Filmmakers have long been drawn to the drama of political campaigns—even Charles Foster Kane ran for office. The latest film to join this long tradition is The Ides of March, which opens today. In it, George Clooney runs for president, Philip Seymour Hoffman is his campaign manager, and Ryan Gosling is Hoffman’s idealistic number two man. Paul Giamatti runs a rival campaign.
The Ides of March is based on a play called Farragut North by Beau Willimon—who’s now helping to adapt the British series House of Cards, another story of dirty politics, for American television. Below, Willimon picks his top five films about politics.
The Candidate (1972)
This is the classic film about a campaign from start to finish, and shows how running for office can warp the candidate and the people around him. Robert Redford begins as an idealistic activist-lawyer and morphs into a polished, morally compromised Senator. It’s honest, gritty, funny, and accurate, everything that a great movie should be. In the famous final scene (spoiler alert, run for your lives!!!), the newly elected Senator McKay (Redford), surrounded by jubilant supporters, grabs his campaign manager and says he needs to talk to him. They run first into a freight elevator, then to an empty hotel room. There, McKay asks, “What do we do now?” The question is left hanging as the movie abruptly ends. But it’s the question at the heart of every campaign. After all the money and energy spent to win, what is actually to be done with the power the voters have vested in you? Redford’s performance is pitch-perfect throughout. (And c’mon, who wouldn’t vote for Robert Redford? Even if you don’t like his politics, you gotta love his hair.)
All the President’s Men (1976)
What can I say, I have a soft spot for Redford. This film is based on the seminal book of the same title that inspired multitudes of ambitious young’uns to attend J-school and ushered in the modern age of the byline, when who broke the news became almost as important as the news itself. Subsequently, journalism evolved from straightforward reportage to a heroic crusade for the Truth with a capital T. Since then, some would argue, the mainstream media has devolved into petty sensationalism and, in some cases, overt propaganda (did someone say Fox News?). Written by my friend and mentor William Goldman, the movie dramatizes how Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein brought down Nixon’s presidency, proving that sometimes the pen is mightier than the crook.
The War Room (1993)
Another president whom the press tried to bring down was Bill Clinton (although, unlike with Nixon, of course, they did not succeed). In the wake of the Lewinsky scandal and Hillary Clinton’s failed bid for the presidency, it’s easy to forget the heady, idealistic days of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, a world captured perfectly in the documentary The War Room. The film also gives an unprecedented insider’s look at the early careers of master political strategists George Stephanopoulos and James Carville.
Street Fight (2005)
On par with The War Room is the outstanding if lesser known documentary Street Fight. The film follows Cory Booker (the real Obama) in his fight to unseat the incumbent mayor of Newark, Sharpe James. This is politics down and dirty and local. Booker must contend with James’s (often illegal) efforts to thwart his campaign at every turn. Booker’s ability to remain undaunted in the face of James’s ruthless political machine is truly uplifting. Booker loses, but the happy ending is that he won the mayoralty in the next election. It is difficult to make a film that is equal parts optimistic and cynical, terrifying and inspiring. Street Fight is all of the above.
I’m cheating here: two for the price of one. When it comes to outright satire of political campaigning, the two movies that can’t be topped are Wag the Dog and Election. I never saw Election, but my assistant Bill did, and he said it’s very good and demanded that I include it on this list. (As is the case in the political world, the assistants are the actual bosses, so I am following orders.) But since I didn’t see it, you’ll have to look up the synopsis on Rotten Tomatoes. I did see Wag the Dog, the wacky film about a spin doctor enlisting the help of a Hollywood producer to help deflect attention away from a presidential scandal. How does one achieve such a thing? Invent a fake war with Albania, of course! As wild as the movie may seem at times, it’s not that far from the truth. Washington, D.C., is not that different from Hollywood: big egos, too much money flying around, and a very loose definition of “honesty.” In fact, many people say Washington, D.C., is just Hollywood for ugly people. Those many people would be right.