Creating an account with gives you access to more features and services, like our weekly newsletter and other special features just for the film community.


The Reelist: Prescient Political Picks

The beltway has always proved a wonderfully flinty muse for Hollywood.

According to that old saw, "Washington D.C. is Hollywood for ugly people," but the DC/Hollywood connection goes way back, as the beltway has always proved a wonderfully flinty muse for the worthiest of genres: the political picture. While life and art are currently imitating each other in our current circus of an election season, take comfort in this week's Reelist. There are scores of political films to pilfer, but we decided to look at an interesting mix of flicks that have proved both prescient and relevant.

Funny enough, this particular batch of films share many commonalities: general prestige, not-exactly-hits, stirring speeches, the occasional Oscar nomination, liberal leanings, unexpected deaths, writing and directing efforts from established stars, and Aaron Sorkin. Always Aaron Sorkin.


Advise and Consent

Dir. Otto Preminger (1962)

Otto Preminger's Advise and Consent is a prestige picture from the 60s, based on a best-selling novel by New York Times writer Allen Drury, which takes on what happens when a President nominates a man with secrets for Secretary of State. It's easy to see why the secrets and lies (including a gay plotline) attracted the fascinating director who made his name in noir, as Preminger was famous for fighting the Hollywood blacklist by hiring Dalton Trumbo to write Exodus. Advise and Consent features animated titles by Saul Bass and an all-star cast that includes Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Burgess Meredith, and Betty White.

American Pes

The American President

Dir. Rob Reiner (1995)

Aaron Sorkin presents an ideal political world to fall into, where words can serve as the climax of a movie, and The American President is one of the strongest examples of his vision of passionate politics. In this Michael Douglas-starring romantic comedy, the President is a widower and is trying to balance leading the free world with a blossoming romance with a lovely lobbyist played by Annette Bening. Romance and political attacks on his character weigh down his administration, and President Shepherd is backed into a corner, defending himself with a vigorous speech. Many of the issues, themes, and dialogue in the film would go onto shape Sorkin's late great TV show, The West Wing.

Check out the big speech on YouTube.



Dir. Warren Beatty (1998)

According to a Henry Louis Gates Jr. piece in The New Yorker, "The White Negro," Warren Beatty had the freedom to make this film thanks to a deal he struck when Warner Brothers edged out of ponying up for Dick Tracy. He could do whatever he wanted, and he worked on his third film as a writer/director/star, Bulworth, a political satire where a depressed Senator (Beatty), a former liberal-turned-centrist, in the midst of a hard-fought Senatorial campaign, takes a hit out on his own life. Energized by his imminent death, he starts speaking the truth, fired up by rap and hip hop culture as another way to speak frankly to people, and starts rapping as awkwardly as your dad about politics in front of his constituency. According to IMDB (however dubious), Aaron Sorkin and James Toback did uncredited rewrites on the script, and as Halle Berry (as sexy, mysterious Nina), and Don Cheadle as a local kingpin spout off on economic realities, they sound pretty darn straight-out-of-The-West-Wing. Beatty received an Oscar nomination for the screenplay, and the film received a low-key release; that said, about ten years later, the anger in the film, however goofy the premise, feels raw and fresh. 

Stream Bulworth in its entirety on

The Contender

The Contender

Dir. Rod Lurie (2000)

The politically minded Lurie's film has Jeff Bridges as a head of state forced to choose a new Vice President. Joan Allen is a possibility, but will her sexy orgy past in college ruin her chances? Inspired by the Clinton sex scandal and leading to Oscar nominations for Bridges and Allen, it proves relevant today as media and politics turn the screws on the current crop of candidates. Lord knows what will happen once we have the first candidate old enough to have tried social networking.

Bridges makes a stirring speech.



Dir. Andrew Fleming (1999)

Is Dick one of the best Kirsten Dunst films? I say yes. Dunst and Michelle Williams play two teenagers in DC in the 1970s who giddily and dorkily stumble upon Watergate. After they become dogwalkers to President Nixon (played by Dan Hedaya), they influence his politics and policy with their hijinks, eventually becoming Deep Throat. Williams' character gets a raging crush on Nixon. Hilarity ensues. (Really!) It's a well-written riff on Nixon's scandal-plagued term, putting two silly fifteen-year-olds in the line of corruption. Dick is notable for a score of easy and funny "dick" jokes and a riff on Woodward and Bernstein where they are played by Will Ferrell and The Kids in the Hall's Bruce McCulloch as two childish boobs. Director Andrew Fleming's Hamlet 2 is currently in theaters.


Head of State

Dir. Chris Rock (2003)

In Chris Rock's writer/director/starring effort, he plays a DC alderman thrust into the spotlight when a party picks a can't-win candidate to run in the place of the establishment candidates who died in a freak accident. Rock's character, Mays Gilliam, starts out by campaigning soft and centrist. However, his brother, played by the late Bernie Mac, tells him that he should speak his mind, Mays goes off, getting angry. Roger Ebert called the film "an imperfect movie, but not a boring one and not lacking in intelligence...what it does right is hard to find: it makes an angry and fairly timely comic attack on an electoral system where candidates don't say what they really think but simply repeat centrist banalities." 

manchurian candidate

The Manchurian Candidate

Dir. John Frankenheimer (1962)

Conspiracy time! Frankenheimer's classic stars stars Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, and Angela Lansbury in a twisty Cold War-era plot about an American brainwashed to assassinate a political candidate. The film was based on a pulp novel, flopped on release, and remained unseen for some time, as it was taken out of distribution for years. Rumor has it that Candidate's disappearance, credited to Frank Sinatra buying the rights, was due to JFK's assassination, which occurred a year after the film's release and the possible link or influence to the event. Lansbury was nominated for an Oscar for what is one of the craziest villain roles of all time, and proving its relevancy, Jonathan Demme remade the film in 2004 with Denzel Washington as the protagonist.

Mr. Smith

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

Dir. Frank Capra (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a film about a bill. It's a film about a filibuster. And heart-stirring drama can emerge from an impassioned, exhausted Jimmy Stewart saying, "You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause." It's an amazing scene, it could drive you to go into politics, and it's a classic movie. Try not to get choked up.

Part 1 of the ending.



Dir. Jay Roach (2008)

This year, the New York Times ran a piece on The Black List, a Hollywood industry list of favorite screenplays that are going around town compiled from the top ten lists of over 150 executives and assistants. Danny Strong's Recount topped 2007's list with 44 mentions. Strong, an actor-turned-screenwriter who is recognizable from nerd roles on Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Gilmore Girls, took the story of the 2000 Gore vs. Bush election and the voting controversy and made it into a drama that was snatched up by HBO. The late Sydney Pollack was originally slated as director but pulled out due to illness, and Austin Powers' Jay Roach took over, leading a starry cast of Kevin Spacey, Tom Wilkinson, Denis Leary, and Laura Dern to Emmy nominations. The film aired on Memorial Day and is already out on DVD, capitalizing on the political season.


Wag the Dog

Dir. Barry Levinson (1998)

Honestly, does Wag the Dog ever grow old? Written by Hilary Henkin and David Mamet and based on Larry Beinhart's book American Hero, the Barry Levinson film is a crackling case of politics and media manipulation. In this case, to take attention away from a Presidential sex scandal during an election, spin doctor Conrad Bean (Robert De Niro) cooks up a fake war with Albania, hiring Stanley Moss (a Robert Evans-aping Dustin Hoffman) to "produce" it. In his review, Ebert writes, "It's creepy how this material is absurd and convincing at the same time," and weeks later, President Clinton is saying "I did not have sex with that woman" on TV. Levinson would go onto make the recent "What if Jon Stewart ran for President" Robin Williams flick Man of the Year, and the upcoming What Just Happened? reunites Levinson and De Niro.


What you need to know today