Hollywood has always been fascinated with politics - and vice versa. Here are 10 great old movies about politics, money, and power, from political thrillers to screwball comedies.
Patriotic, smart and stirring, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
is the story of a political innocent who comes to the Capitol full of ideals and reverence for democracy, and who meets with corruption and dirty dealing. Its sharp insights on the political process are as valid today as they were in 1939, and Jimmy Stewart is irresistible as Mr. Smith. An antidote to cynicism about the sorry state of politics, and a reminder that public servants have a lot to live up to.
A brilliant film from a brilliant novel, All the King's Men
is a fictional re-telling of the life of Louisiana Governor Huey Long, the Kingfish, and his rise to power as a populist. Country lawyer Willie Stark builds his own empire as he builds roads, schools and hospitals for the poor, and plays bare-knuckled politics with the remnants of the political aristocracy in his old southern state. The role of a lifetime for Broderick Crawford, it's a clear-eyed look at a man striking the uneasy balance between public service and the corruption of power. Remade in 2006 with Sean Penn.
Another thinly veiled biopic, Citizen Kane
is among the best films of all time. It traces the rise of publisher William Randolph Hearst, in the guise of Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles), and included a failed run for governor of New York. Less a movie about the inner workings of politics than a biography, Citizen Kane is a portrait of the kind of American icon who seeks power in all the arenas of American life -- through wealth, fame, the voice of the media and the votes of the public.
An incisive black comedy and the best movie ever made about the Cold War, the 40-year standoff between the Soviet Union and the United States that threatened to wipe out every living thing on the face of the planet. Bleak and funny, it features Peter Sellers in an astonishing three roles, George C. Scott as a testosterone-charged general, and Sterling Hayden as the bat-guano-crazy base commander who brings the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation.
The dead-serious counterpart to Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe is another Cold War cautionary tale about what might have happened if any of our bomb-laden B-52s had ever flown beyond their "fail safe" points, and were about to drop their nukes inside the Soviet Union. Henry Fonda stars as a president trying to find a way out of a hopeless situation, and somehow prevent global Armageddon. Long before he was J.R. in "Dallas," Larry Hagman was affecting as the interpreter between the President and the Russian leader, with the fate of the world in the balance.
Another Cold War "what if" scenario, Seven Days in May
posits a coup by the military to take power away from a President who was being insufficiently warlike in the face of Communist aggression. Possibly inspired by General Curtis LeMay and other right-wing military leaders' sharp disagreements with President John F. Kennedy, it's a tense political thriller with a brainy script by Rod Serling and an outstanding cast. Kudos to a film that makes the viewer consider -- and care deeply about -- civilian control of the military.
There's never been anything quite like this chilling, surreal Cold War piece. Angela Lansbury is the stone-cold evil tool of the Communists, manipulating her weak McCarthy-esque Senator husband and serving as the "controller" for her own son, a Korean War hero turned into a robotic assassin by sinister commie brainwashers. With Frank Sinatra as another brainwashed soldier, some bizarre dialog, and just plain trippy scenes of the brainwashing, the film is nonetheless gripping. The Manchurian Candidate
was remade in 2004 with Denzel Washington.
The melodramatic story of a President's nominee to be Secretary of State (Henry Fonda) and the political skullduggery that ensues when a southern senator (Charles Laughton in his last role) attempts to undermine the choice. Real Washington locations and great sets highlight Advise and Consent
, showing what the city and the Senate really looked like in the 1960s. From a best-selling novel, it was the first mainstream film to depict a gay bar in pre-Stonewall New York, where a Utah senator confronts his blackmailer.
From a Broadway hit, Born Yesterday
is the sweetly funny story of a gangster's girlfriend (Judy Holiday) who comes with him to Washington as he attempts to bribe a congressman to the benefit of his junk-dealing business. The junk-dealer (Broderick Crawford) hires a journalist to help teach her about the finer things so she'll make a more presentable date -- but unfortunately for him the "finer things" she takes to heart include ethics and a sense of civic responsibility. Remade with Melanie Griffith in 1993.
His Girl Friday
is a terrific movie about the newspaper business and its pursuit of crooked government officials. The second movie version of the Ben Hecht play "The Front Page," the film pits reporter Rosalind Russell and editor Cray Grant against a crooked city and state administration, as politics swirl around the fate of a mild-mannered prisoner about to be hanged. Rapid-fire, overlapping dialog and a clever and complicated plot, it will make you laugh out loud.