Friday, December 18, 2009

The Top 5 Political Campaign Movies

Part 5 of our 5-part series: “Hollywood Does Politics”

It’s finally here: our Top 5 fictional movies about political campaigns! Before we tell you all about them, let’s go over how we came up with the list.

First, the movies cannot be a documentary. We already listed our top 5 political campaign documentaries last week.

Second, it has to be about campaigns. While “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” is one of the best political films of all time, it only barely involves a campaign (and a machine campaign that’s not quite so relevant today – at least outside of Chicago).

Third, we had to decide what factors were important for the list. The three factors that went into our decisions were:

1) Accuracy
2) Entertainment value
3) Does it make you think?

The following movies had all of the three components, although each stressed some more than others. Then we’ll show you what campaign movies some of our readers most enjoyed.

Here’s our list…

1) “Primary Colors” (1998)

Screenplay by: Elaine May
Produced by: Mike Nichols, Jonathan Krane, Neil Machlis
Directed by: Mike Nichols

Based on the novel by Anonymous (later revealed to be journalist Joe Klein), “Primary Colors” follows the story of a southern governor running for president in the Democratic primary. It is well understood that the novel and film are meant to portray the 1992 Clinton campaign during the presidential primaries.

The film is funny, dramatic, insightful, and accurate about politics and campaigns.

Watch the trailer:

The candidate is Governor Jack Stanton (John Travolta) who very much resembles Bill Clinton. The movie opens with his staff trying to recruit Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) for a high-level position on the campaign. Burton is often thought to represent George Stephanopoulos.

As he gets wrapped into the campaign, Burton meets other colorful characters such as Susan Stanton (Emma Thompson) – Jack’s wife and a good portrayal of the real-life Hilary – Democratic strategist Richard Jemmons (Billy Bob Thorton) – who is a great representation of James Carville – and Libby Holden (Kathy Bates), Jack’s former chief-of-staff with deep-rooted emotional problems.

Throughout the film, the audience is exposed to a large sample of campaign truisms that they might not expect. Volunteers have trouble learning to work with computer voter files, upper-level staff researches both the opposition and their own candidate, and they actively work for support from key Democratic voting blocs. For example, Burton has one Jewish volunteer call up every rabbi in the phone book and start the conversation in Hebrew.

The campaign strategy is also fairly accurate. When Stanton encounters rumors about extramarital affairs, friends of the Stantons suggest that the campaign ignore the rumors as unsubstantiated and malicious attacks. The campaign, in their mind, is about the issues. Jemmons wisely points out that they “can’t ignore” the attacks, knowing that it would only seem to confirm their truth.

One of the most interesting aspects is how the staffers view campaigning – they’re professionals, not activists, and they can’t get emotionally attached to the politics. In one scene, Jemmons points out how a real pro shouldn’t get caught up in “true believerism”:

The movie is also delightfully humorous - at least at the start. As the film goes on, Burton is more and more asked to cross lines into morally grey territory. As Stanton tells him at the end, when he’s concerned about all the ethically challenging parts of campaigning:

“This is the price you pay to lead. You don’t think that Abraham Lincoln was a whore before he was president? He had to tell his little stories and smile his [expletive]-eating back-country grin. And he did it just so he would one day have the opportunity to stand in front of the nation and appeal to the better angels of our nature.”

“Primary Colors” combines it all - political accuracy, entertainment, and watching it forces you to think about what code you must carry as (what Aristotle called) a political animal.

If you haven’t seen it, rent it right away.

2) “The Candidate” (1972)

Screenplay by: Jeremy Larner
Produced by: Walter Coblenz
Directed by: Michael Ritchie

Written by a speechwriter for Sen. Eugene McCarthy during his presidential campaign, “The Candidate” focuses on a California Senate race between Democrat Bill McKay (Robert Redford) and Republican incumbent Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter).

Watch the original trailer:

Political consultant Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle) goes to California to recruit a candidate he figures doesn’t have a chance, but will pay the bills through the election cycle. He convinces McKay to run, with the understanding that he’ll lose, and thus can say whatever he wants. As the race goes on, it becomes clear that he has a shot of winning, and the campaign becomes more and more about toning down McKay’s strong liberalism.

Message is the primary topic of this film. Early on, we see how McKay’s experienced staff tries to frame the message in such a way that it will be appealing to the voters while not undermining the candidate’s beliefs. For example, McKay is pro-choice, but the advisors tell him to say more studies need to be done on the topic (remember in 1972 abortion was still illegal in most parts of the country, and being pro-life was the norm).

Sometimes, they simply had to come up with a line that was catchy and funny because the candidate was so liberal it could damage him. For example, when asked about where the communists should be stopped (in Vietnam or on the shores of California) one staffer suggests he say that he’ll “stop the communists before Santa Monica, because the parking there is bad enough as it is.”

While some of the campaign practices are a bit outdated (the singing, dancing McKay girls come to mind) most of the film is eerily familiar. When McKay asks why his ads aren’t about the issues early in the campaign, Lucas tells him they need to sell his face first. In other words, voters have to know who you are before they hear what exactly you stand for.

Even the day-by-day campaign activities are extremely accurate. McKay frequently has to ignore eccentric voters bothering him (like one man consistently asking “what do you think of my dog?!”), he hardly gets to eat during the day, the office is a makeshift operation with calendars and other hand-made charts all over the walls, and the constant repetition of the stump speech drives him nuts.

In one memorable scene, McKay mocks how overplayed the speech sounds to him:

Even through Election Day, the scene is largely similar to what you can see today. For example, GOTV volunteers rip down Jarmon door hangers and replace them with McKay ones.

The opponent - though seen a lot less - also has some familiar campaign tactics up his sleeves. When McKay visits a forest fire to attack anti-environmental policies, Jarmon comes in by helicopter and tells the press how he spoke to the president and is introducing a bill to provide relief in the wake of the fire. In this way he is taking advantage of his incumbency, which is not exactly unordinary. He also ignores McKay’s calls for a debate until he loses enough traction in the polls.

“The Candidate” is not the most entertaining movie out there (in fact, it’s a bit dry) but it is the #1 political campaign movie in terms of accuracy. To see how campaigns are won and lost, you must see this film.

3) “Swing Vote” (2008)

Screenplay by: Jason Richman, Joshua Michael Stern
Produced by: Kevin Costner, Jim Wilson
Directed by: Joshua Michael Stern

It’s a cheesy movie that’s remarkably more family-friendly than the rest, but “Swing Vote” examines some very interesting patterns in modern political campaigns.

Watch the trailer:

Texico, New Mexico resident Bud Johnson (Kevin Costner) gets laid-off, gets drunk at a bar, and forgets to vote. His democracy-loving daughter Molly (Madeline Carroll) tries to vote for him, but the voting machine doesn’t work. That night, the presidential race comes down to the five electoral votes in New Mexico, and New Mexico comes down to one vote that wasn’t counted: Bud’s.

Before long, the press finds out who the voter is. Bud, a goofy independent who didn’t know who to vote for in the first place, is soon courted by both campaigns.

Celebrities such as NASCAR driver Richard Petty and country legend Willie Nelson are brought in by the respective campaigns to introduce Bud to their candidates. Over the course of the movie, the few political opinions Bud sort-of has are picked up and both candidates try to demonstrate how they are more of that opinion on the issue than their opponent - even if it means upsetting the base.

Take this ad, for example:

While we criticized some of the things the movie gets wrong in our last post in this series, the movie does bring up one aspect of campaigns that has developed a lot over the past several years: micro-targeting.

Micro-targeting has become more and more common with technological developments, and this movie poses the question, “Just how targeted can campaigns really get?”

In “Swing Vote” the race is literally as targeted as it can be. The campaigns no longer have to worry about pleasing the base - they already voted. They no longer have to worry about larger opinion polls - they no longer matter. They only need to win over one man, and they’ll do anything necessary for that achievement. They target Bud and Bud alone with ads, small gifts, plenty of time with the candidates, and much, much more.

Opposing campaign managers Marty Fox (Stanley Tucci) and Art Crumb (Nathan Lane) - whose backgrounds interestingly resemble those of Karl Rove and Bob Shrum, respectively - both make it clear to their candidates that (to put it in Vince Lombardi’s words) winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing. Only after an electoral victory can they do the work in Washington they set out to do. In time, both candidates are forced to question that ethos and examine themselves and people.

The movie is interesting, emotional, loaded with cameos, and worth a watch.

4) “The Best Man” (1964)

Screenplay by: Gore Vidal
Produced by: Stuart Miller, Lawrence Turman
Directed by: Franklin J. Schaffner

It’s still yet to be released on DVD, and it’s largely been forgotten by the American public, but “The Best Man” is one of the great political classics. Based on the play by Gore Vidal, the film focuses on an open party convention with two diametrically opposed front-runners.

Watch the original trailer:

Vidal was no ignorant playwright when it came to politics. His grandfather - Thomas Gore (D-OK) - was a senator for several decades, and Vidal was a friend of John F. Kennedy’s. He even ran for Congress in 1960.

In “The Best Man”, the moderate/liberal former Secretary of State William Russell (Henry Fonda) is up against the moderate/conservative Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson). The convention gets ugly as they spread rumors of psychological instability and sexual promiscuity against one another.

The film includes some of the political realities that are still alive today. For example, there’s the powerful party activist Sue Ellen Gamadge who - much like a lot of powerful political activists - loves the fact she is known by the candidates and thinks she knows what is best for their campaigns.

Other aspects about the movie are more historical. The southern politicians in the party are the butt of a lot of jokes about regressive attitudes towards desegregation and racial equality. They very much look like the southern Democratic politicians of the 1960s who didn’t see a contrast between being progressive and being a bit racist. And then there are the wonderful, corny campaign slogans that you’d never see today (like “Hustle for Russell!”)

Most importantly, the movie examines what connection - if any - there is between campaigning and governing. Former President Art Hockstader (Lee Tracy) is pulling for Russell, but can’t get over the fact that he is unwilling to get dirty with Cantwell.

As he tells Russell:

“Power is not a toy we give to good children. It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it. If you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you've got no business in the big league. Because if you don't fight, the job is not for you. And it never will be.”

The movie is fun, dramatic, and asks us to examine our collective character as a democratic republic. Every American should try to see this film.

5) “Bulworth” (1998)

Screenplay by: Warren Beatty
Produced by: Warren Beatty, Pieter Jan Brugge
Directed by: Warren Beatty

In this brilliant and irreverent comedy, “Bulworth” follows the re-election campaign of Senator Jay Bullington Bulworth (D-CA) as he faces his 1996 primary. While there are several accuracy problems with the film’s portrayal of campaigns, it is extremely entertaining and full of food-for-thought.

Watch the trailer:

Senator Bulworth (Warren Beatty) began his political life as young progressive in the 1960s, idolizing figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. But as a senator in the 1990s, he is forced to speak against affirmative action to appeal to a more conservative electorate and his legislative career is hindered by powerful lobbyists.

He becomes so tormented by his jaded politics that he doesn’t eat or sleep for three days. Finally, he hires a guy to see to it that he’s killed. He then returns to California from Washington where he meets his campaign staff. Knowing he has nothing to lose, he starts saying whatever he feels like saying, scaring the life out of his staffers.

He decides he is enjoying his life without political pressures, and he tries to call off the assassination. Without sleeping, he continues to campaign drunk and unshaven. He meets a young black girl named Nina (Halle Berry) who he falls for, and tries a new urban edge - which includes saying everything in rap.

During a fundraiser, he decides to rap his speech:

The movie is unapologetically liberal (disclaimer: this is something we said we’d have to be careful about when we chose our movies) and constantly funny.

It also gives campaign people like us a glimpse into how much wrong a candidate can possibly do in a matter of days. Campaign workers often have to worry about their candidates going off-message, but luckily, few have to worry about them going absolutely crazy.

This movie is for anyone who likes a good laugh.

So what movies did our readers like?

There was a lot of overlap between our list and everyone else’s. “Primary Colors” was by far the favorite of the survey, and “The Candidate”, “Swing Vote”, and “Bulworth” were all mentioned as well.

Other favorites included “Wag the Dog” (which we guess is about a campaign of sorts, albeit, not an electoral one, per se), “The American President”, “Election”, “Milk”, and “Man of the Year”. There were also several votes (from one Ron Lecker) for the Chris Farley film, “Black Sheep”.

We hope you enjoyed our Top 5 Political Campaign Movies, and maybe came away with some holiday gift ideas for that special campaign person on your list.

Join us tomorrow for our conclusion to “Hollywood Does Politics!”

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