Back to IndieWire

10 Essential Political Satires

10 Essential Political Satires

In America, political satire is as old and august a tradition as politics itself. Descended from the

newspaper cartoons and humor writing that deflated politicians full of hot air while shining a light

on governmental hypocrisies, political satire has granted American

cinema some of its funniest and most deviously clever comedies. In some instances, it’s allowed

filmmakers a a buffer to implicitly comment on the hot-button issues of the day,

though the majority attack on a much broader scale, implicating the unsavory realities of

politicking in general.

Our Brand Is Crisis,” the new political dramedy from David Gordon Green (our review here), falls squarely into

the latter category. Revolving around a hard-fought campaign for the 2002 Bolivian Presidency, the film recasts the fun and games of dirty campaigning as literal fun and actual games.

When Sandra Bullock’s live-wire campaign strategist sets her mind to crushing her constant

professional nemesis (a cueball Billy Bob Thornton) once and for all, no move is too sophomoric

or underhanded if it means emerging triumphant. High-speed bus chases, makeshift trebuchets,

and runaway trains all add a dose of levity to a story of socioeconomic unrest in a volatile

political climate. “Crisis” ends up refining its focus to the same theme every political satire must

eventually confront: is there room for morality in politics? (The answer, speaking

volumes about American pop-cultural attitudes, is most frequently “hell no!”)

The Playlist has collected ten of the most essential political satires on film for your entertainment

and edification, ranging from the cynical to the extremely cynical. Give your local

representatives a call today to let them know which one is your favorite, and while you’re at it, demand

that they never abandon their principles in the face of immovable institutional dictates.

“Wag The Dog” (1997)

It’s never clear whether Barry Levinson’s black-hearted comedy is a political satire

that secretly eviscerates Hollywood, or a showbiz satire that secretly eviscerates Washington.

Either way, there’s plenty of sin to go around in this deeply cynical piece of work. With both

Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman nearing the tail-end of the “Doing Good Movies” phases of

their careers, Levinson managed to get top-tier work out of both of them. De Niro and Hoffman star, respectively, as a political spin doctor and

the Hollywood heavy-hitter he employs to manufacture an ersatz war, as a diversion to distract

from a Presidential sex scandal. In one of the most specific instances of life

imitating art on record, “Wag the Dog” opened a mere month before the Monica Lewinsky

scandal broke. When the Clinton administration approved the bombing of Sudan’s al-Shifa

pharmaceutical plant shortly afterward, it certainly appeared as if they had taken a page from

Levinson’s playbook. Though admittedly, no members of the Clinton administration had to deal with a

criminally insane rapist Woody Harrelson undermining the campaign to turn him into the faux-war’s poster boy, or coordinate a fake funeral. But the darkest elements present themselves

incidentally, like collateral damage in a much larger and screwed-up scheme. In a massive

operation, things fall through the cracks. And in the complicated machine that is a film production, it’s

usually easy enough to move past oversights, but when the stakes have risen to treasonous

levels of national import, lives are on the line. Due in no small part to the muscular script from

David Mamet, “Wag the Dog” ultimately concludes that politics is a more evil business than

entertainment, but it’s a close-run race.

“Bulworth” (1998)

Three words: rapping Warren Beatty. One hundred and ninety-eight more:

director/writer/star/producer/craft-services coordinator (probably) Beatty’s attempt to lighten up on politics after his sweeping historical epic “Reds,” made a handful of crucial miscalculations.

As Jay Bulworth, an embittered politico who turns to suicide by surprise assassination after

accepting how powerless he is in the face of the system’s grinding machinery, Beatty deals

himself an unenviable actorly task. It falls on him to sell the most dubious of transitions once

Bulworth cuts the BS, starts hanging with the urban impoverished, and returns from the ‘hood to

spit some game in the public arena, partisan-style. The film plays uncomfortably in an America

where the term “cultural appropriation” is widely in use, and the actual verses themselves that

Beatty limply delivers are cheek-reddeningly bad. But there was still something (very )quietly

revolutionary about the film’s utter exhaustion with the pussyfooting around when it came to

issues of class and race. How far has American pop culture come since the days of “Bulworth”?

The film’s most incendiary quote went a little like “Everybody just gotta keep fuckin’ everybody

’til they’re all the same color”… and a similar sentiment was expressed on the last season of “Broad

City.”

“Bob Roberts” (1992)

Tim Robbins started off relatively easy in his directorial debut, circumventing some of directing’s

challenges by shooting his nasty political satire in the mockumentary style. Most of the film

plays out through the lens of a British documentarian’s camera as he tracks the titular folk

singer (Robbins, pulling double duty) as he tries his hand in the political game. As folk singers

go, he only affects the appearance of a Bob Dylan or a Woody Guthrie, two figures that Robbins

alludes to liberally in the script. In fact, he’s conservative to the core, cloaking reactionary rhetoric on

the lazy-ass poor and the evils of ‘60s-era social turbulence in pan-fried folksiness. The

dispiriting thing, is that it works like gangbusters. Not even rumors of ties to shadowy CIA drug-

trafficking operation can diminish Roberts’s Everyman appeal, though it could spell doom for the

journalist (Giancarlo Esposito, years away from getting his due via his

Breaking Bad” gig) intent on uncovering it. Robbins favors lunges over jabs in his pointed

critiques, swinging at such easy targets as huckster neoconservatives and pseudo-simple-hearted people’s candidates. Although, the film packs more of a theoretical wallop when

the viewer instead focuses on the little-seen documentarian, helpless to intervene as he

watches a man of decidedly questionable character rise to power. He’s British, but his position

in the film echoes that of the lowly American citizen, constrained to the sidelines while influence

changes hands behind closed doors.

“Duck Soup” (1933)

Behind the peppy musical numbers, underneath its chipper exterior, the Marx brothers’ high watermark remains a work of white-hot political aggression. Born entertainers, the Marxes maintain a good-natured demeanor in the film, pulling off some of the most elaborate physical

comedy in their illustrious oeuvre (students of comedy should have their eyelids clipped open,

A Clockwork Orange”-style, and watch Harpo and Groucho’s celebrated mirror scene until it’s

permanently imprinted upon them) and deploying fearlessly randy puns at a breakneck speed

that feels like it’s actually trying to break your neck. (Groucho fantasizes about marriage to his

beloved with “I can see you right now in the kitchen bending over a hot stove, but I can’t see the

stove,” which is both a fat joke and supremely raunchy sex joke.) But Groucho’s quick-talking

despot Rufus T. Firefly — and no writer’s dreamed up a sillier name since —

was a sniper shot aimed right between the eyes of the politicians who obfuscate, distract, and

cloud the truth in their shameless power-grabs. “If you think this country’s bad off now, just

wait’ll I get through with it!” could be the most accurate summation of political strategy ever

committed to celluloid, blurring the line between a promise and a warning. Hail Freedonia!

“Thank You For Smoking” (2005)

Before the star-making successes of “Juno” and “Up in the Air” and star-unmaking catastrophes

of “Labor Day” and “Men, Women & Children,Jason Reitman made an auspicious debut with

this meditation on smokescreens both literal and moral. There’s no room for questions of right

and wrong in the anything-goes dervish of rationalization and straight-up lies that is professional

lobbying. There’s no truth, only victory. As quick-talking tobacco rep Nick Naylor, Aaron Eckhart

conducts some pretty objectively evil business. To wit: falsifying studies, knowingly

misrepresenting information, and offering a dying man a suitcase full of cash that might as well

be spattered with blood, in exchange for his agreement not to implicate the deleterious effects of

tobacco on his condition. But Reitman affords Eckhart ample opportunity to make his case for

Naylor’s soul, and ultimately offers him a lifeboat out of his relativist hell. For a film in which

tobacco, alcohol, and firearms lobbyists collectively refer to themselves as the “Merchants of

Death,” it’s not nearly as cynical as it might sound. The innocence of children provides

this film with a soft gooey center, though it never undermines Reitman’s disparaging perspective

on lobbying and the soul-suckers who do it. The language can be cartoonishly over-the-top, but

Reitman’s depiction of carnivorous amorality isn’t too far removed from reality.

“Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” (1964)

The finest, most perfectly calibrated work of American political satire on film is full to bursting —

tumescent, one might even say — with dick jokes. Dicks are everywhere in Kubrick’s comedic

masterwork, compelling rational men to make irrational decisions and empowering irrational

men to make the jump to full-on insanity. A symbolic dick gave the film its most iconic image, of

Slim Pickens ecstatically riding his massive atomic phallus into the great beyond. And one dick

in particular threatens to bring about the end of days when it stops functioning and its owner,

Sterling Hayden’s mad general Jack D. Ripper, figures the only possible explanation is a

Commie plot. Kubrick, aided by the multi-role genius of Peter Sellers, expertly skewers the lunacy of American crisis-politics, but as order and

propriety break down in the War Room (where, as we all know, fighting has been expressly

forbidden), he gets at deeper critiques of the fragility of manhood. It’s almost as if men will do

absolutely anything to feel powerful, and if that means repopulating the Earth in a coal-shaft

bunker during a nuclear winter, them’s the breaks. Like a male-rights activist’s dream sprung

to horrifying life, ‘Strangelove’ scandalized audiences upon its release in ’64, but the volcanic

eruption of thoughtpieces the film would’ve generated if made today would be enough to bring

about a different sort of apocalypse.

“In The Loop” (2009)
In Armando Iannucci’s funhouse version of both the U.S. and U.K. governments, characters

don’t just curse. They unleash grand operatic arias of profanity, approaching four-letter expletives with the same spirit of restless creativity that Jean-Luc Godard brings to

a camera. The virtuosic blue language is endlessly quotable, but more than that, it attests to the

dog-eat-dog nature of politicking. Whoever can rage loudest and hardest wins, and

so naturally, the human manifestation of fury, Malcolm Tucker (Peter Capaldi) is the key figure for

anyone who wants to play ball in the major leagues. It falls to him to conduct damage control

when an indelicately-phrased soundbite from the Minister of International Development (Tom

Hollander) sets off a chain of events which could very well culminate in global war. Indeed,

‘Loop’ does evoke the swiss-watch precision of the plot of “Dr. Strangelove”, but the thematic

underpinnings peg it as a comedy more concerned with miscommunication rather than outright

deception. All it takes is an innocent misunderstanding to send the world careening towards

oblivion, and humanity’s last hope against certain destruction is the glorious misanthropy on

display in every direction in Iannucci’s picture. The lowly public has always suspected that

politicians refer to people as “meat puppets” behind closed doors, but it’s still oddly reassuring to see it

confirmed.

“Election” (1999)

What might possess a high school teacher to rig something as inconsequential as a student-

government election? Because this is an Alexander Payne film, the answer must necessarily be

a combination of jealousy, sublimated resentment, pettiness and good old fashioned misogyny.

Payne’s underappreciated debut “Citizen Ruth” first established the director’s pet theme: the

way small-town folks get caught up in imbroglios with consequences that expand to a national

scale. But for his breakout follow-up, Payne swapped out the hot-button abortion debate for a

the less fraught milieu of the American high school. Reese Witherspoon would never outdo her

tone-perfect performance as Tracey Flick, a student so monomaniacally driven that you want to

strangle her, and Matthew Broderick nearly matches her as the Cool Teacher who recognizes a

type-A monstrosity when he sees one and attempts to nip it in the bud. Payne’s interest lies

mostly in the self-destructive havoc that egoism can wreak, but a rousing speech about halfway

through the film underscores the film’s satirical leanings. Issues candidate Tracey and populist

champion Paul fail to register a reaction from the student body with their campaign speeches,

leaving outsider independent Tammy to offer an alternative. Her triumphant declaration that this

is all a waste of everyone’s time and that there should be no student government at all, of

course, brings the crowd to their feet.

“The Candidate” (1972)

In 1972, the thought of a Californian Democrat winning a seat in the Senate was nearly

laughable. In fact, the possibility of a Democrat victory was so remote that the DNC heads in

Michael Ritchie’s jaded satire “The Candidate” didn’t see any harm in throwing the nomination to

a charismatic but naive junior politico (played with vanishing innocence by Robert Redford).

They figure they’ll set the kid loose on the campaign trail, let him have his fun, and then his

career will be set out to pasture. With no leash to go off of, Redford’s free to sermonize his no-bullshit morals, and when they stir up a little support from voters, he finds he likes the spotlight.

Before long, it’s a race to the middle as he descends deeper and deeper into positive yet hollow

vagaries in pursuit of the public’s favor. Like a reverse “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and with

all the brutal pessimism that comparison implies, Ritchie shows how the individual’s human

fallibilities can do a number on any sense of ethical righteousness long before the institutions

need to stamp it out. The refrain is as old as politics itself, beginning with a general named

Caesar who enjoyed his unquestioned rule under martial law a little too much: power corrupts,

and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

“The Great McGinty” (1940)

In retrospect, it’s frankly astonishing that Preston Sturges was able to begin his directorial career with such a fully-realized assemblage of the hallmarks that’d make him the toast of Hollywood’s Golden Age in the years that followed. (Doubly so that he followed it with four

stone-cold classics in a row: “Christmas in July,” “The Lady Eve,” “Sullivan’s Travels,” and “The

Palm Beach Story” — check out our Sturges Essentials feature). It’s all on full display in the inspired tale of a machine-politics lackey who

grows a conscience after falling for his just-for-show wife. Sturges’ man-of-the-people spirit of

magnanimity contrives an ending that’s not exactly happy, but it is just. His screwy wit renders the

whirlwind romance between Brian Donlevy as the title character and Muriel Angelus as his

moral compass with a great set of gams not just believable, but effervescent. But above all,

Sturges’ keen eye for the shifting dynamics of suckerism, guides this frothy creation,

and it would never be more appropriate than in the muddy arena of politics. Sturges takes such

palpable pleasure in turning the tables; he lives at the turning point where the chump becomes

the chump-er. (The harebrained logic of that turn of phrase gels with the comic nuttiness of

Sturges’ satire, don’t worry.)

Got any other favorite satires on double-dealing politicians and the ethics they subvert? Let us know in the comments below. 

This Article is related to: Features and tagged , , , , ,