Movies

The Five Best Movies About Cutthroat Elections

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We celebrate The Ides of March with the greatest insider-politics movies ever made.


Scandal, betrayal, shocking twists… and that's just the latest Sarah Palin tweet. Campaign politics are always cutthroat — and so, in honor of George Clooney's new political thriller The Ides of March (as well as the millionth Republican primary debate of the season), we hereby throw our hats in the ring with five candidates for the best election film in history.

 

1. A Face In The Crowd (1957)

Those familiar with Andy Griffith's signature TV roles as a small-town sheriff or a sensible Southern lawyer may be shocked by the actor's fearsome performance as a ruthless kingmaker in Elia Kazan's scarily prophetic potboiler. Hiding behind a folksy image, Griffin's cynical, monomaniacal demagogue "Lonesome" Rhodes manipulates the media to boost the fortunes of a presidential candidate (and his own career) by keeping a tight grip on public opinion — until he accidentally reveals his true contempt for the American public in front of a live microphone.

 

2. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

In an era where the president has been accused of everything from conspiring with terrorists to shoving our nation's grandmothers in front of totalitarian death panels, the central plotline of The Manchurian Candidate — a scheme to install a secret communist in the White House — sounds relatively mild. Yet as far-fetched as this convoluted tale of sleeper agents and election-year brainwashing may have seemed upon the film's release in 1962, its climactic scenes of political violence no longer seemed like escapist fiction after JFK's assassination a year later.

 

3. The Candidate (1972)

In The Candidate, the perils of the campaign trail are less physical and more philosophical: what happens if you can only win by compromising the beliefs that made you want to run in the first place? To avoid getting thoroughly trounced by a popular Republican incumbent, Robert Redford's Democratic challenger waters down his own platform to the point that his only response to an unexpected win is the existential question, "What do we do now?"

 

4. Primary Colors (1998)

Reporter Joe Klein tried to stay "Anonymous" when he wrote his dishy, lightly fictionalized account of a babes-and-carbs loving Southern governor who schemes and schmoozes his way to the top. By the time Mike Nichols' cinematic adaptation hit theaters a couple of years later, Klein had fessed up to writing the insider exposé, and any doubts about his source of inspiration for the book's central character were erased by John Travolta's Clintonian appearance, accent, and appetite as the charming, morally slippery candidate Jack Stanton.

 

5. Election (1999)

Proving that idealism, cynicism, and dirty tricks aren't restricted to national campaigns, Alexander Payne's satirical classic (based on Tom Perrotta's novel) refracts modern American democracy through a small-town high-school election. One candidate (Chris Klein) is dopey and popular, one (Reese Witherspoon) is hardworking but ruthless, and a third (Jessica Campbell) thinks the whole charade is a colossal waste of time. Pulling the strings is Matthew Broderick's long-suffering social-studies teacher, who — like so many others before and since — completely loses his moral compass in the midst of all the campaign madness.