Sat, May 25, 2024

Elections in movies

This week, Monday night to be exact, saw the Iowa’s Presidential Caucuses, which commence the 2024 election cycle (incidentally, taking place during the height of Hollywood’s own campaign season). Election nights feel somewhat like movies for the politically or socially intrigued: with results painting a picture of a shifting people while revealing strengths and weaknesses in candidates. 2020 felt more like an HBO Miniseries that wouldn’t end.

Nevertheless, there are many movies where elections serve as a driving motivator for characters, a climax, or a chance to thwart the direction of a constructed world: just like in real life.

Anticipating the sacred night of voting and counting votes is a catalyst for competition and conflict, and no story is without conflict, nor some want for individual success. Likewise, elections also create underdogs, like Georgia’s own “Jimmy Who?” clinching the presidency in 1976 – the same year that one of Hollywood’s greatest underdogs, Rocky Balboa, lost his fight but won the hearts of audiences and Oscar voters alike.

Here are four films of differing genres that use an election to catapult the story, all the while peeling back the showmanship of politics and the American democratic process.

#1) The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)

Starring Robert Redford as the son of a successful Democrat, the wonder boy of California heeds the call from party bigwigs to run for the Senate. He finds the rush of the campaign desensitizing, the colors of confetti and red, white, and blue balloons don’t seem to touch his psyche.

He plays a good road game, racking up support among young and diverse voters at nearly every turn, but remains aloof to the impact that his candidacy holds on himself and those around him.

The film ends on a rainy day with the ultimate election and a surprising result for everyone involved.

Written by Jeremy Lerner, the film is a dark satire at its core. When future VP Dan Quayle claimed to be “inspired” by the movie, the New York Times was quick to snap back:

“[…]This was not a how-to movie; this was a watch-out movie[…] You are what we should be watching out for!”

#2) The Campaign (2012, dir. Jay Roach)

Less cold satire and more tasteless skewering, this Will Ferrell comedy transforms rural politics into a bloodbath of masculine platitudes, mudslinging, and inadvertent baby-punching.

Longtime North Carolina Congressman, Camden Brady (Ferrell) is embroiled in a cheating scandal, making him vulnerable in the next election. Seeking to upend Brady’s protectionism and outsource jobs to China, two crooked businessmen recruit the affable Marty Huggins (Zack Galifianakis) to upset him in November. What ensues is a juvenile schoolyard fight between Huggins and Brady, sparring over patriotism, communism, sex, and family. For every heinous act by each candidate, another four or five points are added to their polling average.

Future Oscar-nominee, Adam McKay (Vice, Don’t Look Up) wrote the story alongside familiar Will Ferrell collaborators, making this goofy flick palatable for the politically uninitiated lover of comedy.

#3) Primary Colors (1998, dir. Mike Nichols)

Based on the novel by Joe Klein, this drama serves as a Roman clef for Clinton-era politics, chronicling the campaign of Jack Stanton, the fictional Governor of Arkansas who seeks the Democratic nomination for President, as seen through the eyes of a young staffer, Henry, who happens to be the grandson of a Civil Rights Leader.

The campaign grows ugly as the press surfaces more and more dirt on Stanton, particularly his flirtatious tendencies. This nearly explodes when one of Stanton’s old friends reveals his 17-year-old daughter’s pregnancy: Stanton is the father. When this affects Stanton in the polls, his team grows further combative.

The film was scripted by Elaine May, who along with director Mike Nichols made a name for themselves in the 1950’s as social satirists through improvisational performing. This dynamic makes for an astute commentary and reflection of the human element of politics.

#4) The War Room (1993, dir. D.A. Pennebaker)

From a fake Clinton to a real one, The War Room is revered as one of the great political documentaries due to its singular focus on the mechanisms behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign, from a tiny flat in a snowy New Hampshire in January to the general election night in November. Young guns running the show include two unknowns who would become iconic faces in American media: George Stephanopoulos and the Ragin’ Cajun himself, James Carville.

The film miraculously manages not to endorse its subject outright nor secretly in a partisan sense, choosing instead to observe the powerhouse of a campaign, where one small, foul turn could trigger chaos and upend the race.

Husband and wife directors, D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus field the surveillance on such an operation as the clock ticks down to Election Day.

Dylan James graduated from the Savannah College of Art & Design with a BFA in Dramatic Writing. He has studied both the ‘show’ and ‘business’ aspects of show business since childhood, and writes through sociological analysis, seeking relevance in the art and commerce for the moment.

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