Vote yes for these on-screen campaigns to join your viewing list
Covid-19 will keep us cooped up in our houses for the foreseeable future, but there’s a Presidential election less than six months away. Ungodly amounts of time, energy and money get funneled into running for office, and the media’s glaring eye is everywhere. For a well-rounded look at what campaigns are really like, here’s a selection of classic and lesser-known titles that takes us into the peaks and valleys of the campaign trail, reminding us of what often gets lost in the hustle.
Street Fight (Amazon Prime and YouTube)
Long before he became a Senator and an also-ran in the recent Democratic primary, then-Newark City Councilman Cory Booker ran for mayor against incumbent Sharpe James. By 2002, James had run the Gateway City for over a decade. Taking on such a popular and charismatic opponent wasn’t going to be easy. This Oscar-nominated documentary takes us through the bare-knuckled world of local campaigning. We follow the spunky, idealistic Booker as he pounds the pavement while James’s people consistently push the documentary crew around and play hardball with threats (“Don’t get caught in these streets!”), insinuations (Is Booker not as Black as he seems?), and trickery of all kinds. As the old saying goes, politics ain’t bean bag. The gutsy filmmakers tenaciously suggest that we should take their title literally.
A Perfect Candidate (segments available on YouTube)
After almost taking down the Reagan administration for screwing up Iran-Contra, Oliver North probably should have been in jail. Instead, he wound up running for Senate in 1996. Ironically, being on the defensive on Capitol Hill turned him into a defiant macho folk hero. In this brilliant but too-little-seen documentary, we get a fly-on-the-wall perspective of how North’s campaign managers run the show. Without necessarily intending to, one of them candidly reveals one of the direst and all-too-prescient paradoxes of American politics. All the heated divisiveness and grandstanding that helps you win campaigns is the exact opposite of what it takes to govern the country.
Wag the Dog (Amazon Prime)
This is one of the movies that spawned its own catchphrase. When a government consciously creates a spectacle to distract from scandal, it’s wagging the dog. After the President gets caught with a Girl Scout, Robert De Niro’s mysterious fixer enlists Dustin Hoffman’s finicky movie mogul, allegedly based on legendary Hollywood producer Robert Evans, to create a fake war with Albania. The phony war footage features a cute orphan (Kiersten Dunst) clutching a digitally superimposed kitten while running across a green-screen war zone, and the conflagration eventually gets a theme song which sparks a national fad. One of the reasons why we’re so skeptical about officially sanctioned narratives these days is exactly because of movies like this. They recall real-life events, such as the Clinton administration’s bombing of the Al-Shifa chemical plant during the Monica Lewinsky hearings.
A Face in the Crowd (Criterion Channel)
North Carolina’s own Andy Griffith makes his film debut as Lonesome Rhoads, a southern drifter who winds up becoming a radio and TV star on account of his wild laugh, manly swagger, and good old-fashioned folksy ways. Rhoads becomes a hero to his legions of fans because of his appearance of authenticity. He acts in exactly the rowdy, gleeful, lusty way they admire. The corporate sponsors know perfectly well how to use him to sell their snake oil to the masses. But Rhoads isn’t at all what he seems to be. A high-spirited but exacting critique of media-stoked fake populism that is more relevant every year.
The Contender (Amazon Prime)
Joan Allen plays a Hillary-like ultracompetent senator who, after the preferred candidate suffers a weird scandal, suddenly becomes the VP nominee for a lame-duck POTUS, charmingly played by Jeff Bridges. Of course, this upsets Washington’s natural order of things. It causes a hostile GOP caucus, led by a magnificently passive-aggressive Gary Oldman, to block her with lies and innuendo. What a shocker. True, there are some weak plot twists and preachy moments. But the film reminds us that some of the most urgent and ruthless campaigning is what happens behind the scenes on Capitol Hill.
Nashville (Criterion Channel)
Robert Altman brought his colorful ensemble cast, improvisational filmmaking style, and wicked humor to America’s bicentennial as experienced by various inhabitants of Music City. As we follow the people desperate to make it big in Nashville’s best-known growth industry, it quickly becomes a metaphor for making it (or not) in America. Amid all the pickin’ and grinnin’ there’s a subplot featuring an unseen political candidate from the Replacement Party, who tools around town broadcasting absurdist campaign slogans, such as “It is the very nature of government to strain at a man who swallowed a camel.” At the end, an epic group singalong features the alternately sarcastic and realistic chorus: “You may say that I ain’t free/ It don’t worry me,” which becomes a certain kind of national anthem on its own.
The Manchurian Candidate (Criterion Channel)
It’s a little spooky that this fever dream about assassinations, commie brainwashing, and crackling Cold War paranoia came out a year before John F. Kennedy fatally decided to leave the top down in Dallas. It’s even spookier that the film’s director stood next to Bobby Kennedy moments before his assassination a few years later. The inspired supporting cast features Frank Sinatra and Angela Lansbury, with cameos of ominous busts of Abe Lincoln and the eeriest game of solitaire ever. The convoluted narrative intentionally makes the viewer feel at times like they’re losing it right along with the characters. Taking a demented tour through America’s Oedipal instincts and the noir-ish underbelly of American campaigning has rarely been this mesmerizing.
Seasons 3 & 4 of The Wire (HBO, Amazon Prime)
Aiden Gillen evidently has a real knack for playing cunning, manipulative, weaselly types. Game of Thrones fans will remember him as the suave pimp Littlefinger. But before that he made his mark in The Wire by playing the ambitious Tommy Carcetti. Carcetti’s arc takes him through two full seasons. We see him start as an average politico frustrated with his lowly standing who decides to climb the ladder of power however he can. The Baltimore City Councilman makes a successful play for Mayor and then sets his sights on being Governor. One of the show’s writers called the galvanizing speech in the below clip particularly noteworthy. As the previous two seasons vividly demonstrated, all the inspiring stuff Carcetti says about fighting crime and drugs isn’t nearly as simple as he makes it seem. But in the end it didn’t matter — voters believed him anyway.