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12 Movies About Elections We Think You Should See, In Honor of Election of 2012

12 Movies About Elections We Think You Should See, In Honor of Election of 2012

In honor of the 2012 Presidential election, Indiewire’s offering 12 films about elections we think you should see (if you haven’t already). Though clearly not exhaustive (there’s a lot of great election-themed movies out there), it’s a nice mix of narrative and documentary films from the past and the near-present, many of which offer insights into the issues surrounding this year’s Obama/Romney showdown.

“The American President” (1995)
This reunion between director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin a few years after their “A Few Good Men” collaboration was nominated for best picture at the Oscars gave audiences their first glimpse of Sorkin’s particular idealized view of American politics. Michael Douglas is a widowed Left-leaning president who charms an environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening while fighting off the election bid of a right-leaning senator played by Richard Dreyfuss. It’s very cute, and essentially provided Martin Sheen, as the president’s closest advisor, with an extended audition for his later presidential role on Sorkin’s popular political series “The West Wing.” But Sorkin’s script also made some hard-hitting points couched in his typically quippy dialogue, such as “Mr. President, you’ve got bigger problems than losing me. You just lost my vote.” And, “How do you have patience for people who claim they love America, but clearly can’t stand Americans?” Reiner and Sorkin’s movie — essentially a romantic comedy set in the White House — was made during the Clinton years, but when Big Bill was still rakish and charming rather than post-Monica Lewinsky-scandal manipulative and pathetic. Its wistful take on the bloodsport of politics may seem even more tragically naïve now, with its big issues being energy and crime bills and not wars and global recession. But it’s not hard to imagine President Obama enjoying a screening of “The American President,” wishing he could unload publicly on Romney the way Douglas’ Andrew Shepard finally does in the end. [Jay A. Fernandez]

“Conventioneers” (2006)
Mora Stephens’ wry “Medium Cool” update was shot during the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City and follows the illicit affair between a Republican delegate (Matthew Mabe) and a liberal activist (Woodwyn Koons) that takes place over the course of the convention. The two former college friends find each other in radically different mindsets but still oddly attracted to each other. Inevitably, their pillow talk turns the prospects of a bipartisanship future. Needless to say, that wasn’t in the cards for the presidential race in 2004, and the would-be couple follows a similar trajectory. The finale is both romantically tragic and crushing in a larger sense to anyone with lingering aches from the second victory of George W. Bush. [Eric Kohn]

“Election Day” and “11/4/08” (2004, 2008)
Get hyped up for this year’s election by recapping the last two in a pair of documentaries that survey the national energy of the day: Katy Chevigny’s sprawling portrait of the 2004 election day follows 11 different voting day experiences at polling stations around the country. Stretching from early in the morning until late at night, the movie follows a diverse set of blue collar citizens committed to keeping the practice fair and structured, but the director amazingly avoids taking a partisan stance.

An ode to the process of elections, “Election Day” theoretically could take place any year, although compared to the historic election that would follow four years down the line, it looks decidedly quaint. Jeff Deutchman’s crowd-sourced overview of the 2008 election pulls together footage from around the country shot by filmmakers as they eagerly anticipate Obama’s triumph. While the spirit of hope and change may look somewhat quaint now, the movie still nicely captures a giddy energy that may or may not resurface on Tuesday night. (One can only, er, hope.) [Eric Kohn]

“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962, 2004)
Quite a difference 50 years makes. Or, perhaps, none at all. Both the 1962 and 2004 adaptations of the Richard Condon novel detail the conspiracy of a shadow group in its attempts to take over the U.S. presidency through a brainwashed soldier-turned-VP candidate. All that changes is the motive. The John Frankenheimer-directed version with Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey and Angela Lansbury, as the scheming (and incestuous) mother from Hell, makes Communists the bad guys — a logical villain given the failed Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 and the film’s release during the Cold War boiling point of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The Jonathan Demme-directed version with Denzel Washington, Liev Schreiber and Meryl Streep, however, has a sinister corporation doing the dirty work in a post-9/11 world. While Frankenheimer’s “Manchurian Candidate” is by far the better film, Demme’s take is actually more relevant to the current state of American politics, with its tsunami of corporate money and racially tinged drama. In recent years, the concept of the Manchurian Candidate has become even more ripe (or rotted), as a certain fanatical segment of the American public has accused our first black president, Barack Obama, of being a stooge for Muslim interests. (One could also argue — from either side — that former Governor Mitt Romney’s multitude of contradictory policy statements makes his candidacy equally suspect, depending on one’s ideological bent.) However it’s viewed, the story is a gripping, if extreme, example of the lengths to which the corrupt will go to attain power — whether on a global scale, or right at one’s own dinner table. [Jay A. Fernandez]

“Medium Cool” (1969)
Haskell Wexler’s  groundbreaking docudrama takes place during the upheaval of the 1968 election season, delivering a canny diatribe on the ills of media manipulation. The great Robert Forster stars as a hustling TV cameraman disinterested in politics until he meets the widow of a soldier who died during the Vietnam war. In the stunning climax, Wexler mixes real and staged footage based around the Democratic National Convention as well as the infamous riots surrounding it. By humanizing the enablers of mass media, Wexler crafts a powerful cautionary tale about the need to push beyond the dominant sources of information to grasp for truth in politics (and beyond them). The movie’s themes are more potent today than ever before. [Eric Kohn]

“Milk” and“The Times of Harvey Milk” (2008, 1984)
While both Gus Van Sant’s and Rob Epstein’s takes on the story of slain San Francisco politican Harvey Milk cover more than his ground-breaking election, it’s certainly a big part of the story.  After unsuccessfully running for office three times, Milk became the first openly gay man to serve public office when he was elected as a city supervisor in 1977. His grassroots campaign is depicted significantly in both films, as is the incredible energy and optimism Milk displayed throughout his political career (and ability to get things done, he got a civil rights bill that outlawed discrimination based on sexual orientation made into law, amonhg other things). Even with his story’s tragic end (he was assassinated by fellow Supervisor Dan White), Harvey Milk offers something important in the midst of an election that has left a lot of folks feeling relatively unhopeful no matter who they’re voting for: Change can happen, and one man truly can make a difference. [Peter Knegt]

In 1960, American politics sure looked different.  The television debates of that year are infamous for the difference between the eventual Republican and Democratic candidates (Nixon and Kennedy, respectively) on television and radio.  Before those debates, documentary pioneer Robert Drew was busy documenting the Democratic candidates — Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy — during the Democratic primary process.  In the 50-minute film “Primary,” Drew used the new sync sound camera to allow him to follow the candidates all over the campaign trail.  Made for LIFE, “Primary” immerses the viewer in the campaign trail for both candidates.  Though of course Kennedy and Humphrey both look quite postured throughout the film, the film’s rich depiction of the campaign trail is refreshing in an era of staged “reality” television and political campaigns that guard candidates from the media. [Bryce J. Renninger]

“Primary Colors” (1998)
Mike Nichols and his longtime collaborator Elaine May’s smart and very funny adaptation of the novel “Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics” by TIME Magazine columnist and former Democratic consultant Joe Klein, offers a biting (and somewhat fictionalized) behind-the-scenes take on Bill Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 1992. Rather than focus on Bill and Hilary (Jack and Susan Stanton in the film), “Primary Colors” follows Henry Burton (Adrian Lester), a young and hopeful campaign recruit, made privy to Jack’s philandering ways and innate ability to charm anyone he encounters on his trail. John Travolta does an uncanny Clinton impersonation as the presidential hopeful, but like Nichols’ film, his performance isn’t merely surface level. [Nigel M. Smith]

“Street Fight” (2005)
“Street Fight,” the documentary to first put filmmaker Marshall Curry on the map, chronicles the hard-fought campaign for mayor of Newark, New Jersey, by Corey Booker, a young community activist who attempted to unseat longtime mayor Sharpe James. Despite being seven years old, “Street Fight” remains relevant by exposing many of the issues plaguing minority communities in Newark and the harsh tactics used in politics. The film earned Curry his first Oscar nomination for Best Documentary; he got a second nod last year for “If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front.” [Nigel M. Smith]

“The War Room” (1993)
Back when the presidential election was warming up in March, The Criterion Collection released their restored transfer of “The War Room,” Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s seminal behind-the scenes documentary on Bill Clinton’s revolutionary (and winning) campaign. As the title suggest, “The War Room” doesn’t center on Clinton, but on his crack team of consultants, including James Carville and George Stephanopoulos who went on to become media stars in their own rights shortly following Clinton’s inauguration. Be sure to catch the sequel to the 1993 doc, “The Return of the War Room,” shot some 16 years later, also included on the Criterion release. [Nigel M. Smith]


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