Magazine article Variety

Casting Our Vote

Magazine article Variety

Casting Our Vote

Article excerpt

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Here's a movie that will make you feel good - or at least better - about the politics of today. James Stewart, in the film that made him a star, is all bushy-tailed, aw-shucks idealism as a newly elected senator who wanders into the halls of Congress expecting a sanctuary of justice, only to discover that it's a hotbed of liars, loafers, wheelers, dealers, and compromisers. In other words, things haven't changed much. But it's bracing to encounter this level of cynicism in a movie of the late '30s (directed by Frank Capra, no less). Stewart, of course, saves the day with a one-man filibuster that will leave you drop-jawed at the authenticity of its desperation.

Primary (1960)

Cinema vérité wasn't invented until the late '50s, and if you want to experience the excitement, in the raw, of what the form offered, you could hardly do better than this. A collaboration between Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock (who both shot it), D.A. Pennebaker (who edited), and Robert Drew (who wrote and produced), it puts you inside the hurly-burly of the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary contest between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, following the candidates as they squirm through crowds, go door-to-door, and rub shoulders with their handlers in hotel rooms - a spectacle of public intimacy that the film captures as if it were conducting a new form of electricity.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

It remains the wildest political satire in American movie history - stranger and more head-spinning, even, than "Dr. Strangelove," which it predated by two years. It's about brainwashing, Cold War paranoia, and a plot to take over the government by assassinating a U.S. presidential candidate - but what it's really about is how the right wing and the left wing, though they seem like mortal adversaries, are linked in their extremism, to the point that one could become a cover for the other. The assassination sequence predated the JFK assassination by a year. Watching it now, it's almost impossible not to wonder whether Lee Harvey Oswald was influenced by it.

The Candidate (1972)

There are a number of great movies - say, "Nashville" or "Nixon" - that show you how electoral politics works in the age of image manipulation. But "The Candidate" is the one that got there first: Released in the summer of 1972, just in time for the quixotic idealism of the George McGovern campaign, the film stars Robert Redford as a liberal-upstart candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in California, whose run against a veteran Republican (the impeccably cast Don Porter) forces him to modulate his message until he can't remember what he stands for. Directed by Michael Ritchie, it's a deftly entertaining, clear-eyed satire that's also an eerie parable of too many elections that came after it.

All the President's Men (1976)

It is, of course, the ultimate journalism movie, and also the ultimate muckraking political thriller. Yet in recounting how Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman), two dogged reporters from The Washington Post, caught the tail of the Watergate scandal and unraveled it from top to bottom, Alan J. Pakula's indelible drama is also a look at corruption of electoral politics: a portrait of how the desire to win at any cost rots the system from within. …

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