For the snowed-in political junkie, this week’s epic blizzard is the perfect excuse to binge-watch movies that will whet your appetite for intrigue and inspiration.
After East Coast residents dig themselves out from under the snow, they should treat themselves to some choice classics. And even if you’re not bearing the brunt of the storm, you can relax and watch these films to show solidarity with your snowbound countrymen.
For the ambitious: “Election” (1999)
Alexander Payne’s black comedy propelled a young Reese Witherspoon to stardom and provided the former Ferris Bueller, Matthew Broderick, with his best screen role in years. The film looks at a hyper competitive race for class president that changes the lives of all the candidates in ways both small and profound. Witherspoon gives one of best performances as the wholly original Tracy Flick, a perfectionist whose pushiness may alienate her peers but also provides her with a springboard to success in the world of politics. Currently streaming on Netflix.
This illuminating documentary gives the late Sen. George McGovern his due. Long dismissed as the far-left liberal who lost to Richard Nixon in a 1972 general election landslide, the film looks at McGovern’s World War II heroism, his principled stand against the war in Vietnam and his earnestly progressive campaign. McGovern himself participates in the film, alongside longtime supporters and defenders such as activist Gloria Steinem and comedian Dick Gregory. McGovern’s stirring and little-seen 1972 convention address (“Come Home, America”) still manages to inspire. Currently streaming on Amazon Prime.
For the cynical: “The Ides of March” (2011)
A-list superstar George Clooney co-wrote, co-starred and directed this brooding political drama, but it also boasts one of the most appealing ensemble casts of the last decade. Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Evan Rachel Wood and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman deliver star turns in this timely look at a modern, compromised political machine. The film is full of surprising plot twists and turns, but its strength lies in its performances, especially Clooney’s, which comes across as a totally credible take on a fantasy version of a center-left Democrat. Available to rent on iTunes and Amazon.
For the conspiratorial: “JFK” (1991)
Oliver Stone’s ambitious and dense dissection of the Kennedy assassination still holds up as a piece of incredibly compelling agitprop. Stone’s portrayal of crusading Louisiana district attorney Jim Garrison may strike some as too skewed, but there is enough substance to the film’s case that you will walk away convinced that the official government stance on what took place that fateful November day in 1963 can’t possibly be taken at face value. The breathtaking wealth of information conveyed in this film is dizzying – from the reenactment of the shooting in Dealey Plaza to the multiple “Oswalds” that allegedly popped up around Dallas – there is a lot to feast on here. Available to rent on Flixster, Vudu, Amazon and iTunes.
For the nostalgic: “By the People: The Election of Barack Obama” (2009)
If President Obama’s last State of the Union address brought back memories of the inspirational state senator with “the funny name” who captivated the country for the first time back in 2008, this is the movie for you. “Birdman” actor Edward Norton produced this loving ode to Obama’s historic first run for the presidency. All of the iconic moments are here, from the so-called “race speech” to the future president’s tearful final campaign stops, which took place in the aftermath of his grandmother’s death. Sure, Obama the president didn’t always live up to Obama the politician, but this film captures what makes him such a consistently captivating presence in American life. Available on HBO Go.
For the profane: “In the Loop” (2009)
Fans of the hit HBO series “Veep” will love this remarkably foul-mouthed spoof by its creator Armando Iannucci. A largely British cast lampoons the run-up to an Iraq-like war in behind-the-scenes board meetings and hilariously bad press briefings. Beneath the surface of this fast-paced, dialogue-driven romp are some very incisive observations about the complex relationship between the Brits and the U.S. when it comes to foreign policy. The film also features the late James Gandolfini in one of his best big screen roles as a general who is trying to prevent the march to war because he knows the human cost all to well. A little-seen masterpiece which provides a unique foreign perspective on American politics. Currently streaming on Netflix.
For the comedians: “Bulworth” (1998)
Warren Beatty’s last great film was a real barn-burner. The rebellious actor-director took advantage of an expiring contract with a major studio to make a rude, crude and unabashedly liberal political comedy. The former “Dick Tracy” plays a former radical senator who’s lost his way, selling out to corporate interests. However, a brush with death liberates the aging lawmaker and he starts really speaking his mind, embracing hip-hop in the process. The film (which co-stars Halle Berry and Don Cheadle) revels in a wild mix of sexual, racial and political humor that was in many ways ahead of its time, “Bulworth” remains a pitch-perfect indictment of the stagnant centrism of the 1990s. Available to rent on Flixster, Vudu, Amazon and iTunes.
For the conservative: “Nixon” (1995)
This sprawling Oliver Stone biopic is surprisingly sympathetic to Richard Nixon, the only U.S. president to ever resign from office. While Stone is an outspoken left-winger, he imbues Nixon the character (played indelibly by Sir Anthony Hopikins) with genuine pathos and a Shakespearean sense of tragedy. For those viewers who lean right, there is a lot to like about how the era of Nixon is portrayed. Sure, his dark side is explored in great detail, but Nixon’s skills as a statesman and dogged campaigner are also give significant screen time, which is more than many fans of the disgraced former president could’ve hoped from a big budget Hollywood spectacle. Available to rent on Flixster, iTunes and Amazon.
For the macabre: “Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)” (1964)
Stanley Kubrick’s legendary black comedy about the nuclear arms race is one of the most influential and memorable movies ever made. Its concept of “the war room” – an underground lair where the president and his national security team plot the future of the world – remains a staple in most Americans’ consciousness. Peter Sellers steals the show, playing three hilarious roles (with three distinct accents), but the film is a ultimately a brutal condemnation of man’s disposition to make war in lieu of making love. A must-see for any serious film buff, this now 50-year-old film still has a lot to say about our nation’s military industrial complex, and the insecure people who tend to be at the head of it. Available to rent on Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
For the history buffs: “Lincoln” (2012)
Come for the uncanny, Oscar-winning Daniel Day-Lewis portrayal of the titular hero in this Steven Spielberg blockbuster, but stay for the incredible true story of the political machinations that made the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution – which formally made slavery and indentured servitude illegal – a reality. It’s impossible these days to make a historical epic without ruffling a few feathers (just ask Ava DuVernay), but Spielberg strikes the right chord by not shying away from the shadier aspects of Lincoln’s maneuvering while also not overlooking the genuine heroism of his stalwart stand from equality under the law. Available to rent on Vudu, iTunes and Amazon.
For the Baby Boomers: “The Candidate” (1972)
Robert Redford gives one of his greatest performances as a Robert Kennedy-esque reformer who is recruited to run in a Senate race precisely because he is expected to lose. But, when his ideas start to take hold with the electorate, he is besieged by powerful forces that hope to shape him into a more amenable version of his old self. An incredibly smart and savvy look at the beginning of the modern campaign era, featuring Redford at the peak of his movie idol appeal. The film, which was written by a speechwriter for Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 campaign is a wonderful time capsule of anarchic spirit of the early 1970s. Available to rent on Flixster, Vudu, Amazon and iTunes.
For inspiration: “Milk” (2008)
Sean Penn won his second Best Actor with his transformational, against-type performance as the LGBT icon and trailblazer Harvey Milk in this tear-jerking biopic. This richly detailed film covers the ascent of the first gay politician to win elected office in California. The film, which makes an ideal companion piece to the equally compelling documentary “The Times of Harvey Milk,” captures the humor and heart of this tenacious man, who was largely under-appreciated while he was alive, but who has come to represent progress and change for a new generation of Americans. Just make sure you have a box of tissues nearby. Available to rent on Flixster, Vudu, Amazon and iTunes.