Hollywood has always loved a good story about politics. Whether it’s based on real events or fictional ones, if it speaks to the political spirit of the times, there’s a good chance that it will do well at the box office. The appeal of political films lies in their relevance. They often touch on universal themes like greed, the corrupting influence of power, and the dangers of blind ambition. The wars and global political upheavals of the 20th century certainly gave filmmakers a lot of real world material to work with.
While the classics endure, certain voices and trends characterized the American political cinema of the 20th century. The Vietnam and Watergate scandals of the ’70s generated tense, paranoid thrillers about politics and corruption, like All the President’s Men. Later, the massive popularity of Aaron Sorkin‘s hit TV show, The West Wing, brought with it a new tide of idealism, helping spawn the sincere political dramas of the 1990s.
Despite the trends, a great political film can come from anytime, anywhere. It can draw from Ancient Greece or shogunate Japan. It can even be set in the most stratified, savage society of all: the high school cafeteria. To earn a place on the list of all-time greats, a film must do more than respond to fleeting current events and speak to deep political truths. Let’s rank some of the greatest 20th century movies to tackle politics.
10 The American President (1995)
The Platonic ideal of an Aaron Sorkin movie, the feel-good romantic comedy The American President captures the wit and political optimism of the prolific screenwriter. It follows the story of widowed president Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), who falls in love with lobbyist Sydney (Annette Bening). As Shepherd faces attacks on his integrity and struggles to get a bill passed, he undercuts Sydney’s professional agenda. It all feels like a cinematic extension of The West Wing, as Sorkin aligns the idealism of American politics with the romance of his central characters. Shepherd’s triumph comes when he forgoes sly maneuvers in favor of a new bill enacting sweeping change. This wins him back his love (and his presidency). Yes, its optimism seems far-fetched these days, but it remains a poignant metaphor for America’s love for its president, even as this becomes increasingly scarce.
9 Election (1999)
The central conflict of Alexander Payne’s satirical high school farce Election is between teacher and student. Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a conniving student willing to stop at nothing to win the election for student body president; Jim McCallister (Matthew Broderick) is the vengeful teacher trying to stop her. Based on a novel by Tom Perrotta, the film gets a lot of comedic mileage from its somewhat dated setup, but it still makes a compelling statement about the way greed and lust can infect politics, even when the politics in question mostly involves picking the theme for the school dance. It’s a dark, brilliant little comedy.
8 JFK (1991)
Part sprawling historical tragedy, part political thriller, part courtroom drama, 100% iconic. This epic career-defining film from Oliver Stone follows the investigation of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. While fictionalized and teetering frequently into conspiracy, JFK draws effectively on real events to show why death remains shrouded in mystery. At over three hours long it’s far from a quick watch, but it’s relentlessly entertaining, using its incredible cast to perfectly capture the obsession with the beloved political figure and the puzzling circumstances of his death. It has remained a cultural touchstone and has even spawned parodies like Seinfeld’s re-imagining of the infamous “Magic Bullet” scene.
7 Malcolm X (1992)
A singular political mind is born out of a difficult life in this biopic from Spike Lee, the story of one of the most influential leaders of the 20th century. Malcolm X (Denzel Washington) went from bright student to convicted felon to figurehead of the Black nationalism movement to devout Muslim genius, known for advocating for complete emancipation of black people from white society. The film brings tremendous empathy to the life of the much maligned figure, as his beliefs continue to evolve long after he has already been deemed a violent danger by the media. Lee’s ability to shatter preconceptions about his controversial central figure makes this one of the greatest political movies of all time.
6 Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
If you have not already seen it, Frank Capra’s 1939 classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington should be mandatory viewing. It follows Jefferson Smith (James Stewart), an idealistic local hero who’s appointed by chance to fill a senator’s seat. These days, the film seems like a quaint relic from an alternate dimension, where Washington DC still symbolizes liberty. Jefferson’s moral integrity is tested against cynicism and a corrupt political apparatus to pass a bill for creating a national boy’s camp. Besides its touching statement about the infectious power of hope, the film is also credited with launching Stewart to stardom — what a gift that was. Its happy ending may ring false in the currently acidic political climate, but it still does not hurt to dream.
5 All the President’s Men (1976)
It’s hard to think of a more comprehensive endorsement of the free press than All The President’s Men, a perfect blend of intrigue, historical accuracy and real world drama. Released only two years after Nixon resigned, it was the first of many movies to be made about Watergate. Even so, it still stands out as the strongest of the pack, full of classic scenes like those parking garage meetings with “Deep Throat” and heroic newsroom revelations. It’s also anchored by performances from Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford as Woodward and Bernstein, the reporters who exposed the scandal that would bring down Nixon.
4 All the King’s Men (1949)
This 1949 Best Picture winner tracks the career of fictional politician Willie Stark as he rises from rural obscurity as a self-proclaimed “hick,” riding a wave of populism which votes him in as governor. Once in office, Stark is corrupted by power and his personal life begins to unravel. Besides its familiar themes of the toxic effects of power, the story draws heavily from the biography of real-life politician Huey Long—An ambitious and controversial Louisiana governor (and US Senator) who ran on the slogan “Every Man a King” and was later assassinated. The populism and complex failings of Willie Stark remain relevant to this day, and All the King’s Men is still a riveting example of how politics and ambition can subsume our humanity.
3 Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Stanley Kubrick was known for many things as a master director, but his political commentary was not really one of them. Even so, his revolutionary 1964 film Dr. Strangelove critiqued Cold War politics and paranoia better than most, and was deemed by Roger Ebert as “arguably the best political satire of the century.” It centers on the Pentagon War Room, where all hell breaks loose after a deranged general decides to unleash a nuclear attack on the USSR. Despite the specificity of its’ 60s anxieties around mutually assured destruction, it remains relevant and funny today. Like the best of satire, it proved to be disturbingly close to the truth. Peter Sellers plays three roles, including doofus US president and Nazi pseudo-scientist “Dr. Strangelove.” His famous lines (like “Gentlemen, you can not fight in here! This is the War Room!”) Have some of the best deliveries in cinematic history.
2 Ran (1985)
Ran is Japanese for “chaos,” and Akira Kurosawa’s monumental film encapsulates that word on nearly every level. While it may seem to be a “war movie” first, politics are at the core of this beautifully shot masterpiece. Kurosawa adapts Shakespeare’s King Lear to the blood reds of 16th-century Japan, following a warlord named Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakedai) who divides his kingdom amongst his three sons. After exiling the son who criticizes him, he goes mad when he’s betrayed by his seemingly faithful children. The classic story works perfectly in Kurosawa’s hands. Like in Throne of Blood, Kurosawa’s adaptation of Macbeth, the action on screen is more than just violence, it is a manifestation of political themes. This film has a painful question at its heart: what happens when politics, and power, collide with family? The answer is not pretty, even if the film is.
1 Citizen Kane (1941)
Citizen Kane may be considered the greatest film ever made, but it’s not usually seen as an overtly political one. What could “Rosebud” have to do with politics? The familiar imagery of Kane’s opulent seaside mansion Xanadu aside (Citizen Kane was Donald Trump’s favorite movie, after all), Orson Welles’ masterpiece is first and foremost an epic character study. It charts Charles Foster Kane’s meteoric rise from childhood poverty to wealthy media magnate. After a bitter career attacking his own benefactor, Kane makes a run for governor of New York that ends in scandal. Welles’ expert focus on Kane’s character and his ruined relationships provides sharp insight into the nature of politics. As he reads on his deathbed, we learn Kane’s hunger for power and control stems from a childhood rejection. Beneath his greed lies a deeply human need to be loved, a need that is perhaps at the core (and is the catalyst) of all human politics.
Here are 10 classic films every aspiring filmmaker should watch before grabbing a camera.
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