Every four years, we and the world’s media become fixated with what happens in American politics in the months leading up to the presidential election. So, in the year that Donald Trump appears set to offend and bludgeon his way to the Republican nomination, and Bernie Sanders has proven that a left-wing voice has a huge role to play in American politics, what better time to put your feet up and enjoy a few of the best political films about the United States? This year has already seen the release of the fantastic film Spotlight, of course, and so if you enjoyed that then you’re bound to have an interest in some of these!
Best of Enemies, 2015
The year 1968 was a pivotal year in the United States for pretty much all the wrong reasons. There was the My Lai massacre in Vietnam, Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy were both assassinated and Richard Nixon became president. Yes, 1968 was election year in the United States and a struggling broadcaster was desperately looking for ways to shake-up how the Republican and Democratic national party conventions were covered on their television network. ABC’s idea was to host a series of television debates that would provide viewers with an alternative to the generally accepted method of simply broadcasting the conventions minute by minute, speech by speech, balloon by balloon. They chose as sparring partners the fiercely conservative commentator William Buckley and the fiercely liberal intellectual Gore Vidal, with the resulting fireworks irreversibly changing how politics in America would be covered thereafter.
Best of Enemies is an absorbing, funny and truly fascinating documentary that contextualises and explores the content of these debates. The two apparently loathed one another and made little attempt to disguise this fact during the debates, trading insults and constantly looking for ways to get under the other’s skin. The documentary is genuinely thought-provoking — I certainly came away sure in my mind who I felt won the debates and with whose political philosophy I agreed with, but I was less certain as to who I felt had handled the legacy of these television debates more capably. What the documentary doesn’t do, of course, is play out the content of the debates in their entirety and at least one critic has slammed the “utterly unintellectual nature of a movie that is supposed to be about two intellectuals”. While it’s true that you only see snippets of these debates in the film, and invariably these clips show the two at each other’s throat rather than debating political philosophy, I think the point of the film is less about showing how intellectual Buckley and Vidal were as it is an attempt to contextualise the kind of ‘debate’ and political commentary that we see on TV now. Watch a Bill O’Reilly interview with pretty much anyone, for instance, and you’ll get it straight away. The film implies that ABC’s coverage of the 1968 national conventions irreversibly changed the nature and tone of political coverage in the United States, and so if this was the point that ‘Best of Enemies’ was trying to make, then I think it did it very well indeed.
All the President’s Men, 1976
You’ve probably heard the suffix ‘gate’ added to pretty much any political or sporting scandal, right? ‘Pizzagate’ is probably my favourite, when Cesc Fabregas is alleged to have thrown a slice of pizza at Sir Alex Ferguson in the aftermath of an especially feisty encounter between Arsenal and Manchester United. But where does the ‘-gate’ suffix come from? Hint: it has nothing to do with an actual gate. No, the Watergate scandal was perhaps the biggest political scandal to have ever afflicted the United States — the biggest because the scandal led to the resignation of Richard Nixon when no other sitting president has been forced to resign from office in the history of the country. Very briefly, the Watergate scandal (Watergate being the name of an office and hotel complex in Washington D.C) was the result of a bungled attempt to steal campaign documents and bug the offices of the Democratic party. Many of those working for President Nixon appear to have been aware of the plan, but Nixon himself only apparently became embroiled in the scandal because money given to the would-be thieves could be shown to be traced back to the Republican Party and he later became involved in an attempted cover-up.
As with many great political scandals, the job of getting to the bottom of Watergate fell to the press and, in particular, to two journalists working for the Washington Post. Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein were a dynamic duo that painstakingly picked apart and weaved together the thinnest strands of evidence to trace the scandal all the way right up to Tricky Dicky himself. Their efforts were immortalised in their book and, subsequently, the 1976 film All the President’s Men. This gripping political drama is as good as any espionage thriller; the two communicate with ‘Deep Throat’ (a high-level administration figure with information for the journalists) via a plantpot and copies of the New York Times, for instance. Indeed, it is ‘Deep Throat’ that encourages Woodward and Bernstein to follow the money, which ultimately and painstakingly linked the scandal to President Nixon. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman are brilliant as Woodward and Bernstein, and anyone that has seen enjoyed ‘Spotlight’ recently will I’m sure get a kick out of this film, too.
Best of the Rest of The U.S. POlitical FILMS (that I’ve seen…)
My intention had originally been to write about four or five political films relating to American politics, but I got a bit carried away with ‘Best of Enemies’ and ‘All the President’s Men’ and so instead will just quickly mention a couple of others that you might want to look up for yourselves. I remember going to the cinema in New York with my Dad and seeing the film Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), an excellent dramatisation of the veteran broadcaster Edward Murrow taking on the virulently anti-Communist senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s. At a time when the likes of Donald Trump are gaining political traction out of blaming others for pretty much everything, revisiting the poisonous and now derided McCarthyist witch hunts of the 1950s seems appropriate. Continuing this theme, the lessons of history and how they can be applied in the modern era is the subject of the documentary, The Fog of War: Eleven Lessons from the Life of Robert S. McNamara (2003). Perhaps the country’s most controversial Secretary of Defence, McNamara served in this capacity between 1960 and 1968 and so was a key administration figure for much of the Vietnam War. The film therefore is part biopic, part history documentary and part political critique, selecting footage from hours and hours of recorded interviews with McNamara to look back at his life and some of the most controversial decisions he made during his time in office. Finally, for a film about American politics at ground level consider Street Fight (2005), which follows the relatively unknown Cory Booker (now a senator) in his campaign to be elected as the mayor of Newark, NJ. His opponent is Sharpe James, who at that stage had been the mayor for 16 consecutive years, and the campaign was really exactly as the title suggests — a street fight. You won’t have to concentrate too hard to figure out which of the candidates reduces the campaign to this level.