What Are the Best Movies About U.S. Politics?

The Best Films About American Bureaucracy

Politics contains all the elements of great drama (and comedy): high stakes competition, back room deal making, idealism clashing with corruption and cynicism, ambition, greed, power…well you get the idea. It's no surprise that politics has been a favorite subject for movies, with a multitude to choose from. This list leaves out political biographies, documentaries and foreign films, and sticks to films about the American political process. It was still a big field to choose from, but here are the ones we'd vote for.

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The Candidate (1972)

The Candidate
Warner Bros.

Michael Ritchie's film is hands down one of the best American satires ever. Robert Redford stars as a golden boy liberal who is convinced to run for office and gets a bit tainted along the way. This film still has a wicked bite as it looks at the ins and outs of running a political campaign. The slogan for Redford's candidate? "McKay the Better Way."

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Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb (1964)

Dr. Strangelove
Columbia Pictures

Stanley Kubrick takes on the deadly serious issue of nuclear war and turns it into the blackest of comedies. No one has done a better job of showing the absurdity of war ("Gentlemen you can't fight in here this is the war room"), and showing the idiocy of those in power. Kubrick originally intended to end the film with a pie fight in the war room but instead opted for Slim Pickens riding a bomb to nuclear annihilation. George C. Scott overacts to perfection and Peter Sellers shines in three roles.

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Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Columbia Pictures

A naïve Washington outsider gets appointed to the Senate and causes havoc. James Stewart is the idealistic junior senator and Jean Arthur is the savvy insider. Director Frank Capra holds the film in perfect balance between charming "Capra-corn" and a clear-eyed view of American politics. When a ban on American films was imposed in 1942 in German-occupied France, this film was chosen as the last movie to play in theaters.

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The Great McGinty (1940)

The Great McGinty
Paramount Pictures

Preston Sturges' brilliant comedy is often forgotten, but it's a deft satire on American politics, ambition, greed, and corruption. Brian Donlevy is a bum selected by a corrupt political machine to run for office. As long as he lies and cheats he rises in power, but his one act of honesty brings his downfall. This film bristles with Sturges' rapid-fire dialogue and jaunty American pacing. Sample line: "If it wasn't for graft, you'd get a very low type of people in politics, men without ambition, jellyfish!"

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The Last Hurrah (1958)

The Last Hurrah
Columbia Pictures
Spencer Tracy is an aging Irish-American politician running for office one last time. The story is loosely based on multi-term Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. You can't beat Tracy, director John Ford and a stellar supporting cast led by Pat O'Brien.
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The Best Man (1964)

The Best Man
United Artists

Five men vying for their party's presidential nomination is fertile ground for political drama. Gore Vidal's script is both literate and sharply entertaining. Future U.S. President Ronald Reagan was reportedly turned down for a role because the studio didn't think he had "that presidential look."

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All the King's Men (1949)

All The King's Men
Columbia Pictures

The first film adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's scathing novel about the rise and fall of a corrupt politician was the best. Broderick Crawford commands the screen as Willie Stark. The actor watched newsreel footage of Louisiana Governor Huey Long (on whom the novel was loosely based) to prepare for the role.

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Advise and Consent (1962)

Advise & Consent
Columbia Pictures

Otto Preminger's film uses a senate investigation into a President's newly nominated Secretary of State as the backdrop for its savage portrait of Washington politics. The top-notch cast includes Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton, and Gene Tierney. Peter Lawford plays Senator Lafe Smith, a character inspired by his then brother-in-law John F. Kennedy.

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The Man (1972)

The Man
Paramount Pictures

Twilight Zone's Rod Serling provides a powerful if somewhat dated screenplay for this story about America's first black president. James Earl Jones is impressive as the President Pro Tem of the Senate who, through a twist of fate, ends up being appointed President. Though originally shot as a TV movie, it was released in theaters.

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The Contender (2000)

The Contender

Joan Allen's confident performance is the reason to watch this film about a woman whose past threatens to ruin her chances of running for vice president. Jeff Bridges is a laid back president (would he be any other kind?) and Gary Oldman is a savvy politician.

Bonus Pick: 'Duck Soup' (1933)
This masterpiece of anarchy by the Marx Brothers is in the fictitious country of Freedonia. Groucho plays the president/dictator Rufus T. Firefly. Mussolini thought the film was making fun of him, which delighted the Marx Brothers who were really making fun of all politicians and governments.

Just Missing the List:
Election (about high school politics) and Bulworth (Warren Beatty as a rapping, liberal candidate).

Edited by Christopher McKittrick