As you’ve probably noticed, unless you just this minute slipped out of a coma (and if that’s the case, stop reading this and go call your loved ones), it’s election day. Four years on from the election of the first African-American commander-in-chief, President Barack Obama is squaring off at the ballot box against the Republican challenger, Mitt Romney in what looks likely to be the tightest election since… well, 2004, probably.
Needless to say, if you haven’t cast your vote, stop reading this go vote, and then come back — it’s just about the most important thing you’ll do this calendar year. But if you’ve already done your civic duty and you’re looking to take your mind off desperately checking FiveThirtyEight and exit polls every five minutes, we’ve pulled together a list of five of our favorite election-themed movies. Check them out below, and let us know your own favorites in the comments section.
“Bob Roberts” (1992)
Who is Bob Roberts? It’s a testament to Tim Robbins’ directorial debut, a film that people still discuss today, that everyone has a different answer. Robbins plays Roberts, a “self-made” political candidate, running against Democrat rival Gore Vidal, who develops a strong grassroots connection to “the people” by espousing anti-government, anti-liberal sentiment. Yep, Robbins saw the Tea Party coming a mile away. Sure the picture may take on a more insidious feel in 201, but that ignores the ingratiating charm of Robbins’ Roberts, who sneers with a smile and smiles with a sneer as he strums his guitar and sings ditties about the lower class being lazy and full of complaints. “Bob Roberts” keeps the truth at bay with the structure of a mock-documentary focusing on Roberts’ campaign, and aside from all the famous faces that appear the illusion seems pretty airtight, with an uncomfortable ambiguity to the director’s lens that avoids, ahem, “gotcha” moments until the very last, disturbing gag. It’s “The Manchurian Candidate” as directed by Christopher Guest, at once wildly funny and incredibly plausible, with Robbins receiving great support from Giancarlo Esposito as an intrepid liberal reporter, Alan Rickman as a sleazy campaign manager, and loads of cameos that memorably include John Cusack as a fringe comedian who backs out of his own sketch comedy show when Roberts guest stars. Wildly funny and creepy in all the right ways.
“The Candidate” (1972)
Forget the Sundance Kid and Bob Woodward, Robert Redford’s turn as would-be Senator Bill McKay is possibly his greatest role. It’s certainly his least narcissistic and most spiritually ugly turn — as the son of a popular former governor, McKay is gradually unraveled and exposed to be as cosmetic as his dashing side-burns, a fate only compounded by winning the damn election. Whatever timid political convictions the character is depicted as possessing are steamrolled in favor of refashioning the man into a photogenic tabula rasa, a bespoke “man of the people” grown like Ellen Ripley in a lab (a potential voter simply remarks, “Handsome is as handsome does”) who’s able to coast right into public office on a roster of meaningless platitudes. Not so much worn down by the political machine as ground by it into a fine patty, “The Candidate” is ostensibly a comedy from the man who would go on to direct “Fletch,” with Michael Ritchie’s handheld deadpan style sly, impressive and vaguely horrifying, especially with Peter Boyle hovering over McKay as a scruple-free campaign manager. The indignities depicted in the film (gross self-censorship, vile manipulation of advertisements that encourage voters to choose a candidate “the way they choose a detergent”) are of course laughably meek by the standards of the dubious chicanery that abounds in political campaigns today, but McKay’s ticket, run on the promise of restoring “hope and faith in government,” has obvious timeless implications beyond its early 1970s setting. Its famous last line (the clueless inquiry: “What do we do now?”) is a touch didactic and McKay’s descent is perhaps now an overly familiar one, but when his father eventually slaps his tousle-haired sprog on the shoulder and chuckles, “Son, you’re a politician!” the remark rattles through the rest of the film like a death sentence.
1999 was an amazing year for film, one of the reasons being movies like “Election” that seemingly came out of nowhere and lodged in the public consciousness. This darkly comic film from Alexander Payne (which really put the future “The Descendants” director on the map) tells the allegorical story of a simple high school election for senior class president. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is that obnoxious over-achiever that we all knew in high school: she’s involved in way too many clubs and activities, she has perfect grades and organizes an insanely intense campaign even though she’s running unopposed. It’s this last part that really irks one of her teachers, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), which leads him to encourage (read: force) naïve and brainless jock Paul Metzler (Chris Klein) into running against Tracy. Payne’s film is clearly a microcosm of bigger political campaigns and how the candidates are rarely the ones pulling the strings, and like his previous film, “Citizen Ruth,” “Election” kept the audience a little off-balance and wondering, “Should I be laughing at this?” The answer is yes. The performances, especially Broderick and Witherspoon, are dead-on and the screenplay, based on the novel by Tom Perrotta (“Little Children”), is filled with brilliant dialogue and an overabundance of voiceovers from each of the main characters, which reflects the crowded field of candidates and lack of certainty regarding which character we should be rooting for. Acerbic, uncompromising and smart, it remains one of Payne’s finest films to date.
“The Great McGinty” (1940)
With his directorial debut, for which he won an Academy Award for Best Screenplay, Preston Sturges kicked off his career with a bang (legend has it he sold the idea for ‘McGinty‘ to Paramount under the condition that he direct it). A diverting and ironic little political satire by way of cautionary tale, the picture stars Brian Donlevy as the titular “hero” — a bum on the breadline with a thuggish streak. When he hears that a group of corrupt politicos are paying $2 per vote for a figurehead patsy mayor, he votes a whopping 37 times and catches the attention of these gangsters. Tickled by his clueless, brutish approach as he mouths off to them and everyone around him, the boss (Akim Tamiroff) hires him to collect past-due protection money. McGinty passes every test with flying colors, and eventually becomes his political protege, graduating to alderman, mayor and eventually governor — all the while being the puppet on the end of the mob’s strings. But when he falls in love with his secretary/fake wife Catherine (a charming Muriel Angelus) — the sham wedding only occurred so he could get the female vote when he was running for mayor — things begin to change. She and her children awaken a caring, compassionate side in McGinty and press him to quit being the stooge for his crooked bosses. Refusing to bend to their wishes and erect expensive monuments that line their pockets, McGinty is headed for a fall from grace. Whipsmart, engaging and funny, “The Great McGinty” is an entertaining parable and a sign of only greater things to come from Preston Sturges.
“Primary Colors” (1998)
Mike Nichols is an accomplished director who has enjoyed success since his debut screen effort in 1966, but he’s rarely acknowledged for his thematic versatility. Just as his first attempt to paint on such a broad political canvas (“Catch 22”) was scuppered by the more zeitgeitsy and straightforwardly anarchic “M*A*S*H” in the early 1970s, “Primary Colors” had the indignity of being superseded by true events that were happening around the time of its 1998 release, and were deemed more interesting than fiction (namely the salacious and beyond parodic real-life fall-out from the worst of Bill Clinton’s “bimbo eruptions”: Monica Lewinsky). In a similar vein, though it came from a novel that positioned itself as a thinly-veiled attack/appraisal/exorcism of the Clinton Presidential bid of 1992, the mysterious luster around the source’s author “Anonymous” had dissipated with the unmasking of reporter Joe Klein some time before its Cannes premiere. All of these circumstances seemed to instantaneously render the film out of date and dead on arrival in the 1990s, but that’s to overlook that it has a message bigger than the sum of its parts. Sure, John Travolta’s broadly drawn aw-shucks Bill Clinton impression suffers in comparison to Emma Thompson’s deft work as his spouse, and it’s slightly tough to buy the totality of Adrian Lester’s convenient journey from doe-eyed optimist through to done-with-the-system, disillusioned politico, but it’s nonetheless a big, drippy sap-fest that’s unafraid to let it all hang out, and a film in serious need of reappraisal. Aging well with the distance of more than a decade, even Kathy Bates’ rambunctious performance that dips into speechifying at the conclusion can’t derail what’s preceded it –- the metaphorical and literal death of political idealism. Nichols hasn’t managed anything comparable since. [B+]
– Sam Price, Gabe Toro, Rodrigo Perez, Matthew Newlin, Oliver Lyttelton