November 2, 2016

16 for 2016: the best political movies and TV shows

A couple of weeks ago, while the last presidential debate was on, I noticed TCM had devoted the evening to classic political movies; and since several of them were on my all-time best list, it reminded me of how I'd posted lat list four years ago. No sense reinventing the wheel, I figure, so why not revisit the list?

If you remember that previous piece, you'll notice several differences in this one, namely that there are four additions, so that now instead of 12 for 2012, it's 16 for 2016. (Clever, huh?) You'll also note that while the list is now bigger, it's still missing several titles that might surprise you - Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, for example, or The West Wing. There's a good reason for that, of course: it's my list, not someone else's. However, you'll notice that virtually every one of them concerns greed, corruption, murder, dishonesty, brute force, and irredeemable qualities - in other words, everything that we know and love about American politics.

Some of these are theater movies, while others are made-for-TV movies or episodes of regular series. A couple of the new additions are actual series about politics, albeit ones you might not be familiar with. In any event, check them out - on Netflix, Amazon, Turner Classic Movies, or just read about them at IMDB - and prepare yourself for next Tuesday.  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.

House of Cards (1990, plus sequels)
Created by Andrew Davies, Dir. Paul Seed
Ian Richardson, Susannah Harker, David Lyon, Diane Fletcher
Not the American version starring Kevin Spacey, but the far-superior UK version, which came to the United States via Masterpiece Theatre. Ian Richardson is brilliant as Francis Urquart (initials FU), who schemes to become Prime Minister after being snubbed by the current PM. As Urquart methodically sets about sabotaging his rivals, he finds that in most cases, they provide him with more than enough rope to do the job. Throw in the most scheming wife since Lady Macbeth (Fletcher) and an impressionable, pliable young journalist (Harker), and the stage is more than set. Be sure to check out the series' two sequels, To Play the King and The Final Cut.
What to watch for: Urquart constantly breaks the fourth wall, talking directly to the viewers, making us all parties to his plot. He's evil, but hard to root against. His catch phrase, which I've used many times: "You might think that. I couldn't possibly comment."

Yes Minister/Yes, Prime Minister (1980-1988)
Created by Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn
Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Fowlds
Much like Barney Miller was to police series, Yes Minister and its sequel, Yes, Prime Minister is probably the most accurate political series ever made, far more so than a program such as The West Wing. There is no idealization in this brutal, hilarious satire of British politics, featuring Jim Hacker (Eddington) as the newly-named Minister of Administrative Affairs, his permanent secretary Sir Humphrey Appleby (Hawthorne) and his personal secretary, the well-meaning Bernard (Fowlds). We quickly learn that the aptly named Hacker is far from the brightest bulb on the tree, but we root for him against the smug, obfuscating Sir Humphrey, who's determined to hang on to his power (as a civil servant, he maintains his position regardless of which party is in power). Hacker is full of surprises though, and while he might not be Humphrey's intellectual equal, he more than holds his own as a very good politician.
What to watch for: After listening to Humphrey's tangled, tortured explanation as to why the Department of Administrative Affairs couldn't possibly do what its minister wants, Hacker often is left with a blank, glassy-eyed stare.

Advise and Consent (1962)
Dir. Otto Preminger
Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, Don Murray, Charles Laughton, Gene Tierney
Based on Allen Drury's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Advise and Consent presents the story of a bruising battle over the confirmation of a nominee for Secretary of State, with Fonda as Secretary of State nominee Robert Leffingwell, who may at one time have been a member of the Communist party (a thinly disguised version of Alger Hiss), and Charles Laughton (who disliked Fonda in real life) as Senator Seab Cooley, one of his opponents. It's a spicy story that features blackmail and homosexuality in addition to political ambition and the Red menace, yet Preminger sought to enliven the movie even more, offering roles to both Martin Luther King Jr. and Richard Nixon. Both wisely declined. You'll find some of the speechifying and plot twisting a bit over-the-top, and the movie suffers in comparison with the book, but it remains an entertaining political thriller in the neo-noir tradition, and a cynical, grown-up antidote to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
What to watch for: You'll find it hard to believe that Vice President Harley Hudson (Lew Ayers) would be at the airport, without security, flying on a commercial airliner - yet it's true. It wasn't until the mid-60s that the Vice President flew regularly on a government plane.

The Candidate (1972)
Dir. Michael Ritchie
Robert Redford, Peter Boyle
Take a photogenic activist lawyer, introduce him to a savvy political operative looking for a candidate. The result: an earnest, progressive candidate for the United States Senate, fighting an uphill campaign against the incumbent Republican. The Candidate is predictable, but no less captivating, in his look at the phony, cynical world of politics. It's also prescient in its portrayal of a candidate recruited for his telegenic looks, regardless of whether or not he's qualified. Even conservatives might wind up rooting for Redford's character as he takes on the smug, establishment Republican.
What to watch for: Without giving away the ending, Redford's final exchange with his campaign manager (Boyle) is worth the price of admission alone.


  1. Terrific list. A FACE IN THE CROWD is definitely on my all time Top 10 films list, period. FAIL-SAFE is also terrific--kind of overlooked since it came out the same year as DR. STRANGELOVE, but really well acted.

    Another good political COLUMBO is from the ABC revival, "Agenda for Murder". Not as well scripted as "Candidate for Crime" but does have Patrick McGoohan as the murderer, which was always a plus. McGoohan also directed the episode.

    Devane was always a good choice for a Presidential role.

    I might have to find a spot for the thoroughly insane WILD IN THE STREETS (1968) on sheer entertainment value. Fourteen or fight!

    On the episodic TV front, F TROOP's foray into politics, "The Ballot of Corporal Agarn" and one of the funniest sitcom episodes to center on politics, the WKRP IN CINCINNATI episode "Carlson for President".

  2. Here and There ...:

    - Manchurian Candidate:
    I always found it interesting that the only characters who were identified as "liberal" (1960s style) were played by two actors - John McGiver and Lloyd Corrigan - who were typecast their whole careers as comic bumblers.
    Probably just coincidence ...

    - Seven Days In May:

    The Federal Government and the military did not cooperate with the filmmakers.
    The JCS settings had to be made up by the art directors; the onscreen result reputedly impressed the real JCS so much that they adopted many of its features for the real location.
    Also, the scene where Martin Balsam boards a Navy ship is "stolen footage"; Frankenheimer and Serling told the ship's crew that they were making a short film for the USIA, something they'd done before.
    The rest of that sequence, in which Balsam blackmails John Houseman into ratting out the other Joint Chiefs, was done on a soundstage.

    - Fail-Safe:
    I always thought that Dan O'Herlihy and Walter Matthau were each playing the other's part.
    Remember that in 1963, no one knew who Henry Kissinger was; the prototype was a much-publicized professor named Herman Kahn.
    Also remember that Groeteschele (the movie prof) is supposed to be icy and superior to everybody; that was right in O'Herlihy's wheelhouse.
    General Black was supposed to be something of a burnout, which was why he was doing desk duty at the Pentagon; this was Matthau's specialty before he turned full-time to comedy.

    - Wag The Dog:
    Dustin Hoffman's character was clearly based on the notorious producer Robert Evans - the fake tan, the styled hair, the lavish home and office.
    Barry Levinson has made cameo appearances in his own films and those of his friends; he's a big, shaggy, shambling man, not in the least like 'Stanley Motss' in Wag The Dog.

    - Advise And Consent:
    Allen Drury, who wrote the original novel (and followed it up with five sequels), hated Otto Preminger's movie.
    Drury was ultra-conservative (by '50s-'60s standards, anyway); he didn't care for Otto's '60s-liberal slant on certain story elements.
    One example to serve for many: in the novel, Leffingwell is definitely a bad guy, manipulative and outrightly deceitful. Drury felt that casting Fonda prettified the character, making him more sympathetic than Drury thought he deserved to be.
    That's one example; others on request ...

    It's late and the Cub coverage is getting cloying, so I'll stand down for now.

  3. I'm not sure "A Face in the Crowd" belongs on this list, since Griffith's Arthur Godfrey-like character's political advisement is really a minor part of the film. That portion is great, but it isn't what the movie is about. I'd replace it and the Columbo episode with two excellent political thrillers made for television in the 1970's: "Vanished", the first 2-part miniseries with Richard Widmark, Arthur Hill, William Shatner, Larry Hagman, E.G. Marshall, et al--about a presidential aid who disappears, the persistent reporter and opposition senator who expose a blackmail plot; and "The President's Plane is Missing" with Buddy Ebsen, Raymond Massey, Mercedes McCambridge and Rip Torn--in which Air Force One crashes with the President aboard amid potential nuclear confrontation with China, and the VP must assume power without having been fully briefed while all around him have their own agendas.

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Thanks for writing! Drive safely!