The 25 Best Movies About Politics

For sheer twists, turns, stakes and nail-biting drama, nothing at the movies this year has been able to compete with the 2016 Election. We’re still a week away from election day, and we’ve already worn out a mouse and got carpal tunnel syndrome from refreshing FiveThirtyEight, so gripping has the battle been between the potential first ever female President of the United States Hillary Clinton, and grope-happy steak salesman Donald Trump.

More than once across the campaign, we’ve thought about how Hollywood’s portrayed politics over the years, and so as we enter the final stages of this endless goddamn election, and possibly of civilization in general, we’ve decided to look across the history of the political movie.

READ MORE: Despots, Demagogues & Dictators: 10 Films To Prepare You For The Rise Of Donald Trump

All art is political to some extent, but some is more political than others, and so here, we’ve focused specifically on movies that feature Presidents, Senators, Congressman or similar, and which take place at least in part in the U.S — hopefully you’ll tell your friends to read this, and we can do another feature looking at more international political movies like, “Il Divo” or “No.” But there’s still more than enough greatness to go around without leaving these shores, and you’ll find it in the 25 movies below. Take a look, let us know your favorites, and remember to vote on November 8th.

bulworth25. “Bulworth” (1998)
At times this election cycle, some speculated that perhaps Donald Trump didn’t really want to do the job and was actively trying to deliberately tank his own chances, only to find his electorate continuing to support him despite everything. It’s a fun idea, though sadly probably not true, and one that invokes Warren Beatty’s enjoyable satire “Bulworth,” ironically in the year that sees the screen legend return with this fall’s “Rules Don’t Apply.” The actor-director-writer (he co-wrote with Jeremy Pikser, plus some uncredited work by Aaron Sorkin) stars as a California Democratic senator, once radical but now a slave to big money and conservative voters, who fed up with life and his job, hires a hitman to kill him in two days, which will give his daughter a life insurance payoff. Freed from the need to be popular and turning up to a rally hammered, he starts speaking the truth in public, falling for a young activist (Halle Berry) and getting to know South Central L.A. for the first time. The plot has some contrivances, and it’s occasionally deeply embarrassing, particularly with the 30-year-age-gap romance and any time Beatty has to rap. But for every one of those tin-eared moments, there’s one that’s witty and insightful, with a great cast (Don Cheadle and Oliver Platt particularly standing out) and a firecracker energy that suggests that Beatty, then on the verge of turning 60, was as energized by the film as his character.


24. “The Ides Of March” (2011)
Before “House Of Cards,” there was “The Ides Of March,” a political drama from writer Beau Willimon, who went on to showrun the Netflix series for its first four seasons. Based on his play “Farragut North,” and directed by George Clooney, it’s not quite the definitive 21st century political drama we might have been hoping for, but it’s still a deeply watchable piece of work. Ryan Gosling plays Stephen, a young campaign manager for a Democratic presidential candidate (Clooney) who discovers that the intern he’s started seeing (Evan Rachel Wood) had an affair with the man he’s meant to be pushing. The cast is one of the best assembled for a major studio picture — Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, Jennifer Ehle, Max Minghella and the late, great Philip Seymour Hoffman all crop up — but most of them don’t quite get the material that you might hope, with Gosling very much front and center. Nevertheless, he’s excellent, and even if the film never quite hits the stratosphere, it’s so good at showing how idealism can be steadily chipped away as the prospect of power gets closer and closer.

robert-de-niro-in-wag-the-dog-199723. “Wag The Dog” (1997)
Barry Levinson’s satire “Wag the Dog” was not necessarily supposed to be a hold-up-the-mirror reflection of present-day American society. However, it is hard to watch without recalling how strangely prescient it felt on release. The plot, which sees politicos teaming with Hollywood to manufacture a fake war, was sourced sourced from Larry Beinhart’s ’93 wacky satirical novel “American Hero” by screenwriter David Mamet and director Barry Levinson, who also included the idea that the war was not only to get votes but to distract from a sex scandal. The fact that soon after the movie’s release, Bill Clinton, suffering in the polls due to the Lewinski scandal, bombed Kosovo, showed that reality can also imitate art, more often than we care to consider. The impact of the media post-9/11, and Bush’s willingness for photo-ops during his ‘War on Terror,’ continued to make the film arguably more relevant than it was on release. Robert De Niro plays the political fix-it guy to Anne Heche’s Presidential Gal Friday, who together with Dustin Hoffman, the Hollywood producer, makes the diversionary fake-war happen. Woody Harrelson is their ‘hero’ who instead turns out to be criminally insane (not ideal) and Kirsten Dunst is their fake Albanian orphan with only a bag of Tostitos (which are later, with green-screen, magically turned into a kitten) to keep her company in the war. “Wag the Dog” is still a surprisingly likable film considering it confirms every worst fear you might have had about the U.S. Government, its people and its media in the ’90s. This is due in no small part to Mamet’s fantastically paced and effortlessly delivered dialogue, with every quip landing feet first, as well it should in any political satire worth its weight in “Veep” DVDs.

milk22. “Milk” (2008)
It sometimes feels like there’s two Gus Van Sants — the experimental, queer cinema helmer of “My Own Private Idaho” or “Elephant,” and the “Good Will Hunting” guy who makes mainstream would be crowd-pleasers in a vaguely Ron Howard-y way, to varying degrees of success. “Milk” is one of the more successful attempts to meld the two Van Sants — perhaps a little too conventional for some, but a pleasing and well-executed attempt to bring an important story to a wider audience. Sean Penn, in a performance that flirts with Penn’s hamminess but just pulls back from it, plays Harvey Milk, the first openly gay elected official in U.S. history, who was assassinated by a troubled former colleague, Dan White (Josh Brolin). Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay struggles slightly to corral the sweep of Milk’s life into a satisfying narrative, but it’s compassionate and often affecting (with White given a surprisingly empathetic portrayal, in part thanks to good work from Brolin), and Van Sant captures 1970s San Francisco beautifully. You do perhaps wonder what the artier side of Van Sant might have done with the same story, but the film we have remains a well-made, nicely acted and very moving piece of work.

primary-colors-1998-09-g21. “Primary Colors” (1998)
“Primary Colors,Mike Nichols’ adaptation of the best-selling novel by ‘Anonymous’ (later revealed as journalist Joe Klein) had the indignity of being superseded by true events that were happening around the time of its 1998 release, and were deemed more interesting than fiction, namely the salacious and beyond parodic real-life fall-out from the worst of Bill Clinton’s sex scandals: Monica Lewinsky. At the time, it meant that the film got rather unfairly overlooked, but it holds up nicely today, and not just because the Clintons are back in the public eye. Sure, John Travolta’s broadly drawn aw-shucks Bill impression suffers in comparison to Emma Thompson’s deft work as his spouse, and it’s slightly tough to buy the totality of Adrian Lester’s convenient journey from doe-eyed optimist through to done-with-the-system, disillusioned politico, but it’s nonetheless a big, drippy sap-fest that’s unafraid to let it all hang out; and a film in serious need of reappraisal. Aging well with the distance of nearly two decades, even Kathy Bates’ rambunctious performance that dips into speechifying at the conclusion can’t derail what’s preceded it — the metaphorical and literal death of political idealism. It’s a decidedly underrated film in Nichols’ expansive body of work.