09 June 2015 4581 Views

Political Cinema

by James Murphy





Politics is a dirty word in today’s world. Everyone wants to have a political opinion whilst seeking the certainty that it’s either ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ before voicing it. We saw this all too painfully in the recent UK elections.

But fear not, Dear Reader! Cinema saves the day as perfect platform for political reflection. It can simulate worst case scenarios and provide cautionary counselling to prevent such things becoming reality.

There are opportunities for utopian dreaming and idealism that simply cannot find outlets in a ghastly ‘real’ world. Historical revisionism is also enabled. Yesterday’s villains can be reinvented as misunderstood heroes; devastating injustices redressed.

Above all, the medium can encourage genuine debate, while maintaining the sheen of moral neutrality; neither presuming nor precluding your political persuasion. THAT’S democracy.

Political Cinema is alive and well, anyway. See the latest trailer for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies:






Bridge of Spies is released October 16th. Meantime, we have compiled a list of ‘political’ movies.  It’s a broad church, crossing genres. But all are dramatized pieces (hence no documentaries per se: sorry, Michael Moore fans).  Also, no television (so no Parks and Recreation, West Wing or Game of Thrones; though each deserves its own movie adaptation).

And, as always, not an exhaustive list, so of course, you might have differing ideas? But, to paraphrase George Clooney on making political movies ‘I just want people to ask questions and engage in debate’. This piece is written in a similar spirit.

Categorized according to theme: Here we go!



These movies both celebrate and castigate those who build empires or try and re-make the world to support a new order.

Birth of a Nation (1915) is anachronistic and controversial but was among the first movies to be screened at the White House and is examined regularly by film scholars and critics today. Battleship Potemkin (1925) is the greatest propaganda film ever.

How the West was Won (1962) uses an incredible cast (John Wayne, James Stewart) to cover all major landmarks in building 19th century America.

Kevin Costner’s Dances with Wolves (1990) cleverly combines epic adventure and American expansion commentary, via character studies on language and identity.

Marlon Brando is among the greatest actors of all time. Political pieces inspired his best work, given his real-life concerns with colonialism.  See: Ugly American (1963); BURN (1969); Apocalypse Now (1979).




See also:


Personal dramas and explorations of the human-condition, that simply happen to coincide with epic events. Battle of Algiers (1966); Indochine (1992); The Quiet American (2002); Beyond Borders (2003).




Take one very charming film star; deploy them in political power and witness their idealism either emerge or impact instantly on others. See the following treats with James Stewart, Michael Douglas and Hugh Grant, respectively:


Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939); Dave (1993); The American President (1995); Love Actually (2003)








Two disparate genres with shared motif: gaining strength and taking a stand to re-define identity in the face of political pressure.



You take a head on collision with gritty realism whilst struggling for hope (usually in midst of an economic fall-out / community collapse). Perhaps the heroes take up a hobby that gives them new life. See:  Brassed Off (1996); The Full Monty (1997); Anything from Directors Mike Leigh or Ken Loach.




Address (and thereby redress) matters more metaphorically, sending a super-hero to the rescue of a conflicted world post 9/11 /War on Terror /Occupy Wall Street Movement/global warming / nuclear arms race / surveillance state. Can even be a post-apocalyptic scenario.  Think also David and Goliath, with fairy-tale allegories delivering coded political satire.


The Dark Knight Trilogy (2005-12); Superman IV: Quest for Peace (1987); Mad Max Series (1979-2015); Captain America: Winter Soldier (2014); Star Wars Series (1977-2015); Rocky 4 (1985)





Beware of big business and its political connections!  Brainwashing; Blackmail; Blacklisting; Assassination (both of character and person) await.

These films are not anti-government and commerce so much as cautionary tales, designed to inspire vigilant activism. Some are inspired by real events; others just entertaining escapism that nonetheless reference dangerous realities.

The race for a product and management of assets /associated legal rights will frequently factor here. Wars on Drugs and Terror as well as the battle to control natural resources including oil and water also present themselves.


Michael Clayton (2007); The International (2009); Blood Diamond (2006); Silkwood (1983); The Constant Gardener (2005); Three Days of the Condor (1975);

Defence of the Realm (1986); The Parallax View (1974); Enemy of the State (1998); Conspiracy Theory (1998); John Grisham’s Rainmaker (1997)/Runaway Jury (2003);

Edge of Darkness (2010); The Insider (1999); Clear and Present Danger (1994); Traffic (2000); Quantum of Solace (1998); Syriana (2005).



 The Oval Office is a symbol of hope and authority. Sadly, it’s also an inevitable outlet for moral compromise and unscrupulous dealing. The President or equivalent candidate /advisor are sometimes a villain but not always so. They can be just as frightened as any protagonist and equally isolated.


All The President’s Men (1976); JFK (1991); Nixon (1995); Ides of March (2011); The Contender (2000); No Way Out (1987)








Don’t wish for something: you might get it. Buy a newspaper and media monopoly and watch your soul disappear. Legitimise a Mafia family and thereby gain great power yet lose all who you love.

Graduate from local to national to international politics and then watch your friendships, ideals and values compromised by the weight of your ambition as your tenure in office advances. Vanity meets Vulnerability: timeless traits topple us all. Watch some definitive performances here by Orson Welles as Kane; Al Pacino as Michael Corleone and Michael Sheen as Tony Blair.

Citizen Kane (1941); Godfather 2 and 3 (1974 and 1990); The Deal /The Queen /The Special Relationship (2003/6/10)










The industrial-military complex is by its very nature, a moral maze. We need strong protection from determined enemies, both foreign and domestic. But how far can and should we trust our military to govern itself? And should our brave servicemen question aims and methods of any operation?



A Few Good Men (1992); Crimson Tide (1995); Bourne Ultimatum (2007); First Blood (1982); Zero Dark Thirty (2012); Green Zone (2010); The Siege (1998); The Last Castle (2001); The Rock (1996)






Ok, so sometimes a biopic might dramatize or romanticize an event or sanitize painful ambiguities in the name of brevity and glossy entertainment.

Here’s a selection of biopics and recreations of reality that simply ‘work’. Painful political points ARE touched upon, yet balanced by qualities such as epic direction, atmospherics, wit and first rate performances from all actors involved.



Reds (1981); Hoffa (1992);  BraveHeart (1995); Michael Collins (1996); Good Night and Good Luck (2005); Malcolm X (1992); American Sniper (2014); Cry Freedom (1987); Argo (2012); Amistad (1997); Munich (2005);  Lincoln (2012); Thirteen Days (2000); Charlie Wilson’s War (2007)







Painfully accurate yet brilliantly funny and original satires here; some are not based on fact but all simply capture the ‘truth’ of the political process.

Bulworth (1998); In the Loop (2009); Bob Roberts (1992); The Man with the Deadly Lens / Wrong is Right (1982); Primary Colors (1998)





That’s all for now. Until the next time: Vote Movie-Viral!

Special thanks to Robert Davi (see last week’s review on Licence to Kill:  the film features Davi as Franz Sanchez, one of James Bond’s greatest adversaries). An expert on political cinema and especially the more substantial, historical epics, Mr. Davi emphasised the importance of Marlon Brando’s movies in researching the piece.
















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