Photo: Universal Pictures
A nation divided. A war of ideals. It sounds a lot like reality and it sounds a lot like a movie. Indeed, the history of cinema is fertile with motion pictures with political storylines and lofty social ambitions. Ever since we discovered that the moving image has a distinct power over the masses, artists and governments have been using films to convey their message… for better and often for worse.
Compiling a list of the best political movies in history is a daunting task. We had to allow for films that espouse ideas and ideals that don’t necessarily match our own. We had to consider a film’s quality as a political document and/or statement as a separate entity from its overall quality (the so-called “best movie ever made” only ranks at #49 on this list for that very reason).
And we had to cast a wide net, so this Big List was voted upon and written by a half dozen film critics: Crave‘s William Bibbiani and Witney Seibold, The Wrap‘s Alonso Duralde, Linoleum Knife‘s Dave White, Blumhouse‘s Alyse Wax and Collider‘s Brian Formo. They each nominated 50 films, ranked from #1-50, and we tabulated those votes to come up with the following Top 50 Best Political Movies Ever. (Stick around at the end, when we’ll reveal our 50 runners-up as well.)
50. Frost/Nixon (dir. Ron Howard, 2008)
Although more people tend to include the phrase “I am not a crook” in their Richard Nixon impersonations, society should, perhaps, consider “When the president does it, it’s not illegal” instead. Ron Howard’s crackling 2008 drama details a fateful TV interview between British journalist David Frost and the ousted ex-president. Since politics is about spin, it becomes a spin vs. spin machine, with Frost attempting to get a too-smart Nixon to open up. He eventually gets a soundbite for the ages.
49. Citizen Kane (dir. Orson Welles, 1941)
This all-time classic explores power in this country, whether it’s a media mogul making an opera star out of his untalented wife or a love-hungry millionaire running for public office out of a desperate need for mass approval. When Charles Foster Kane (director and co-writer Orson Welles) runs for governor, he uses his newspaper empire against rival “Boss” Jim W. Gettys (Ray Collins), only to be caught unprepared when mud gets flung back. Still, Kane has one ace left up his sleeve: when he loses the election in a landslide, his paper’s headline screams, “FRAUD AT POLLS!”
48. Casablanca (dir. Michael Curtiz, 1942)
One of the great movies, one of the great romances, and one of the great unsung political tales. Michael Curtiz’s World War II drama is set in a neutral territory, where the law is manipulated by whoever happens to have the upper hand at the moment, and the nobodies are driven under the heel of bureaucracy and self-interest. And at the center of it all is Rick, played by a gloriously stubborn Humphrey Bogart, who has a “Get Out of Casablanca Free” card and an ex-lover who needs them. He can do the right thing and put himself in the Nazi crosshairs, or keep looking out for number: the American attitude towards World War II for many years, wrapped inside a single person, who makes an inspired choice.
47. The Ides of March (dir. George Clooney, 2011)
The candidate remains entirely offstage in the play “Farragut North,” but on the big screen he’s George Clooney (who also directed), getting tied up in the machinations of ambitious campaign worker Ryan Gosling, who’s willing to step on friend, foe or mentor alike in his climb up the political ladder. From dirty tricks to manipulating access-hungry members of the media, all the tricks of the trade are exposed in this unflinching look at the mechanics of electing a president. The stellar supporting cast features Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, among others.
46. Game Change (dir. Jay Roach, 2012)
Game Change tells the story of John McCain’s ill-fated choice of asking then-Governor of Alaska Sarah Palin to be his running mate in the 2008 election season. Personally, I find Sarah Palin to be little more than a cartoon character. Julianne Moore’s portrayal of the politician made her feel far more human than Palin herself could. Watching Game Change helped soothe me into believing the 2008 presidential election was nothing more than Hollywood fantasy.
45. The Look of Silence (dir. Joshua Oppenheimer, 2015)
After The Act of Killing, Joshua Oppenheimer’s hallucinogenic journey into the minds of unapologetic genocidal monsters living openly and without remorse in Indonesia (see: #16) came a quieter film that was no less powerful. The Look of Silence follows the brother of a famous victim who confronts the murderers, letting them brag about their crimes before revealing his personal connection to the dead. Watching these formerly unrepentant killers backtrack and suddenly claim ignorance is enlightening, but watching them casually threaten their interviewer’s life on camera – free from any consequence – is a horror.
44. Argo (dir. Ben Affleck, 2012)
It is a story that sounds too fantastical to be true. In 1979, Iranians stormed the American embassy in Tehran and took 50 hostages. Six employees managed to escape and found safety in the Canadian ambassador’s home. In order to avoid interfering with the planned military action to free the hostages, a plan is formed to save the six: go into Iran as a production team working on a science fiction epic. In order to properly fool the officials, real Hollywood producers are brought in to write a script, set up a production office, and even plant fake news pieces in Variety.
The political implications are pretty overt in Argo, but it’s a little terrifying and sad that the events in Iran 35 years ago are not too much different than they were in 2012, when the film was released.
43. Fahrenheit 9/11 (dir. Michael Moore, 2004)
While the presidential election of 2004 indicates there weren’t enough Americans fed up with George W. Bush to vote him out of office, there were certainly plenty of people worldwide so eager to see Michael Moore’s exposé on Bush and the lead-up to the Iraq War that this film became the highest-grossing documentary of all time and a Palme d’Or winner at Cannes. Mixing the truth, opinion, spin and prankishness that are the hallmarks of any Moore joint, this film may not have unseated a president, but it definitely brought a brand new flavor to the political documentary.
42. State Legislature (dir. Frederick Wiseman, 2007)
When Frederick Wiseman points his camera, you see everything he sees, and you often see it for a good long time. This 217-minute field trip to the Idaho legislature is a study in how real people work and function within the rules of democracy, and it’s signature Wiseman: no narration and no score, the only signposts toward directorial point of view from the edited frame itself. He’s a filmmaker interested in details and process and communities, and his access to and fascination with those communities make him the most important living documentary filmmaker. Follow him patiently.
41. Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (dir. Robert Drew, 1963)
Robert Drew’s 1963 documentary is part of the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress for good reason: it captures a moment of political and social upheaval with astonishing clarity. As Alabama governor George Wallace threatens to “stand in the schoolhouse door” rather than racially integrate the University of Alabama, five film crews followed him, President John F. Kennedy, and two black students trying to enroll. What results is a film that feels shockingly current, one that should be required viewing for every American who insists that what’s past is past.