O’Herlihy, Larry Hagman

A computer malfunction results in an American bomber group being given an accidental attack order against the Soviet Union. Fonda’s president – almost too virtuous, as is often the case with Fonda roles – is stuck in a no-win situation: unable to recall the group, forced to help the Soviets try to shoot them down in order to convince them of his sincerity (and avoid a retaliatory strike), and having to deal with an Ivy League professor (Matthau, channeling Henry Kissinger) trying to convince him that an all-out strike against the Russians is the only way to go. Since this is a TV site, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention George Clooney's surprisingly good 2000 live version, shot in black-and-white and introduced by Walter Cronkite.  No, Richard Dreyfuss is no Henry Fonda, and you can ask yourself whether or not the plot should have been updated - but why quibble with success?
What to watch for: No music. O’Herlihy’s affecting performance as a world-weary general. Hagman’s underrated turn as Fonda’s interpreter during the hotline talks with the Soviet premier (vastly superior to Noah Wyle's performance in the TV remake).

Suddenly (1954) 
Dir. Lewis Allen
Frank Sinatra, Sterling Hayden, James Gleason

The idea behind this sinister little movie must have been very disturbing for 1954 – a plot to assassinate the president (obviously Eisenhower, although his name is never mentioned in the movie) in the small town of Suddenly, a "town where nothing much ever happens." The hit is financed by an unseen group (whose motive is never explained, which makes it even more sinister) and to be carried out by mercenary gangsters. Sinatra, so good in The Manchurian Candidate, is equally evil here as the psychotic hired gun, holding a family hostage in order while using their house as staging ground for the assassination attempt.
What to watch for: There is a certain nobility about Sinatra’s fellow gang members. There isn’t much they wouldn’t do for cold, hard cash – but assassinating the president? Instinctively it makes them uneasy: what they’re doing is not only illegal, it’s unpatriotic, and that crosses the criminal code.

The Best Man (1964)  
Dir. Franklin J. Schaffner
Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy

A showdown between two candidates for a party’s presidential nomination: Fonda, once again the noble candidate you’re meant to identify with, and Robertson, the ruthless, win-at-all-costs bad guy. Gore Vidal’s darkly comic play becomes a bit more serious on the big screen, and poses a thought-provoking question: is it more important to be virtuous and weak, or cunning and strong? At the time the candidates appeared to be thinly disguised versions of Adlai Stevenson (Fonda) and Richard Nixon (Robertson), but ask yourself if you don’t see more than a bit of JFK (or at least RFK) in Robertson’s heavy-handed tactics. (Vidal, in 1960, was a first-hand witness to the kind of campaign the Kennedy boys ran.)  Schaffner (Patton), like Frankenheimer, cut his teeth in the Golden Age, winning three Emmys for directing such classics as the Studio One version of Twelve Angry Men.
What to watch for: Tracy, as the former president, is courted for his endorsement by both Fonda and Robertson. Watch him quiz each man about their belief in God, and see if you can figure out what Tracy himself believes. Is he telling either man the truth about how he feels, or merely manipulating them to see what their own answer is? Also according to Wikipedia, Ronald Reagan (still then an actor) was considered for a role but rejected because he didn't look presidential enough.

The Great McGinty (1940)  
Dir. Preston Sturges
Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest

This very sharp satire by the brilliant Sturges tells the story of a bum (Donlevy) who in hilarious circumstances rises through the crooked party ranks to become governor, before gaining a conscience and having everything collapse around him. Would that more corrupt politicians reacted the way he does – by fleeing the country.  This can be caught on TCM often around election time.
What to watch for: Besides Demarest’s very funny performance, McGinty and his cronies bring a Three Stooges-like element to politics; appropriate since, again according to Wikipedia, Tamiroff's malaprop-laced performance was the inspiration for Boris Badenov.

A Face in the Crowd (1957)  
Dir. Elia Kazan
Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau

The only movie in the list that doesn’t deal directly with a political candidate. I’ve written about it before, but couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about it once again. Sheriff Andy Taylor was never like this!  This also runs frequently on TCM.
What to watch for: This is Matthau’s second appearance in this list, and watching his performances in these two movies reminds you of what an underrated dramatic actor he was. If you know Matthau only from The Odd Couple and Grumpy Old Men, don’t miss him here.

All the King’s Men (1949)
Dir. Robert Rossen
Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, Mercedes McCambridge

Another repeat appearance. I discussed the Pulitzer-winning novel here, but while the movie lacks much of the book’s depth and subtlety, it makes up with dominant (and Oscar-winning) performances by Crawford as Willie Stark, who truly was an honest man at one time; and McCambridge as Sadie Burke, Stark’s right-hand woman.
What to watch for: You know you’ll end up hating Crawford by the end of the movie, which makes the actions of the honest Stark at the movie’s beginning even more painful to watch. Jack Burden (Ireland), about whom the book really revolves, is much less prominent here.

The Missiles of October (1974)
Dir. Anthony Page 
William Devane, Martin Sheen, Howard Da Silva, Ralph Bellamy
Sheen, who would later play JFK in a TV-movie, here plays RFK in this riveting drama about the Cuban Missile Crisis, originally shown only a dozen years after the showdown that cast everyone in the shadow of nuclear war.. Terry Teachout’s excellent look back in last week’s Wall Street Journal explains much about why this docudrama is so good, from its dedication to historical accuracy to the minimalist sets that give the production a Golden Age immediacy. This was “event” television when it was shown in a three-hour timeslot on ABC Theatre, and it’s just as powerful today.
What to watch for: When the generals apprise JFK of the possible damage a Soviet attack on American bases might inflict, I’ve always thought Devane (wonderful performance) gave him just a hint of creeping hysteria as he talks about wanting to make sure American planes aren’t lined up wingtip to wingtip – as they were at Pearl Harbor.

Wag the Dog (1997)  Dir. Barry Levinson 
Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche 
Politics can be played for comedy, tragedy or satire; this one manages to incorporate all three, in this viciously delightful story of a movie producer (Hoffman, who might well be doing an impression of Levinson) hired to invent a fake war in order to save a corrupt President’s sorry ass. It’s a very smart, funny and well-acted movie (Willie Nelson’s star-studded “We Are the World”-type song is worth the price alone) , but its real impact comes from what we all know but are afraid to admit, and that’s one reason why we laugh – because it’s too painful to cry.
What to watch for: I’d never been a big Hoffman fan prior to this movie, but I thought he was just terrific (and well-deserving of his Oscar nomination) with his sardonic portrayal of the movie producer for whom each potential disaster simply reminds him of a past movie-making experience. His answer is the same every time: “This is nothing!” I've used that line many times myself, with about equal success.

Columbo: "Candidate for Crime" (1973)
Dir. Boris Sagal
Peter Falk, Jackie Cooper, Joanne Linville, Tisha Sterling

What would any "best-of" list be without an episode of Columbo?  Cooper plays a U.S. Senate candidate carrying on an affair with a member of his staff. When his campaign manager finds out and orders him to end the affair, Cooper murders him and tries to make it look as if he, Cooper, was actually the intended target. He may fool his wife, his lover, the press, and even the voters – but not Lieutenant Columbo.
What to watch for: Cooper, like most of Columbo’s adversaries, takes the Lieutenant far too lightly. Watch him trying to film a sound bite for television, all the while being distracted by Columbo’s poking around his house. By the time he realizes that Columbo’s no fool, it’s too late.

Winter Kills (1979)  
Dir. William Richert
Jeff Bridges, John Huston, and an all-star cast

Like The Manchurian Candidate, Winter Kills was based on a novel by Richard Condon, but unlike Candidate, it’s far less well known. Condon’s dark comedy tells the story of a man (Bridges) trying to discover the truth behind the conspiracy that took the life of his half-brother, an American president who was supposedly killed by a lone gunman. Any similarities to JFK, including gangsters, nightclub owners, and a domineering father (Huston), are purely intentional.
What to watch for: I won’t give away the ending, but suffice it to say that it involves a surreal scene with Bridges, Huston and an enormous American flag.

Feel free to add your favorites to this list - but be sure to check these out!

Portions of this article originally appeared in altered form at Our Word and Welcome to It

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