There is not an author or screenwriter, living or dead, who could have envisioned an American election cycle like the one transpiring south of our border. The unlikely and unprecedented ascent of Donald Trump, along with an unstoppable cavalcade of scandals and stories from just the past month alone, are keeping Americans (and the rest of the world) agonizing over the potential results.
As we collectively hold our breath for the next president – one that, we hope, will actually be confirmed on Nov. 8 – there may be no better time to visit (or revisit) some campaign classics. Some of the films below are directly tied to the political process. Others deal with some of the hot-button issues of this election cycle. However, many of them seem oddly prescient given the unbelievable craziness we have witnessed over the past year.
In his directorial debut, Tim Robbins stars as a populist folk crooner (named Bob Roberts) running for a Pennsylvania Senate seat. Shot like a Spinal Tap-like mockumentary, this whip-smart satire may have been funny for 1992, but achieves eeriness when viewed against this current election. (A violent conclusion with a certain character getting murdered by fanatical Roberts supporters should give us all pause in 2016.) It is also due to the great work of a deep ensemble, including Giancarlo Esposito as a muckraking journalist and Alan Rickman as a seedy campaign chairman, that the whole enterprise rings true.
With a few exceptions, Robert Redford could do no wrong in the 1970s. One of his best performances comes in this underappreciated drama from director Michael Ritchie. In The Candidate, Redford plays Bill McKay, a man with little government experience who is assigned to run a low-key campaign against a Republican powerhouse. The thinking is that McKay has no shot of triumph, so he runs a looser campaign. However, the race proves to be much, much closer than expected. This story of political gamesmanship and American cynicism felt timely in the 1970s. In a media-saturated 21st century, it feels timeless.
Odds are good you have recently come across a comparison of Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton with Tracy Flick, the uncompromising perfectionist portrayed brilliantly by Reese Witherspoon in Election. Flick is the determined frontrunner for student council president in Alexander Payne’s modern classic. But her run is up for debate when a popular athlete (Chris Klein) joins the race. This sly, bleakly funny comedy – still Payne’s finest film – benefits from star Matthew Broderick, in a career-best turn as the petulant teacher trying to orchestrate an upset.
A Face in the Crowd
Andy Griffith’s fiery turn as the influential and belligerent television personality Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes remains one of the strongest debut performances in cinema history. He received an Oscar nomination for the role, a few years before launching The Andy Griffith Show. This prophetic tale of absolute power and the dominance of media, from legendary director Elia Kazan, should have an enduring shelf life. The close mirror it holds up to the current presidential campaign should amuse and startle at equal measure.
Based on a true story, Pablo Larrain’s Oscar-nominated comedy about the political campaign to unseat notorious Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet is surprisingly fun. Gael Garcia Bernal is at the helm, as a youthful ad-man pitching a corny, colourful campaign to convince the country to get Pinochet to step down from his rule. In 2016, an era swarming with dour, negative campaign ads, it is quite refreshing to partake in a hopeful journey to create meaningful public change through the power of hokey TV commercials, circa the 1980s. Meanwhile, in a post-Brexit universe, there is value in watching a referendum end with heartwarming results.
If you cannot get enough of the Clintons this campaign season, you may have heard that it’s worthwhile to see The War Room, a documentary that followed the main operators of Bill Clinton’s 1992 bid for the presidency. While there are solid moments in that film, there’s probably even more to see in Primary Colors, based on Joe Klein’s coverage of that same campaign. John Travolta and Emma Thompson are the Clinton stand-ins, while a rich ensemble (including Maura Tierney and Kathy Bates) makes a nearly two-and-a-half hour campaign tale fly by with ease. The film manages to be charming and complex, just like the political power couple.
12th and Delaware
Women’s reproductive rights jumped back into the national conversation after the third presidential debate. The subject has not received much of a treatment on the big screen. Nevertheless, this thoughtful 2010 documentary from Rachel Grady and Heidi Ewing covers both sides of the abortion debate with fascinating care and is sure to spur conversation. The film centres on the titular Florida intersection: there is a clinic that provides abortions on one side and an anti-abortion crisis pregnancy centre on the other. That close proximity between the buildings is no mistake, as we soon learn. The ideological warfare could not be more loaded, so prepare for a tense, galvanizing 90 minutes.
Much to the chagrin of Clinton supporters, Anthony Weiner became a major topic of conversation late in this political season. Well, it’s now as good a time as any to catch one of this year’s finest non-fiction films, about the disgraced congressman’s failed bid for New York City mayor. Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s doc gets up close and personal with the polarizing figure, wife Huma Abedin and many New Yorkers cheering for (and against) the titular politician. Love him or hate him, Weiner proves to be a fascinating subject, shifting in attitude and mood from scene to scene. Few films have explored the campaign trail with as much thrilling insider access.
Where to Invade Next
What would an election year be without some spirited conversation from Michael Moore? Released in theatres earlier this year, Where to Invade Next stars the director, draped in an American flag, as he jets off to many European and Asian countries. He arrives to “steal” these countries’ laws and ideas – vacation pay, free education – and bring them to the United States. Some may be bothered by Moore’s lack of subtlety, but the Oscar winner knows how to build an argument in a compelling way. As Americans argue about the right way to move their country forward – or, if you will, make America great again – Moore offers some unique viewpoints.