Top 10 Cynical Political Films
Politics is everywhere, like the air we breathe, and politics have dramatic impacts on our everyday lives. It only makes sense that cinema often turns its attention to politics and it also makes sense that those attentions are sometimes very, very cynical. Here are the Top 10 Cynical Political Films.
The Great McGinty (1940)
This Preston Sturges penned classic film tells the story of a tramp turned Mayor, ruled by the dictation of a criminal boss. Brian Donlevy’s Dan McGinty only enters the political system when he is bribed by mobsters trying to rig a campaign to vote under a false name not just once, but many times. His uncouth behavior and willingness to be bought makes him a perfect protege for a political boss (Akim Tamiroff). He rises within the organized crime to become the Mayor of the city, still ruled by the hand of the boss, including marrying for publicity and taking bribes. McGinty eventually comes to believe their is some good to public service by his sweet wife. But the time he makes this personal discovery, he’s too far gone within the system. When he’s elected governor and his attempts to break free from the boss, both end up being arrested for corruption. Only Sturges would believe a true spiritual awakening could end so badly.
Senator Was Indiscreet (1946)
William Powell, in one of his last starring roles, plays dimwitted Senator Ashton, who keeps a diary recording all the misdeeds of his political cohorts. Years of keeping detailed records of all the behavior of his fellow Senators and career politicians has made it possible for him to not only keep his seat at the senate but become a possible candidate for Vice-President. The hilarious movie also features a professional PR expert who takes the job promoting Ashton as a candidate, despite thinking he’s completely incompetent, and the head of Ashton’s political party who is so corrupt himself, he can’t keep Ashton out of the campaign. The dated quality of all these records being kept in just a diary is hilarious, but the idea of an entire political system being so corrupt one person can blackmail everyone is disturbing for any era.
All The King’s Men (1949)
Supposedly based on Huey Long, Broderick Crawford plays a once idealistic homegrown attorney Willie Stark who enters politics with the idealism of a man wanting to change the system from the inside, only to be seduced by it’s corruption himself. Equally capable of being seduced by the power is the journalist following politician Stark, Jack Burden, who watches with frustration and awe as Stark is sucked in by the system, become a philandering man who attempts to bribe everyone. The movie was remade with Sean Penn and Jude Law, but a movie with this level of cynicism towards politics coming out between World War II and the Red Scar makes it especially powerful.
Advise and Consent (1962)
Otto Preminger’s all-star film version of the hit Broadway play tells the story of a President’s attempts to rush the appointment of a new Secretary of State before he succumbs to illness, wanting to prevent his Vice-President from making changes to his foreign policies after his death. Insider wheeling and dealing is shown as the young senator assigned to investigate the candidate, is soon blackmailed and pushed to suicide by members of the Senate attempting to force him to give a favorable report on the nominated Senator. The brilliance of casting screen stars with a specific image such as Henry Fonda as a communist, Don Murray as an idealistic senator with a secret past, Charles Laughton as an outsider, and Lew Ayres as the impossible to seduce vice-president only adds to the drama of this procedural film.
The Candidate (1972)
A mockumentary tale of a political expert looking for the perfect type to run for President on behalf of the Democratic party. Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) finds good looking, charismatic, but inexperienced Bill McKay (Robert Redford), who is easy to throw in the race because McKay is from a political family. Believing he’ll lose to his more experience rival, McKay speaks exactly what he believes, but his views prove so unpopular, it becomes apparent he’ll lose by a huge margin. Not wanting to destroy his political career before it’s started, he modifies his message to be more appealling, becoming the perfect generic representative of politics for the increasingly media-focused America. Peter Boyle’s svengali campaign advisor Lucas is one of the most interesting characters on film, a man able to create the next President from seemingly anyone.
The Man (1972)
It would only be logical that a film written by Rod Serling would make it onto the list, despite it’s origins as a made-for-TV movie (the reason the movie’s cinematic qualities are a bit lacking). The alternate reality story of the first black President is the story of senator Douglas Dillman (James Earl Jones). Dillman is made President after the President and Speaker of the House die in an accident and the Vice-President refuses the position due to age. Believing he can’t do the job and will soon be pushed out, a fellow politician Arthur Eaton (William Windom) who is next in line for the job attempts to position himself as Dillman’s puppet-master. Dillman is far more capable of leadership than assumed by Eaton or the other senators trying to pass bills in secrecy, and he soon makes it known that he won’t be a push over just because he has risen to the highest office because of a series of accidents.
Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)
Like a 70s version of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, a small potatoes idealistic senator is asked after pushing a labor law through the senate to represent his political parties interests during a supreme court hearing. Once happy to speak his mind when pleading his case within the enclosed walls of the senate, Tynan finds that when given party support he’s able to be seduced like others before him. The appeal of political power in the public eye includes sex, money, and a growing sense of his own ego, which repels his wife but draws a pretty lawyer too him. Alan Alda, noted for his real-life liberal views and feminism, wrote the film and plays the title role, which costars Barbara Harris, Meryl Streep, Rip Torn, and Melvyn Douglas.
Northern Lights (1978)
A winner at the Cannes Film Festival, the micro-budgeted film about North Dakota politics is rarely seen outside of revival houses. The story focuses on the attempts, especially by one immigrant (Robert Behling), in trying to elect to office a populist candidate who will favor the farmers over big business and banks. But the remarkable aspect of the film is the focus on the day to day campaigning taking place, from driving from distant town to town to the main character agreeing to wrestle with a drunk and working another man’s land to convince them to make the effort to cast a vote. And while he campaigns for change, his brother struggles to survive on the family farm, now completely unable to sell goods to angry businessmen, and his wife is left alone for days. All so these small town immigrants might come close having an impact on elections and winning some representation in government…someday.
Being There (1979)
Earning Peter Sellers his deserved Best Actor Oscar nomination, he plays a slow-witted gardener, Chance, who worked for a politician his whole life, but never learned from anything but the TV. When he meets Presidential adviser Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) after his boss’s death, Chance is mistaken for a wealthy business man who speaks with allegorical wisdom. Rand and The president (Jack Warden) believe his simple statements are metaphors for society,the economy and politics, rather than just his actual knowledge of plants. The world soon believes his homespun wisdom is profound political speak, and he is brought out at parties and on TV to give his life lessons to the American people.
Mike Judge’s terrible view of the future shows a society run by Fox News, full of garbage and fast food, and a political system made up entirely of professional wrestlers and 15 minute celebrities. The most intelligent man on earth (Luke Wilson) was the most average man of his time but traveled to the future with a prostitute (Maya Rudolph) and is immediately put into the political office of secretary of agriculture by the WWE champion turned President (Terry Crews). He solves the agricultural crisis when he informs his cabinet that one should grow crops with water, not sports drinks. But the society is too impatient and when his new policies don’t instantly (within a day or two) help the plant life grow (and hurt the biggest business in the world, Brawndo), he is sentenced to defend his life in a monster truck gladiator competition while his fellow cabinet members watch with glee.