Welcome to 5 Favorites. Each week, I will put together a list of my 5 favorites (films, performances, whatever strikes my fancy) along with commentary on a given topic each week, usually in relation to a specific film releasing that week.
It’s been a busy week and with my other obligations taking up a lot of extra time, I found myself struggling to come up with a topic for this week. My original idea for this list was to populate it with Oscar-nominated films released in January. However, the more I dug into the list, the more flaws and inconsistencies I found. Unfortunately, release date information is less bountiful in decades past, so some of the films I had put on my list were showing dates contrary to my original research. As such, I had to abandon the list because of the absolute nightmare it would be to verify the release windows of over 100 films.
Next, I thought about shifting that focus to Oscar nominees born in January. However, with 351 names on the list, narrowing down to 5 was an impossible task. So, that left me with only one idea…
On January 20, 2021, Joseph R. Biden took office as the 46th President of the United States of America. On this historic occasion, and the sheer joy the end of a four-year experiment in ego and selfishness has brought, I thought I would look at my favorite films about the political process. Politics have been a common theme for filmmakers since the early days of cinema, most notably biopics. Abraham Lincoln himself has been portrayed on the big screen numerous times with the earliest being a 1908 moving picture called The Reprieve: An Episode in the Life of Abraham Lincoln. Walter Huston, Henry Fonda, Raymond Massey, F. Murray Abraham, and Daniel Day-Lewis are but a handful of the names of those who’ve portrayed him.
With the momentous events of yesterday being felt for some time, my five favorite political films have also been a defining part of our cultural heritage. Of course, there will be films left off the list. All the President’s Men is all about the scandal surrounding the break-in at the Watergate Hotel, but follows the newspapermen who exposed it rather than the political act itself. The same is true of films like JFK, The Post, and myriad others.
I also eliminated films dealing with politics in other nations such as The Queen, In the Loop, and Gandhi. Narrowing to just five was still very difficult and a lot of great movies got left by the wayside. I also decided not to go with obvious choices like Citizen Kane, Lincoln, or Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
What is most interesting about my final five is that all of these films were released in 1962 or 1964. Maybe there’s a simple reason for why that decade was one of the best for films about politics or perhaps it’s because it happened to be a politically tumultuous period made all the more alarming by the 1963 assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Whatever the reason, I’d like to highlight the three films I almost included before digging into the ones I finally decided on.
Two of the three films were about Richard Millhouse Nixon, the disgraced former president who resigned his office out of fear that he would be impeached and removed from office by congress. There are many factors of that particular event that bear some striking resemblance to the presidency that is just expiring, but it’s best not to dwell on that for now. The two films were very different. Nixon was one of the last great films Oliver Stone ever directed with superb performances from Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, Joan Allen as his beleaguered wife Pat (who should have won an Oscar for her performance), and Paul Sorvino as Henry Kissinger (who should have at least been nominated). The other is Frost/Nixon, one of Ron Howard’s absolute best films with Frank Langella in a towering and unparalleled performance as Nixon as he’s interviewed by celebrated British interviewer David Frost, a near-equal performance by Michael Sheen. If I had to choose between these two, Howard’s film would probably win because it was more riveting while being little more than a two-man conversation.
The other film I nearly placed on this list was Gus Van Sant’s brilliant narrative drama about the rise to prominence of gay icon Harvey Milk, a pioneer in California politics, who was the first openly gay man elected to a political office. It also details his later assassination. Sean Penn is terrific, but Josh Brolin and Diego Luna steal the show.
With all of that said, here are my five favorites, a combination of traditional dramas, thrillers, and a palate cleanser of a satire.
Advise and Consent (1962)
In recent years, a bitter partisan divide has made the confirmation of routinely nominated public officials into a battle for dominance. Advise and Consent explores a side of American politics rarely seen on film, the function of the United States Senate to provide its advice and consent of all nominations made by the president. Although the events are fictional, the concepts addressed in this film are very accurate and quite fascinating.
The cast is stupendous, featuring some of Hollywood’s brightest and boldest talents, including Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, Don Murray, Walter Pidgeon, Peter Lawford, Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, Lew Ayres, and Burgess Meredith. Apart from the amazing cast, director Otto Preminger brings Wendell Mayes’ insightful script, adapted from a book by Allen Drury, to life in a way that presents both parties at their worst and explores the animosity and political maneuvering often at play in such negotiations. A simple act of congress becomes a hotbed of political turmoil. While not precisely a thriller, the film’s tight construction make it almost feel as such.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
The same year Advise and Consent brought us the inner workings of the U.S. Senate, The Manchurian Candidate gave us a horrifying glimpse at the underhanded machinations of foreign communist leaders to undermine the U.S. Political structure. Laurence Harvey plays an American soldier who, along with his platoon, are brainwashed before being returned to their invading armies in Korea. Frank Sinatra plays Harvey’s superior who affirms his heroics in the battle. Upon returning home, Sinatra begins having nightmares that reveal a brainwashing plot enacted against his men, Harvey in particular.
Through all this, Harvey’s power hungry mother, played with relish by Angela Lansbury, is working behind the scenes to manipulate the situation to put her senator husband into power. John Frakenheimer gave us one of the most tense Cold War political dramas ever made with this adaptation of a Richard Condon novel. While the plot seems simple at the outset, it becomes more winding and labyrinthine as the film progresses until the audience begins to wonder who the real villain of the piece is, the communists, Harvey’s Raymond Shaw, or Lansbury’s Eleanor Iselin. While it’s up to the audience to ultimately decide, there really are no wrong answers in this masterful exercise in suspense.
The Best Man (1964)
While two of the films on this list present frightening prospects for how America’s political system could be attacked, The Best Man does something even better: it showcases the sheer humanity of its lead character, once again played by Henry Fonda. At the nominating convention for an unspecified political party, Fonda faces off again Cliff Robertson to become the party’s nominee for President of the United States. Fonda is the principled and dedicated public servant, while Robertson plays the corrupt, populist willing to use any form of blackmail he can to win the nomination. As Fonda learns of something rather damning to use against Robertson, he must decide whether to go against every principle he’s ever stated or lose the nomination to someone who could decidedly harm the country.
Fonda and Robertson are terrific with able support from Lee Tracy as a former president. Franklin J. Schaffner’s film sparkles with dialogue written by noted writer Gore Vidal who taps into the undercurrents of then-modern politics questioning abject patriotism and waffling indecision. In the end, the question remains who the best man for the job is and that question has quite an obvious answer even if the conclusions surprises. Of any of these films, this one has the most to say about our current political climes and the frustration and despair faced by many these last four years. It’s worth a watch just to see truth and presence of mind win out in the end.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
At the height of the Cold War, tensions in the United States were high and the specter of nuclear annihilation was on everyone’s mind. Enter the cinematic lens of Stanley Kubrick. Kubrick, Terry Southern, and Peter George wrote the screenplay for Dr. Strangelove very loosely based on a thriller, but turned it into something far more compelling, a satire. Like all good satires, the kernels of truth form a fascinating foundation for the hilarity that ensues.
Peter Sellers stars in three roles, as the U.S. President Merkin Muffley, RAF exchange officer Lionel Mandrake, and Dr. Strangelove himself, an ex-Nazi nuclear war expert. In Sellers hands, the three characters descend into parody, but not without a healthy does of realism, making them seem like genuine, yet incompetent characters. So much of this film has influenced future cinematic satirists and, for that alone, it should be well regarded. However, even without that future influence, it remains one of the most hilarious and pointed satires ever made.
Seven Days in May (1964)
Not only the second thriller on my list, it’s the second thriller directed by John Frankenheimer. In this film, the President of the U.S. (Fredric March) has signed a nuclear disarmament pact with the U.S.S.R. (now Russia), which faces sharp opposition from those who don’t trust the Soviets and believe the U.S. has left itself vulnerable. Kirk Douglas plays a Marine Corps Colonel who uncovers a plot by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, led by Burt Lancaster, to stage a coup against the President. This Cold War thriller is set in the then-future 1970 and posits the ever-intensifying global threat posed by a dreadful adversary.
For films made in the 1960s, there was as much influence from current events as there was from world history and those elements of truth ring ever truer today knowing now what we didn’t know then. The shifts back-and-forth from allies to adversaries help give films like this some added resonance. Further, recent events leading up to and including the attempted coup by extremist supporters of our now-former President make this film feel even more prescient in its depiction of unbridled fanaticism and adherence to faulty notions of patriotism and protectionism. Even without the modern context, Seven Days in May and all of the other films on this list stand up well these 60 years later.