The problem I have with many political movies is that they’re too darned political.
It’s no secret that the creative teams behind most films in that genre are pushing a political or social agenda. I’m fine with that, provided that the message doesn’t overwhelm the entertainment value and a semblance of objectivity is demonstrated.
One recent film that violates both principles was “Vice,” a 2018 pseudo-biography of former Vice President and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney.
By most accounts, Cheney was a manipulative, often devious politician. Many observers also considered him pretty good at his jobs. Retired CBS newsman Bob Schieffer, hardly a tool of the radical right, once wrote that Cheney “came to be known as one of the most effective defense (secretaries) of modern times.”
The latter characterization never made it into writer-director Adam McKay’s screenplay.
Those who believe Cheney conspired with Republican Party leaders to formulate intentionally faulty policies that most Americans were too stupid to recognize undoubtedly loved “Vice.” Others, like myself, who wanted a more balanced portrayal of a controversial political figure were disappointed.
I wouldn’t rank “Vice” among my top 50 political movies. But there is no shortage of contenders for my top five list. Such relatively recent films as “Primary Colors,” “Bulworth,” the mockumentary “Bob Roberts” and a couple of older movies, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and “Advise and Consent,” are worth checking out.
But if I can only mark my ballot five times, these would be my choices:
5. “The Contender” (2000). Joan Allen plays a senator who is nominated for a vice presidential vacancy, only to have her personal life dissected at length during confirmation hearings by a mean-spirited political rival (Gary Oldman).
A box-office flop, this film has its flaws — notably a conclusion that’s far too pat and not particularly believable. But the message that female politicians are frequently subjected to a double standard of personal conduct is undeniable. The movie is further redeemed by Oscar-nominated performances from Allen (making the most of a rare leading role) and Jeff Bridges, as the deceptively wily president.
4. “The American President” (1995). Michael Douglas stars as a widowed president whose re-election bid is complicated when he falls for an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening).
Insightful and funny, this comes across as something as a prelude to television’s “The West Wing” — not surprising considering that screenwriter Aaron Sorkin created the TV series and Martin Sheen (an aide to Douglas here) played the president on the small screen. Douglas’ character in the movie is so likable and practical that it’s remarkable that he has any opposition whatsoever.
3. “Dave” (1993). When the president suffers a stroke during an extramarital tryst, the treacherous White House chief of staff (Frank Langella) recruits a lookalike (Kevin Kline) to serve as presidential impersonator as part of a plot designed to elevate Langella’s character to the Oval Office.
Even seen as a fantasy, the plot requires a huge suspension of disbelief from the audience. Even if Kline’s Dave Kovic looked like the president, for example, it seems unlikely that he would sound like him. Despite the credibility lapses, the film is highly enjoyable.
Kline reinforces his credentials as a superb comic actor. He is well-supported by Langella and Sigourney Weaver, as the First Lady who immediately recognizes Dave as an imposter but decides she likes the ersatz president better than the real one.
2. “The Best Man” (1964). Back in the days when presidential nominations weren’t determined until the conventions, a weak-willed idealist (played by Henry Fonda) and a ruthless populist (Cliff Robertson) face off as the leading contenders.
Fonda, who frequently played presidents, is ideally cast. But it is Robertson — exceptionally credible as an icy, ambitious Richard Nixon clone — who gives the film the necessary grit. The film’s somewhat surprising climax is also satisfying.
1. “The Candidate” (1972). Robert Redford stars as Bill McKay, the liberal son of a former governor who is tapped to challenge a veteran, conservative California senator.
Redford gives one of his best performances. Still, it is Oscar-winning screenwriter Jeremy Larner who emerges as the film’s MVP.
A former aide to Sen. Eugene McCarthy, Larner rejected Redford’s suggestion to depict McKay as a sellout and instead crafted a realistic script that shows the candidate losing his principles inch by inch as the election approaches. And the final line, “What do we do now?,” is one of the greatest in cinematic history.