In Election Movies, Playing By A Rule of Three

Frank Sinatra holds a playing card.

Frank Sinatra in The Manchurian Candidate — a contender for Best Election Film, according to two prominently placed sources within NPR MGM hide caption

itoggle caption MGM

Watch List: The Candidates

NPR asked the presumptive nominees of the two major parties to name their favorite political flicks. Their answers:

Barack Obama (D)

  • The Candidate

John McCain (R)

  • The American President
Dustin Hoffman, left, and Robert Redford

Dustin Hoffman, left, and Robert Redford pursued the Watergate plumbers — and the story of the century — in All the President's Men. Warner Bros. Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Warner Bros. Pictures

Watch List: The NPR Six

Members of NPR's political team also submitted their favorites:

Correspondent Peter Overby

  • All the President's Men — My beat requires that I list this one first, although the political side is overshadowed by the journalistic thrill of the hunt.
  • A Flash of Green — Indie film with Ed Harris, Blair Brown and Richard Jordan. Developer battles local environmentalists, with (initially) aimless reporter caught in the middle. Filmmakers usually go for the flash-bang in politics; writer-director Victor Nunez (working off a John D. MacDonald novel) is more subtle and, from my experience, gets closer to reality.

Political Editor Ken Rudin

  • The Manchurian Candidate — Tension, drama, horrific and shocking events, great Cold War drama, truly the feel of a convention — but also instances of bad acting, ridiculous fight scenes.
  • Advise and Consent — Best example of drama behind a Senate confirmation hearing; personal trauma and angst.
  • The Lives of Others — Not American politics, but a brilliant look at East Germany before and after the fall of communism.
  • Duck Soup — Hail Fredonia!
  • The American President — Lobbying and romance, something you usually don't find anywhere in the same sentence, unless you're Peter Overby.

Reporter Audie Cornish

  • Election — Who hasn't met a campaign/legislative staffer with a (Tracy) Flick-ian sense of ambition? The politics of the yearbook committee are very close to that of a paper/newsroom — minus the underage sex, of course. And the "third party" candidate is the most entertaining since Perot's charts.

Correspondent Robert Smith

  • Election — Popularity, ego, image, pettiness and jealousy — nothing much has changed since high school. And am I the only one who saw a little Tracy Flick in Hillary Clinton?

Vox Politics Blogger Evie Stone

  • Dr. Strangelove — "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here ... this is the War Room!"

Correspondent Ina Jaffe

  • The Great McGinty — A comedy by Preston Sturges. A bum wanders into the headquarters/nightclub of a big-city ward boss. It's Election Day and they pay him to vote. He votes a lot, all over town, and makes a lot of money. He becomes the go-to guy for the machine, and eventually they run him for governor, thinking they can control him. He ultimately defies the machine and wins the respect of the woman he loves. This movie makes me totally nostalgic for my home town of Chicago — except the part at the end where he defies the machine.

Correspondent Scott Horsley

  • City Hall — With Al Pacino and John Cusack — especially the funeral scene. And I guess it's cheating, but what about the two-hour finale of The West Wing?

Perhaps unwisely taking my cue from King Lear, who proposed dividing his domain into three parts — one of the more boneheaded political moves in world literature — let me propose a three-way divide of Hollywood, as a way of understanding how its myth makers deal with the politics of election movies.

Tinseltown long ago recognized the drama inherent in elections: sharp battle lines being drawn, a rising arc to tension, a denouement with clear winners and losers.

And filmmakers were also quick to understand the cinematic benefits of concentrating not on speeches and issues but on political skullduggery — behind-the-scenes trickery, attempts to massage messages, desperate ploys to rig election returns.

The result is that while movies with a generically political bent come in all shapes and styles, election movies are almost always about process — specifically, about efforts to manipulate either (a) the media, and thereby the public, (b) the candidate or (c) the process itself. A few notable examples:

Manipulating The Media

Bob Roberts (1992) In this briskly amusing satire, Tim Robbins plays a folk-singing reactionary who's remarkably successful at presenting himself to the public as a pious populist — until he unwisely gives a British documentary film crew too much access as it follows him on the campaign trail.

Wag the Dog (1998) When a budding scandal threatens to derail the re-election campaign of a sitting president just days before the nation heads to the polls, his chief political operative (Robert De Niro) needs to distract the press. With the help of a movie producer (Dustin Hoffman), a pop singer (Willie Nelson) and an all-too-plausibly gullible press corps, he has soon trumped up a phony war.

Power (1986) Richard Gere is a PR specialist who can sell anything to anyone in a political campaign — until he develops a conscience.

Manipulating The Candidate

State of the Union (1948) Based on the Howard Lindsay/Russell Crouse play, Frank Capra's dramedy pits craven newspaper editor Angela Lansbury against crafty Katharine Hepburn (as the candidate's estranged wife) in a struggle over whether reluctant politico Spencer Tracy will remain true to his ideals.

The Candidate (1972) This insider's view of politics (written by one of Eugene McCarthy's speechwriters) establishes that because Robert Redford's title character knows he's going to lose, he has no trouble speaking his mind on the stump. But when it looks as if he's going to be really humiliated, he starts following the dictates of his consultants — soft-pedaling ideals, selling out allies — and begins doing so much better with voters that the unthinkable happens.

The Best Man (1964) Based on Gore Vidal's play, with main characters that are thinly veiled versions of political figures from the '50s and early '60s: Henry Fonda as an ineffectual idealist in the Adlai Stevenson mold; Cliff Robertson as a ruthless opportunist many find reminiscent of Richard Nixon. Both seek the backing of an ailing president (an intriguing blend of FDR, Truman and Ike) and must decide how much they'll compromise to get it.

Primary Colors (1998) Based on the Joe Klein novel (itself a roman a clef about Bill Clinton's first presidential campaign), the film stars John Travolta as a candidate who will do almost anything to win, dismaying his allies and causing some of them to take action to force him to alter course.

Manipulating The Process

The Manchurian Candidate (1962) In the midst of the Cold War, John Frankenheimer's classic brought underhanded regime change home in the form of a political assassination. Brainwashed POW Laurence Harvey returns home to his domineering mother ('60s political monster-of-choice Lansbury, again) and becomes unwittingly involved in a stunning political conspiracy. The film seemed eerily prescient after tragedy struck Dallas in November 1963; a 2004 remake placed Meryl Streep, Denzel Washington and Liev Schreiber in the Lansbury/Sinatra/Harvey roles, to considerably lesser effect.

All the President's Men (1976) The story of the Watergate scandal — the Nixon White House's real-life attempt to manipulate the system with a midnight raid on Democratic headquarters (and subsequent cover-up) — made for a hugely entertaining screen whodunit. Alan J. Pakula's pristine direction and the look-alike casting of Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein turned it into one of the era's most riveting political films.

Election (1999) A satirical look at a high school student-body leadership race; teacher Matthew Broderick tries to rig the system to prevent overachiever Reese Witherspoon from winning. A hilariously effective primer on election skullduggery.

Correction Aug. 20, 2008

An earlier version of this story misidentified the director of the film "All the President's Men." The passage has been corrected.

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