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By politics, I mean elected politics, the political process, important men in important suits making important decisions. The Grapes Of Wrath is a political film, but not the right kind for our purposes here.
I occasionally wonder if Hollywood makes fewer political films than it used to because, like westerns, political films are the natural habitat of the middle-aged character actor. It's a genre that requires actors who know how to wear suits, peer menacingly over half-glasses and meet quietly in dark restaurants. Idealistic young leading men need not apply.
The films listed here are many things, from thrillers to comedies to the occasional allegory, but you couldn't get the average age of their casts past today's demographic-obsessed studio marketing departments - in All The President's Men, the "young" reporters are played by two actors pressing hard against 40.
ADVISE & CONSENT (Otto Preminger, 1962) The political novel was big in the late 50s and early 60s, and Allen Drury's blockbuster about a Senate confirmation hearing was one of the biggest, immediately appealing to director Preminger, who was in the middle of a series of films about social institutions - the law (Anatomy Of A Murder), the military (In Harm's Way), the church (The Cardinal) and government.
The plot mechanisms will strike modern viewers as a trifle bizarre. The villain is a liberal senator (George Grizzard) who wants to out a young senator (Don Murray) over a homosexual event in his past to get an Alger Hiss-like liberal (Henry Fonda) affirmed as secretary of state.
Preminger's long-take, crane-oriented style has all the grandeur the subject demands, and the old-pro cast is all you could ask for - Charles Laughton as a Southern senator, Walter Pidgeon as the majority leader, Lew Ayres as the vice-president, plus Gene Tierney, Franchot Tone, Peter Lawford. Also, this is the first depiction of a gay bar in a mainstream Hollywood movie.
ALL THE PRESIDENT'S MEN (Alan J. Pakula, 1976) In our modern fondness for lighting everything from government offices to gas stations like film noir, we might check out All The President's Men to see a thriller whose setting actually looks like the world - large offices, open spaces lit with fluorescents, the only dark spot the parking garage where Woodward meets Deep Throat.
Pakula (Klute), a master of paranoia, was working
close to the events (Watergate was four years old when the film was made, and Nixon resigned in 74), so All The President's Men feels urgent and contemporary.
This is a fascinating story that glorifies police-beat-level journalism. The heroes aren't pundits; they're shoe-leather reporters knocking on doors and cold-calling people because they're stuck on a story that no one else wanted.
BEING THERE (Hal Ashby, 1979) Adapted from Jerzy Koskinski's novel, Being There is the story of a simple-minded naif who finds himself thrust into high-powered politics by accident. Peter Sellers gives a gorgeous performance as Chauncey
Gardiner, a man so blank that people can project their perceptions onto him. Melvyn Douglas won his second "cranky old spirit of decency" Oscar for this film. Sellers should have won. And Shirley MacLaine should have been nominated.
BRAZIL (Terry Gilliam, 1985) With its themes of terror, torture and mindless consumerism, Brazil looks less like a paranoid fantasy with each passing year. Gilliam's futuristic film is, by the way, officially a period piece - it takes place "sometime in the 20th century". What we learn from Brazil is that the corridors of power are dank, subterranean and filled with ductwork and small offices where the wheels of process grind exceedingly slow, if at all. Remember, the judicially sanctioned death that opens the film and triggers the plot is the result of a clerical error.
DR. STRANGELOVE OR: HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOMB (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) "Well, boys, this is it. Nooclear combat toe-to-toe with the Rooskies." It's one thing to "think the unthinkable," another entirely to laugh at the unthinkable, as Kubrick does in this, ahem, comedy about the potential nuclear annihilation of the human race.
This is one of the great American classics, and vastly superior to its humourless cousin, Fail Safe, either the original or the black-and-white remake with George Clooney. With Peter Sellers in three roles and Slim Pickens riding the bomb in to Russia, what could improve the comedy but the deadly serious and tragic presence of Sterling Hayden as General Jack Ripper, who launches WWIII because he's worried about fluoridation.
Hayden plays the part like the only actor who wasn't told the film was a comedy. Strangelove has one of the most quotable screenplays ever - "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room" - and Sellers's presidential hotline call to the Soviet premier is a masterpiece. Dr. Strangelove was nominated for four Academy Awards. It lost picture, director and actor to the My Fair Lady sweep and adapted screenplay to Becket. I like My Fair Lady as much as anyone, but what the hell?
DOWNFALL (Oliver Hirschbiegel, 2004) People have done Hitler's final days before, but this is the first shot by the Germans, with a stunning performance by Bruno Ganz as Hitler. Based on the testimony of Traudl Junge, Hitler's secretary (and subject of the film Blind Spot), and Albert Speer, Downfall is about the final days in the bunker when Berlin lies in ruins and the Red Army is patrolling the eastern suburbs. While some try to figure out how to save the Reich with a timely surrender, others are poisoning their own children.
Fascinating, intense melodrama about the third-most-prolific mass murderer of the 20th century and the people who went down with him.
HANDS OVER THE CITY (Francesco Rosi, 1963) What's power really about? Well, money, of course, and property. Rosi is a director whose films function as an alternative, unofficial history of modern Italy, and Hands Over The City is about power at the neighbourhood level, the street level.
It's about - this'll have you on the edge of your seat - a housing developer. It's about bribery, contracts and civic corruption, filmed by a moralist with a sense of humour, and stars Rod Steiger, who is prime, grade-A prosciutto. What fascinates Rosi is the way that corruption is never an isolated incident, and he takes enormous and perverse pleasure in tracking the webs of relationships through a rotting system.
THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (John Frankenheimer, 1962) The ultimate paranoid political novelist, Richard Condon has done very well by the movies - the first version of The Manchurian Candidate, Prizzi's Honor and Winter Kills (see below).
In this one, Raymond Shaw (Laurence Harvey) returns home from Korea, only to be manipulated by his mother (Angela Lansbury) and her political ambitions for her husband. Oh, and he's been brainwashed by the Commies into being their perfect assassin, one who doesn't even remember that he's killed. Frank Sinatra, in one of his best performances, plays a military intelligence officer haunted by the dream he has of his brainwashing, who goes to find Shaw.
Paranoid, perhaps, but still faintly optimistic. The downbeat ending still shows faith in the system of government, though preserving it requires blood. By the time of Wag The Dog, no such optimism is possible.
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Frank Capra, 1939) An obligatory inclusion - James Stewart is astonishing as the naive young senator - but Capra's inspirational sentiment hasn't worn nearly as well as Capra's dark-side musings (Meet John Doe). Mmmm... Jean Arthur....
THE QUEEN (Stephen Frears, 2006) Who'd have thought a movie about the relationship between Queen Elizabeth II and Prime Minister Tony Blair would be so fascinating? Like many contemporary movies, it's a film about spin, as Blair is a master at dealing with the media and the royals don't know the rules of the new world, bizarrely believing the death of Princess Diana to be "a private matter." Michael Sheen gives us a sympathetic Blair surrounded by radical Bolshie Labourites, but Helen Mirren manages the impossible - she gets us interested in Queen Elizabeth.
SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (John Frankenheimer, 1964) Anyone who thinks that Aaron Sorkin invented the "walk 'n' talk" should check out Seven Days In May, the story of an aborted military coup in the United States. This is a movie about guys in suits striding down corridors.
Burt Lancaster wants to overthrow the president (Frederic March) because he supports a nuclear disarmament treaty, and only Kirk Douglas stands between them. The best scene in the picture is the confrontation between Lancaster and March.
Perfect double bill: Seven Days is the film Frankenheimer made right after The Manchurian Candidate.
THE SUN (Aleksandr Sokurov, 2005) The final of Sokurov's three films about political power, The Sun is a bizarre comedy of manners about Emperor Hirohito in the days immediately following the Japanese surrender, when the emperor lives on the sufferance of the American occupation force.
It's a film about a cosmic shift of power - if the emperor is a god, then how can he be kept waiting by General MacArthur? Their meeting is the dramatic fulcrum of the film, a poised, impeccably polite battle in which the general tries to break down the formality of a situation where the polite ritual is the only thing keeping the emperor from imploding. A fascinating double bill with Downfall.
THE WANNSEE CONFERENCE (Heinz Schirk, 1984); CONSPIRACY (Frank Pierson, 2001) Two titles, one movie. The Wannsee Conference is a chilling German film constructed from the minutes of the meeting in which the Nazis decided, formally, what to do about the Jews. Conspiracy is a straight-up remake for HBO, in English, with Kenneth Branagh as Heydrich and Stanley Tucci as Eichmann.
With enough power, you can convince yourself of the justness of anything, and both productions bring home the meaning of Hannah Arendt's description of Eichmann manifesting "the banality of evil." The characters here discuss genocide the way an ordinary person would discuss a train schedule. Of course, in practical terms, they were also discussing train schedules. The German is slightly superior, but the American works as well, and, of course, has no subtitles.
WAG THE DOG (Barry Levinson, 1997) Robert De Niro as a political spin doctor, Dustin Hoffman as a Hollywood producer he enlists to distract people's attention from an incipient White House sex scandal with a fabricated war with Albania.
David Mamet wrote the screenplay with Hilary Henkin (Road House and Fatal Beauty), but you can hear Mamet in every pause and repetition. Mamet's worldview is that it's one big con game, and turning him loose on the political system is like injecting something with an antibody that causes disease.
Superb on every level, from De Niro's frightening articulation of the fiction of political reality and Hoffman's full-length unveiling of his legendary Robert Evans impression to William Macy's gobsmacked CIA agent - "Two things I know to be true. There is no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war in Albania."
WINTER KILLS (William Reichert, 1979) Director-writer Reichert picks up the novel's (Condon's, again) paranoid fascination with the Kennedy assassination. Jeff Bridges plays the younger brother of an assassinated president who finds himself entangled in the conspiracy. As he follows its trail, it leads straight back to his rich industrial titan of a father (John Huston at his most outrageous).
With its superb cast - great Tony Perkins bit, Sterling Hayden as a man so rich he runs tanks around his Texas ranch, Richard Boone - and persistent visual invention, Winter Kills almost qualifies as a lost masterpiece of 70s cinema, the poisonous fruit of a decade that held its paranoia close to its heart.
Purposeful Omission: Oliver Stone's Nixon, in part because I was never convinced by Anthony Hopkins as Nixon, and in part because I've never been able to sit through it to the end. I just don't care about the emotional anguish of Richard Milhouse Nixon. If you feel the necessity of a Nixon movie, try Dick, with Dan Hedaya as the president and Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams as scatty teens hired to walk the president's dog - it's Watergate as farce.