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6 Classic Movies About Politics

From the Idealism of Capra to the Cyncism of New Hollywood

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While our country may be divided between parties, there is no doubt that we Americans enjoy our politics, for better or worse. Naturally, Hollywood has obliged our fascination with several classics throughout the years.

Though politics has always been fertile ground for movies, their tone has changed along with the times. The idealism so passionately expressed by Frank Capra in the 1930s eventually gave way to deep-rooted skepticism as greed and corruption crept into public consciousness.

By the time Richard Nixon slithered away from office in 1974, audiences had turned a cynical eye toward our political process and our movies reflected that change. Here are six political classics from the idealistic 1930s to the cynical 1970s.

1. ‘The Informer’ – 1935

Turner Home Entertainment
Depicting the Irish troubles of the early 1920s, director John Ford’s dark and gritty political drama that featured an Oscar-winning performance from star Victor McLaglen in the only Best Actor nomination of his career. McLaglen starred as a simple-minded, but well-meaning Irishman named Gypo Nolan, who is turned away from the IRA for a lack of commitment and later informs on his fugitive friend (Wallace Ford), which leads to murder, betrayal and eventually his own salvation. The Infomer was a box office failure, but that didn’t stop Ford from winning his first of four Academy Awards for Best Director.
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2. ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ – 1939

Sony Pictures
One of the most memorable and acclaimed films about the world of politics, Frank Capra’s classic Mr. Smith Goes to Washington featured an impassioned Oscar-nominated performance from James Stewart. Made in the great year of 1939, the film starred Stewart as the overly idealistic Jefferson Smith, a small town hero and leader of a boy scout troop chosen by the powers-that-be to serve as an interim senator following the previous senator's death. Filled undying enthusiasm, Smith heads to Washington with wide-eyed dreams, only to find them dashed in the face of entrenched political corruption. Finding strength from the boys he has sworn to serve, Smith fights for his ideals by filibustering the Senate and exposing its corrupt ways in one cinema’s most iconic scenes. Certainly a far cry from the reality of politics, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is nonetheless great escapist entertainment that features one of the greatest performances of Stewart’s career.
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3. ‘State of the Union’ – 1948

Universal Studios Home Entertainment
A morality tale wrapped inside a romantic melodrama, State of the Union starred Spencer Tracy as an aircraft tycoon convinced by a femme fatale-like newspaper mogul (Angela Lansbury) to run for president. But in order to keep up appearances, he must reunite with his estranged wife (Katharine Hepburn) and pretend to still be married. She gamely agrees to the rouse, if only because she believes that he would make a good president. But after discovering his affair with Lansbury, she learns that he’s willing to compromise his own values just to secure a few votes. This being a film directed by Frank Capra, Tracy sees the error of his ways at the end and proves his worth both to Hepburn and the country. Not Capra’s best film, State of the Union featured fine performances from Tracy and Hepburn, though it was less idealistic than the director’s previous political films and presaged some of the cynicism that was yet to come.
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4. ‘All the King’s Men’ – 1949

Sony Pictures
Adapted from Robert Penn Warren’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, All the King’s Men was a not-so-veiled examination of Louisiana governor Hugo Long’s career. The film starred Oscar winner Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, a backwoods lawyer who beats the drum of populism to claw his way into the governor’s mansion, where he immediately ditches his ideals to become just another despotic crook. Stark battles a never-ending line of enemies while indulging in corruption and infidelity, though he earns the undying loyalty of a hard-scrabble reporter (John Ireland) and his campaign assistant (Mercedes McCambridge), who wants Stark to leave his wife in order to marry her. Eventually, Stark pays in a big way for his corruption even as it looks like he’s about to escape a doomed political future. Nominated for six Academy Awards, All the King’s Men won three, including Best Picture. The film was remade in 2006 with Sean Penn playing Stark, though that film was not nearly as well received.
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5. ‘The Best Man’ – 1964

United Artists
Based on Gore Vidal’s satirical Broadway hit, The Best Man focused on the seamy behind-the-scenes machinations of a presidential campaign, and starred Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson as two fatally vulnerable candidates vying for the White House. Both candidates have their skeletons in the closet and seek to expose the other to the public. Fonda is the more liberal of the two and tries to prevent his wife (Margaret Leighton) from divorcing him before his party’s convention. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous Robertson will stop at nothing to knock off his opponent while trying to hide his history of mental illness. With sharp-tongued dialogue and sterling performances from both Fonda and Robertson, The Best Man pulled back the curtain and offered an unflinching look at the dark underbelly of American politics.
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6. ‘The Candidate’ – 1972

Warner Bros.
A brilliant satire released during Richard Nixon’s re-election campaign, The Candidate skewered both politics and a media apparatus that cynically reduced values and ideas to digestible sound bites. Robert Redford played Bill McKay, a liberal attorney and the son of a former governor (Melvyn Douglas) who’s enlisted by a campaign operative (Peter Boyle) to take on an incumbent Republican senator (Don Porter) for his seat, but only if McKay is allowed to speak his mind. McKay does in fact campaign by preaching truth and honesty, and begins a rather unexpected climb in the polls when his rhetoric begins to capture the public's imagination. But as he goes from underdog to favorite, McKay finds himself increasingly seduced by the powers-that-be while losing sight of his original idealism. The Candidate was a hit with critics and audiences, and earned former Eugene McCarthy speechwriter, Jeremy Lerner, the Oscar for Best Screenplay.
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