September 30, 2020

20 for 20: the best political movies and TV shows

It's become something of a tradition at this website that every four years I post a list of my favorite political movies and TV series, in honor of the upcoming election. The first edition appeared in 2012 and, cleverly I thought, I called it "12 for 12." When I updated it in 2016 I changed it to "16 for 16." (Hey, I didn't just get off the turnip truck, you know.) I'm sure you'll be shocked to discover that this year's version is called "20 for 20." As to how long I can keep up with this, it depends, of course, on how long the website continues, but as there never seems to be any shortage of movies about politics, I'd imagine the only limitation is my capacity for torture. Or yours.

As I've mentioned previously, while most of these choices come from the big screen, you're probably more accustomed to having seen them on television, either as a movie or on DVD. TCM is particularly good at showing a variety of political movies as Election Day approaches, so there's a very good chance you'll be able to catch them between now and November 3. And while the list is now bigger than ever, it's still missing several titles that might surprise you; my choices—and omissions—probably tell you more about me than any biographical information I could ever share, and believe me, it's not a pretty picture. 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. 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)

Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury, Janet Leigh

here’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 stands at attention, his eyes are everywhere, darting back and forth in search of any kind of a clue.

Seven Days in May (1964)

Director: John Frankenheimer
Stars: Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas Fredric March, Ava Gardner

nother 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 incorporates large chunks of the book’s dialogue verbatim, to the movie's benefit. 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)

Director: Sidney Lumet
Stars: Henry Fonda, Walter Matthau, Dan O'Herlihy, Larry Hagman

computer malfunction results in an American bomber group being given an accidental attack order against the Soviet Union. Fonda’s presidentalmost too virtuous, as is often the case with Fonda rolesis 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).

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Quit Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

Director: Stanley Kubrick
Stars: Peter Sellers, George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, Slim Pickens

ake sure you watch Fail Safe prior to Dr. Strangelove; otherwise, you'll never be able to watch the former with a straight face. Sellers is brilliant in three roles: Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, who tries to prevent the nuclear attack from being triggered; U.S. President Merkin Muffley, a suggestive inpression of Adlai Stevenson; and the titular Dr. Strangelove, who (like Mattheu's character) insists the U.S. can win a nuclear confrontation. Scott is wonderfully manic as General Buck Turgidson, representing every warmongering general you can imagine, and Sterling Hayden shines as the paranoid General Jack D. Ripper, obsessed with communists and fluroidated water. The movie is based on Peter George's novel Red Alert; George sued the authors of the novel Fail-Safe, charging plagiarism due to the striking similarities between the two stories. Kubrick, who feared Fail Safe's heavyweight cast and director would damage his movie, used the lawsuit to keep Columbia from releasing Fail Safe until after Dr. Strangelove.

What to watch for:  Muffley's hot-line conversation with the Russian premier is hilarious, but the honors go to Group Captain Mandrake's confrontation with American Colonel Bat Guano (Keenan Wynn), which begins with one of film's immortal lines: "Now look, Colonel Bat Guano, if that really is your name."

Suddenly (1954)

Director: Lewis Allen
Stars: 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) as his train makes a stop in the small California 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 is to be carried out by mercenary gangsters. Sinatra, so good in The Manchurian Candidate, is brilliantly nasty here as the psychotic hired gun, holding a family hostage while using their house as staging ground for the assassination attempt.

What to watch for: There's a certain nobility to 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 violates the criminal code.

The Best Man (1964)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner
Stars: Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson, Lee Tracy

 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)

Director: Preston Sturges
Stars: Brian Donlevy, Muriel Angelus, Akim Tamiroff, William Demarest

his spot-on satire, written and directd 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, thanks to the love of a good woman (his wife, through a marriage arranged to improve his image), with the result that everything collapses around him. Would that more corrupt politicians reacted the way he doesby escaping from jail and fleeing the country.  

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)

Director: Elia Kazan
Stars: Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal, Walter Matthau

Sheriff Andy Taylor was never like this!
I’ve written about A Face in the Crowd before, but couldn’t pass up the chance to talk about it again. It's no wonder Griffith was frustrated by his stereotyping as the easygoing Sheriff Andy; his meglomaniacial Lonesome Rhodes, a popular entertainer brought in to increase the appeal of a presiential candidate, is an unforgettable portrait of runaway power. Griffith never again played a role that approched its sheer magnetism.

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)

Director: Robert Rossen
Stars: Broderick Crawford, John Ireland, Joanne Dru, Mercedes McCambridge

nother 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. I think you could make a case for this as the great American tragedy.

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)

Director: Anthony Page
Stars: William Devane, Martin Sheen, Howard DaSilva, Ralph Bellamy

heen, 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 the 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)

Director: Barry Levinson
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Robert DeNiro, Anne Heche

olitics 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 laughbecause 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)

Director: Boris Sagal
Stars: Peter Falk, Jackie Cooper, Joanne Linville, Tisha Sterling

hat 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 votersbut 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)

Director: William Richert
Stars: Jeff Bridges, John Huston, Anthony Perkins, Eli Wallach, Richard Boone

ike 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, in a performance right out of Chinatown), 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; Director: Paul Seed
Stars: Ian Richardson, Susannah Harker, David Lyon, Diane Fletcher

ot 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 (1980-88)

Created by: Antony Jay and Jonathan Lynn
Stars: Paul Eddington, Nigel Hawthorne, Derek Fowlds

Much as 
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 Sir 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)

Director: Otto Preminger
Stars: Henry Fonda, Walter Pidgeon, Don Murray, Charles Laughton, Gene Tierney

ased 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)

Director: Michael Ritchie
Stars: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle

one 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.

The Thick of It (2005-12)

Creator/Director: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Peter Capaldi, Chris Langham, Rebecca Front

Before he was Doctor Who, Peter Capaldi rose to fame in this BBC series as the outrageously profane Malcolm Tucker, the prime minister's chief whip, a man who probably isn't above using a real whip to keep the party's MPs in line. Frequently running afoul of Tucker is the show's protagonist, Hugh Abbott (Langham), the minister of the Department of Social Affairs (replaced after the second series by Rebecca Front as Nicola Murray). The series has often been thought of as an updated version of Yes Minister, and it's cynicism is as breathtaking as its ability to predict British political trends. The series spawned a big-screen spinoff, In the Loop, and a failed pilot for an American adaptation. Creator 
Armando Iannucci instead went on to create the HBO series Veep.

What to watch for: Or in this case, "listen for": the show reportedly employed a "swearing consultant" to enhane the dialogue, and the attention to detail shows. You'll never quite look at The Doctor in the same away again.

The Man (1972)

Director: Joseph Sargent
Stars: James Earl Jones, Martin Balsam, Burgess Meredith, Georg Stanford Brown

This ABC teleflick was based on the novel of the same name by Irving Wallace;  not surprisingly, there was far more in the book that could ever be worked into a 93-minute running time. The focus of the story is Douglass Dilman (Jones) who, thanks to the 1947 Presidential Succession Act and following an improbable series of circumstances, finds himself as the first black president of the United States. Both verisons deal with the racism, both overt and subtle, that Dilman faces, but whereas the book climaxes with a spectacular impeachment trial, the movie builds toward Dilman's efforts to win his party's nomination for a full term as president. The title has a double meaning; "The Man" is Beltway-speak for the president, but Wallace also intends it as a counter to racist ideas that blacks were less than human.

What to watch for: The movie features cameos from several real-life media figures such as ABC's Howard K. Smith and Bill Lawrence, which lends a realistic note to a movie which should have been much better than it is. Arguably, the highlight is a wonderful appearance by Jack Benny as himself, entertaining a star-studded group at a White House gala.

The Death of Stalin (2017)

Director: Armando Iannucci
Stars: Steve Buscemi, Simon Russell Beale, Michael Palin, Jeffrey Tambour

ho knew persecution and genocide could be so funny? Armando Iannucci's second appearance on the list is a vicious satire that combines laugh-out loud absurdity (hint: the more absurd the scene, the more likely it is to be true) with images of ugly brutality. The resulting story underlines Hannah Arendt's writing on the banality of evil, and serves as a reminder that every political system, from the most democratic to the most despotic, will inevitably be plagued by bureaucracy. The brilliant ensemble cast shines, especially Buscemi as Khrushchev, Beale as Beria, and Tambour as Malkenov, and serves once again as a reminder of the adage that the greatest truths can often be found in comedy.

What to watch for: The movie's tone is set in the opening scene, in which a frantic Radio Moscow crew scrambles to recreate a concert performance after Stalin insists on having a recording of the broadcast—a demand only slightly hampered by the fact that the broadcast hadn't been recorded. The apocryphical story does more than anything else to demonstrate the absolute fear and paranoia that ran through every aspect of life in Soviet Russia.

And there you have it. With just under five weeks until the election, you've got plenty of time to check these out, and then see if you don't feel better about things. Or not. TV  


  1. Bravo for including "The Missiles of October" . The immediacy of live-on-tape and the superb performances enthralled my teenage self .

    1. And it keeps you guessing even though you know how it turns out.

  2. Excellent list. "House of Cards" and "The Missles of October" are favorites of mine as well. There was also that episode of "Batman" where Batman ran against The Penguin for mayor of Gotham City, which is only slightly more bizarre than what's going on this year.

    1. Only slightly. A satirical version would be bound to be more serious!

  3. By any chance, are you at all familiar with Whoops Apocalypse?
    This was a six-episode comedy series, produced by London Weekend Television in 1982.
    Andrew Marshall and David Renwick wrote a full-out farce, jokes and surrealism and occasional slapstick, about a nuclear confrontation between the West (US/UK) and the USSR (they were still in business in '82) - and everybody in it is bat-guano crazy.
    The US President is a former movie Tarzan, who's under the thumb of a right-wing preacher.
    The British Prime Minister believes himself to be Superman (Renwick & Marshall knew their DC Comics).
    The Soviet Premier is one of a bunch of clones who go into and out of freezers, perpetuating themselves in power.
    The deposed Shah of Iran is being shuttled between England and France on the Channel Ferry (neither country wants him).
    A MidEast terrorist called L'Acrobat has stolen the dreaded Quark Bomb, which he's selling to the highest bidder.
    And these events (and a bunch of others) are being recounted by a fast-talking American newscaster named Jay Garrick (see Renwick/Marshall/DC Comics, op cit.).
    Whoops Apocalypse! didn't play anywhere in the US in its initial run (that I know of; correction welcomed if needed).
    I've got the 6-episode series on a c2c DVD; it can also be found at YouTube in a two-and-a-half-hour "feature" version, if that suits you.
    I was going to mention some of the familiar actors who appear in the six shows, but I think I'll let you seek the series out for yourself ( I confess to wishing that I could see your possible reaction to who they have playing US President Johnny Cyclops ...).

    Oh, by the way:
    Renwick & Marshall did a theatrical film version of Whoops Apocalypse! several years after the TV series, with a different story, different cast, and even wilder comedy; you can also find this on YouTube, if you're so inclined.

  4. Great list. A few I'd add:

    The 1990 COLUMBO episode "Agenda for Murder" is arguably as good or better than "Candidate for Crime", one of the best episodes of the ABC revival. Helps to have Patrick McGoohan as the murderous politician.

    Three other TV classics: WKRP IN CINCINNATI: "Carlson for President" (hilarious debate sequence, and poster); F TROOP: "The Ballot of Corporal Agarn" (Tol Avery as a crooked politician is such great casting) and the MAVERICK episode "The People's Friend". Among films, 1999's ELECTION is one of my absolute favorite skewerings of the process.

  5. Another element adding to the power of both Frankenheimer films is the fact that they just END - with a single title card, leaving the audience on its own to stumble up the aisles. Obviously that can't happen today, with six-minute end title crawls, but damn, when that final chime sounds at the end of "Seven Days," it's OVER.


Thanks for writing! Drive safely!