After an almost interminable ramp-up period, stretching all the way back to December 2014(!), the 2016 presidential primaries have finally begun this month. By this summer, Americans will know who their candidates will be for the Democratic and Republican parties, leading to a general election that many believe will dwarf the over-$7 billion spent four years ago (yes, that’s more dollars than there are people on this planet, for all those playing along at home).
The amazing thing is that, thus far in the primary cycle, no one candidate has managed to lock into a commanding frontrunner position – on either side. With the Republican candidates converging on South Carolina tomorrow and the Democrats heading over to Nevada, neck-and-neck contests look to unleash the biggest torrent of passion, maneuvering and money yet – particularly in South Carolina, a state known for the mudslinging and unabashed viciousness that occurs in primary contests there.
What better time, then, to dive in deep into the mood of the moment by celebrating the election sub-genre in film? From illicit conspiracies to homespun cover-ups to high school contests, these are the films that celebrate, mock, and otherwise examine our democratic process at work.
So join us, fellow citizens and future voters, as we crack open the book on the 10 Best Election Movies.
10 Bulworth (1998)
Bored with his life and disgusted by a populace that has moved on from his 1960s and ‘70s socialist views, Senator Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) decides that the only way to deal with his existential quagmire – and to dodge his losing re-election campaign – is to commit suicide. But since his newly signed $10 million life insurance policy – negotiated with insurance lobbyists in order to secure a favorable vote – will be voided in such an outcome, Bulworth instead hires a hitman to take him out on the campaign trail.
Freed from all inhibitions, the senator speaks his mind and does whatever he wants, including drinking during a televised debate. This shocking display energizes his campaign and inadvertently causes him to start a love affair with a young civil rights activist (Halle Berry), giving Bulworth a new lease on life, both politically and emotionally – if it weren’t for that darn assassin lurking in the shadows, ready to strike at any moment.
Played more for comedy than for biting satire, Bulworth still packs quite the sociological wallop and particularly lands like a grenade in the current freewheeling primary spectacle.
9 In the Line of Fire (1993)
Less a film about elections and more a political thriller that just so happens to use campaigning as a backdrop for its involved game of cat-and-mouse, In the Line of Fire actually employs another age-old political trope: the would-be assassination of the president of the United States of America, and the dogged, emotionally damaged Secret Service agent that is the chief executive’s only hope.
In this case, Clint Eastwood is the embattled protagonist, Agent Frank Horrigan, who is the final still-active member of President John F. Kennedy’s security detail from that fateful November 1963 day. All but washed-up, he finds himself the unwitting lead investigator on the case of a rogue former CIA agent (John Malkovich) who has had a mental breakdown and now fixates on killing the leader of the free world. By attempting to take the bullet now that he should have 30 years previously, Horrigan hopes to find the salvation from his inner demons (and the bottle they normally arrive in) that he’s never otherwise been able to attain.
Oh, yeah – the election part of the story. With the president currently in the midst of his re-election campaign, he becomes an especially vulnerable target – especially when the would-be assassin has made substantial campaign contributions in order to be granted even greater access. Take that, Citizens United!
8 Election (1999)
While not a film about a presidential, gubernatorial, or senatorial election, Election follows a race that can be just as fraught with deception, emotion, and revenge: a high school student body election.
Overeager, insufferable, and sanctimonious, Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) is a junior who has decided to jump in the race for student council president. The teacher in charge of overseeing the election, Mr. Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), seethes over the fact that there is no other candidate willing to oppose her – and that, furthermore, Tracy is the reason that his friend, a fellow teacher who had started an affair with her earlier that year, was fired from the school. Revenge, of course, is the only option, even if that revenge simply means denying one lowly high school student the completely meaningless position of student council president – and even if that revenge costs Mr. McAllister his job in the process.
There is surely some insightful comment contained in here about the nature of humanity, particularly as it is expressed through the gauntlet known as elections, and the meaninglessness of vengeance, but it’s just high school, man.
7 No (2012)
The only Spanish-language film on this list, No follows the 1988 national referendum in Chile that would eventually see a new constitution written and the removal from power of General Augusto Pinochet, the country’s military dictator for the previous 15 years. With the central question of the election being whether Pinochet should be given another eight-year term, both the “yes” and “no” sides are allowed 15 minutes a night for 27 nights to present their case. With a rather listless and remarkably unappealing advertising campaign in place, the “no” people decide to recruit Rene Saavedra (Gael Garcia Bernal), the ‘80s Chilean version of Mad Men’s Don Draper, to spruce up their efforts. Saavedra consents, though at great risk to his career (his boss is conservative and, thus, would not abide his underling politically moonlighting, particularly for the liberals) and to his person, as General Pinochet, after all, is the head of a fascistic military junta that doesn’t take kindly to dissenters – even the legally sanctioned ones.
The resulting story – and ad campaign – that Saavedra comes up with, and the slightly-strange-but-wholly-appropriate ending, are both intriguing and riveting, creating a decidedly different take on the election sub-genre.
6 The Ides of March (2011)
Like a number of the other entries on this list, The Ides of March is very much a product of its times; unlike most of the other entries on this list, this film is from the current decade, which has seen a president being picked in the primaries not by the sheer force of personal charisma or the greater wielding of the mudslinging machine, but by a fierce, protracted battle for the accumulation of delegates and the cold math of political conventions. (Though it should be noted, for the record, that Ides of March is based on the 2008 play Farragut North, which, in turn, was inspired by the 2004 Democratic primary and which was written by none other than Beau Willimon, the creator and showrunner of Netflix’s House of Cards.)
It turns out that such a paradigm has just as much inherent drama as the swaggering sex scandals of the 1990s, and that it proves to be a thoroughly compelling backdrop for a ruthless story of intrigue, back-room deals, sexual liaisons, and cut-throat journalists – in other words, what modern Americans generally believe politics has always been about. In this instance, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the junior campaign manager for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), gets involved with one of Morris’s interns (Evan Rachel Wood) – who just so happens to have already had an affair with the governor – all while attempting to secure the last batch of delegates for his candidate in order to win the primary.
So, yeah – presidential candidates sleeping with interns hasn’t lost its allure since the end of the 20th century, and probably never will, either.
5 Wag the Dog (1997)
An unabashedly cynical look at politics, Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog draws a rather unflattering comparison between Washington, DC and Hollywood, with their main connective tissue being the fundamental desire to create alternate realities in order to distract and entertain a largely uneducated populace.
What’s interesting to note is how malleable the premise is: in its original book form, the story is meant to focus on Republican George H.W. Bush and the first Gulf War; in the filmic adaptation, it is Democrat Bill Clinton and his philandering ways that act as inspiration for the film's satirical crosshair, with a wholly fabricated war with Albania serving as the distraction from the president’s (Michael Belson) dealings with an underage girl. Dog-wagging, it seems, crosses party lines.
Beyond the lambasting and social commentary, the performances of the wonderful cast end up becoming the heart of the movie. Dustin Hoffman is electric as famed Hollywood producer Stanley Motss, and his convoluted relationship with Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), who essentially holds Motss’s position in Washington, can’t help but keep audiences’ eyes glued to the screen.
4 Primary Colors (1998)
Stop me when this sounds familiar.
A warm, affable, I-feel-your-pain Southern governor (played by John Travolta) is staging a major comeback in the Democratic primary, but his near-constant womanizing keeps interfering with his campaign’s designs of world dominance and creates a seemingly never-ending series of scandals.
If that sounds suspiciously like Bill Clinton’s unlikely rise to power in the 1992 primary cycle – hey, his New Hampshire-given moniker of the Comeback Kid wasn’t for nothing – that’s because, well, it is; Primary Colors is based on a 1996 book written by "Anonymous," who was later revealed to be famed political reporter and columnist Joe Klein (who covered Clinton’s first presidential campaign for Newsweek).
Much like Wag the Dog, this nugget of real-world paralleling lends a great deal of verisimilitude to the film, making the impressive ensemble of actors – which includes Kathy Bates, Emma Thompson, and Billy Bob Thornton – sparkle all the more and which makes the movie a pure delight to watch, in or out of election season.
3 Dave (1993)
What was it about the ‘90s and the wholesale depiction of government as deceitful, manipulative, and duplicitous? (“Trust no one,” The X-Files gravely intones.)
In yet another riff on President Bill Clinton and his wandering eye, a well-meaning nobody from DC named Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) is recruited by President Bill Mitchell (also Kline) to do his side-job act of impersonating the commander-in-chief so that he can have a late-night rendezvous with a staffer. Things go awry, however – Mitchell has a stroke and slips into a coma, with his future prognosis not looking good.
Enter the evil, Sith Lord-esque advisor behind the scenes: Mitchell’s chief of staff, Bob Alexander (Frank Langella), who sees a golden opportunity to seize power for himself. Recruiting Dave to play the president for a projected period of time, he sets about incriminating and then deposing of the hapless vice president, Gary Nance (Ben Kingsley), and then attempts to convince Dave to name him as the VP to replace him. From there, he plans on revealing the real president’s medical condition, which will allow him to grab the Oval Office for himself.
What makes Dave such rewarding viewing is its from-the-heart ending, along with the (naïve?) notion that good conquers evil and the truth will always out. Maybe this one wasn’t so X-Filesian, after all.
2 The Candidate (1972)
Arguably the most cynical – and also the most sophisticated – film on this list, The Candidate tells the story of how the desire to win at any cost trumps such silly trifles as social issues or moral qualms.
With the Democrats facing an unwinnable election, a political election specialist by the name of Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) roots out the only individual who can be duped into running: Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the son of the former governor of California. At first allured to the campaign trail to espouse his down-home, old-school values, the prospect of an even more humiliating defeat than what was initially expected causes Lucas to mercilessly fine-tune McKay’s message until it is one of empty bromides – which, miraculously enough, begins to close the insurmountable gap, which, in turn, causes McKay to pander to the witless American people even more.
It is McKay’s ultimate struggles with his own morality – and Redford’s brilliant depiction of it – that sell the movie, but not nearly as much as the classic, highly ambivalent ending.
1 Game Change (2012)
An HBO Films original, Game Change is based on a 2010 book by political journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann that attempts to reconstruct Senator John McCain’s campaign in the infamous 2008 election, focusing specifically on how he came to pick Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate.
While not ever veering into either lampooning or partisan territory, the movie can nonetheless very easily be seen as a scathing indictment of Palin (Julianne Moore): she lies about the presence of skeletons in her political closet; she is hopelessly in over her head when it comes to most issues, either domestic or – heaven forbid – foreign; and she is relentlessly arrogant once she receives a devoted national audience, even attempting to give the concession speech with Senator McCain (Ed Harris) on election night. (Interestingly enough, Game Change is rather kind to McCain himself, painting the candidate as a sympathetic and otherwise competent individual who has been thrust into an irrevocably sinking political ship.)
In a cycle dominated by bigger-than-life political celebrities that have a propensity for making news by delivering uncensored soundbites, Game Change makes for an especially delicious meal.
Did we miss a milestone in the election sub-genre? Do you have a favorite that you think out-ranks our pick? Debate it in the comments section below while we all wait for the election results to come in tomorrow.