Ten Great Films about Political Struggles

 

What a genuinely ridiculous time it is for politics. Britain, post Brexit seems to have gone bonkers. It’s as if the whole of Westminster has knocked back a handful of amyl nitrate and become some sort of bizarre orgy of political chaos. The prime minister resigned, leading to a host of people fighting for the role – before giving up and leaving it to someone who’d not said a word for the last four months. Then there’s the Labour party, a group tearing itself to pieces because of one man who stands for everything the party believes in, has massive support, has a large vote from the youth, but couldn’t run an egg and spoon race.

Across the Atlantic it’s no more stable. There’s a racist, misogynist, delusional bag of lard with a wig running for president while calling huge demographics rapists and saying he would shag his own daughter. He runs opposite an egotist who can’t send an email and bathes in cash from fossil fuel companies.

If political cinema is meant to do anything, it is to dwarf reality, and make fictional stories that eclipse real life through suspense and drama. However, that’s hard to do in today’s climate – which is already filled with backstabbing and skull-duggery.

With that defeatist comment in mind, here are ten films about the workings of government that might not match the excitement of current reality but do a damned good job of trying. Political coups, power games and campaign trails are the name of the game.

 

  1. In The Loop (Armando Iannucci. 2009)

in_the_loop12.jpg

Brilliant, farcical and somehow incredibly real, In the Loop is a pure gem of British Cinema. From the makers of the TV show The Thick of It, this fictionalised satire (set in the lead up to the war in the Middle East) is a perfect attack on political egos, the games played, the mess that is bureaucracy and the viciousness of it all. Peter Capaldi’s magnificent Alastair Campbell-inspired, swearing spin doctor is deliciously cruel and Tom Hollander’s bumbling  backbencher trying to claim status is cringingly funny.

Working politicians have commended the film for its realism, with Bernard Jenkin of the dull-sounding  Public Administration Select Committee, admitting it has “More than a grain of truth”. Former ‘lapdog’ Nick Clegg has also made reference to the show and movie, claiming that Michael Gove used to run the Department of Education like “Something out of The Thick of it”.

 

2. Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins. 1992)

bobroberts.png

A sardonic mockumentary about personality politics and right wing America, Bob Roberts follows the journey to senate of a disarmingly charming folk singer and businessman. Taking Bob Dylan’s image in the 1960s and turning it on its head, Roberts is a head-strong capitalist who believes in traditional American values and the importance of big business.  He sings songs about the lazy, drug users and hippies on his frightening campaign trail, culminating in a hail of bitter protest from liberal America.

Bob Roberts is meant to be a pastiche. Born out of a Saturday Night Live sketch, he’s a flag-waving, habitual liar preying on the naive. He’s meant to be a parody of right wing politics.  But recently, with Trump (the man who sold steak named after him) forging a path to presidency, the pastiche seems to feel like watered-down reality.

 

  1. Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (Sergei Eisentstein. 1944, 1958)

008-ivan-the-terrible-theredlist.jpg

Sergei Eisenstein’s classic, historical epic about the infamous Ivan IV, the eponymous Tsar that from 1547 ruled all of Russia. Going up against coups within the aristocracy and attempts on his life, the Tsar travelled from idealistic protector of Russia to a ruler with an iron fist.

It is a lasting, operatic tale that Joseph Stalin reportedly adored. Admittedly, after commissioning the first part, he banned the second part and stopped the third part from ever being realised. Essentially a story of a dictator figure endlessly trying to suppress those trying to take power away from him, Stalin seemed to believe it was a comment on him.

 

  1. Left Right and Centre (Sidney Gilliat. 1959)

left.jpg

Possibly the lightest film on this list, Left, Right and Centre is the cleverly titled story of a romance that blossoms between two polar opposite politicians fighting in a small town’s by- election. Ian Carmichaels’ TV-star Tory and Patricia Bredin’s intelligent working class girl go head-to-head, along the way (to the dismay of party members) falling for each other.

It’s a novel way of looking at the fierce enmity and even hatred in Britain’s two party system and an interesting document of the class division Britain has always been known for.

 

  1. Richard III (Richard Loncraine. 1995)

richardiii-1600x720.jpg

Like Ivan the terrible, Shakespeare’s timeless story of greed and manipulation is about power politics taken to the extremes. One of his ten historical plays, it’s a damning tale of the famous hunchbacked and evil titular character. After the English civil war, Richard (brother of a dying king) plots to seize the throne. Ruthless, intelligent and engagingly  witty – he lets no one stand in his way.

Relocated to a 1930s version of Britain, Ian Mckellen’s Richard is dastardly and villainous – a dictator. This visualisation of the classic play is stylish and bold, making Richard’s England a fascist, militaristic nation

There’s murder, warring groups and egotists trying to rise to the top. It’s a bit like the next Conservative conference by the sound of the responses to Theresa May’s arrival.

 

6. The Candidate (Michael Ritchie. 1972)


thecandidate_640x359.jpg

Here’s another satire of America’s campaign system. Robert Redford plays a young and charming Democrat persuaded to stand in an election against a Republican who technically should not be able to lose. Given free rein to say what he wants, he uses the opportunity to speak about the issues most important to him. His popularity appears to grow as the story unfolds, causing the election for senate to change. Redford’s Bill Mckay becomes far more popular than anyone would have guessed.

It’s perhaps one of the best portrayals of the lavish and hectic campaign trails in America, full of white-toothed persuaders and adoring supporters. It makes UK local by-elections seem a bit PR-light.

 

  1. Milk (Gus Van Sant. 2008)

M-10525.png

This film tells the courageous story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected to public office in the state of California. Milk, a talented politician, strived for gay rights in the 60s and seventies, going up against the immovable object that is conservative America. Sean Penn plays him superbly, fully capturing the strength of character and drive of a man bringing his heart and soul and considerable intelligence to change an issue so fundamental to modern society.

 

  1. Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger. 1962)

 

AdviseandConsentImage.jpg
Master of the noir thriller, Otto Preminger’s adaptation of the award winning Allen Dury novel is a taut thriller of corruption and intrigue set in the murky world of White House politics in the 1960s. When a candidate for Secretary of State comes under suspicion for a shady political history, he is put under the spotlight. With Henry Fonda, Charles Laughton and Franchot Tone, it’s a classic slow-burner.

 

9. The Manchurian Candidate (John Frankenheimer. 1962)

the-manchurian-candidate-1962-production-still-photo.png

America loves a good conspiracy thriller where good guys go against bad guys in the fight for liberty and freedom. Nothing produced more of a platform for this than the fear of communism during the Cold War.

A tale of brainwashing, sleeper cells and grand plots, the Manchurian Candidate follows a soldier who returns from the Korean War with nightmares that make him suspicious of his former staff sergeant. An ensuing military investigation uncovers something far more dangerous and compromising to America’s security than at first thought.

 

10. Lincoln (Steven Spielberg. 2012)


Lincoln-movie-shot.jpg

Reducing a biopic’s title to the surname of the subject is a sure fire way of injecting some gravitas into the production. Just look at Nixon, Gandhi and the, as yet unrealised, Corbyn.

Lincoln though, unquestionably deserves this gravitas. The defining figure of American politics, the biopic follows him in his quest to abolish slavery in 1865 – a proposition that marked a major turning point for America and the rest of the free world

With Daniel Day Lewis supplying a sublime performance and Spielberg using his usual epic, emotional, get-the-audience-clapping formula, it’s a political blockbuster more than a political drama.

 

As the House of Commons goes into its 6 week recess for the summer, this list should help pass the time. It’s not like anything will happen between now and then, right?

 

Best of Enemies (Robert Gordon, Morgan Neville. 2015)

best-of-enemies-1.w529.h352.jpg

Somewhere during BBC1’s bizarre EU referendum debate staged in a cavernous Wembley arena, you had to wonder “When did political debate require TV spectacle?” The odd shouting match with its shiny, angular stage and ginormous audience was with TV in mind. There were buzz words, huge rounds of applause and a modern, arty set that seemed to be inspired by a dropped plate. And although some may detest it, somewhere along the line political discussion like this – discussion as entertainment – became popular. It’s popular among the people who watch it and those who broadcast it. In my eyes this can be attributed to one series of live debates in 1968 USA between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal.

Best of Enemies is a documentary that pin points the birth of modern American political punditry, of TV politics, and in a way, personality politics. It is an account of two of the first real public intellectual personalities, Gore Vidal and William F. Buckley Jr. Ideological opposites, the documentary follows their famous series of debates on ABC in August 1968. Mixing archival footage, articles, passages from books and interviews, the film follows one of the most fiery series of debates ever broadcast. The two lash out at each other viciously about the topics of the time, about presidential candidates and political parties. Most of the time, their arguments are incredibly personal.

A sublimely entertaining film directed by Robert Gordon and Morgan Neville, Best of Enemies is humorous, pumped full of testosterone and fuelled with rage. It’s a thoroughly intelligent production as well, playing with the personalities of Vidal and Buckley and altering our perceptions of them. It puts them on pedestals, billing them as titans and starting every clip of an argument with a ringside bell from boxing. Indeed, it is hard when watching to pull yourself away from the idea of these two men being Goliath celebrities in the game that is debate. For the audience, this is similar to gladiatorial combat. Discussion comes second.

And amidst this excitement, Best of Enemies is a study of America’s raging war between left and right. While we lap up the action greedily, what’s actually being talked about is fascinating. Vidal, a liberal intellectual, brings up gay rights, questions police authority and condemns the war in Vietnam. Buckley then is the opposite – a symbol of traditional Christian and conservative America. He says Vidal’s novels are cheap pornography. Vidal says Buckley is a crypto-nazi.

It’s thrilling stuff watching such erudite men battle it out. But you can’t help but feel guilty when watching them do so. Gordon and Neville do a fantastic job at making something exhilarating and then turning it on its head with a  final segment that is a slightly sickening comment on the present.  With CNN churning out programs full of fancy graphics and loudmouth speakers like Bill O’reilly shouting down people of different opinion, debate has become sport for America. It has become about views and moments of rage. And when you watch Vidal and Buckley toughing it out, there is an underlying sense of disgust and worry. There is disgust that this sort of debate set the path for politics on TV, and anxiety for what could come next. There is also a slight questioning of one’s judgement. Did I enjoy that for the fight or for what was being fought about?

There is a part of us all that yearns for a live fist fight over a civilised discussion.

Memories of Murder (Bong Joon-ho. 2003)

memories-of-murder.jpg

Cinema has always been fascinated by the procedural drama. The format has been done over and over again. There’s a mysterious case and one man is here to solve it – often with questionable morals. And since this was established by the noir detective stories of the mid 1940s and 1950s, audiences are still captivated by the same themes and stories. As much as we like to think our tastes have changed, they have not.  We will always love stories of mortality, murder and the evil that humankind is capable of.

In recent times, we’ve been bombarded by stories of detectives with cases to solve. Most noticeably, television has become awash with broken male figures who struggle over a series of episodes to get to the bottom of a crime. Much in the same way as classic noir works, a crime is explained, and then a morally ambiguous character works it out and reveals the answer at the end. It makes for gritty drama but is often served up with an instant, dulling sense of closure and gratification.

Bong Joon-ho’s brilliant film, Memories of murder, breaks the restrictive format we’ve now become entranced by. The 2003 film is based on Korea’s first serial murderer case in history, the Hwaseong murders of 1986 to 1991. A city outside of Seoul, Hwaseong saw the death and rape of ten women. With a gravely underprepared police force, the case was never solved.

While it may not be a complete departure from the themes of the detective drama, Memories of Murder is certainly unique. Much like David Fincher’s Zodiac, it is a film less about a crime being solved and more about the struggles of people solving it. For the hopeless trio of detectives at the centre of it, the story becomes about self-doubt, paranoia and anger. Indeed, the detectives become more and more world weary as time goes by, the murders becoming consuming aspects of their lives. In the end they are on the case as much for themselves as they are for the victims.

A case without a solution is a frustrating one for an audience. Loose ends confuse and bad leads anger the part of us that cries for swift justice. Also, without the clear banner of antagonist and protagonist that we are so used to, Memories of Murder is a film where good and bad are unidentifiable.  Those in charge of the investigation even blur the lines themselves, violently trying to prise out confessions from anyone in a hope to give themselves some closure. Khang Ho Song puts in a stellar performance as someone who will do anything to get an answer – however true it is.

It is a confusing film; but one that fights against the stale parameters of crime drama. In a world where we so often see the good guy arrest the bad guy, Bong Joon-ho reminds us that sometimes life doesn’t work that way.

 

 

Rear Window (Hitchcock. 1954)

rear winder.jpg

Rear window, is, on a basic level, an incredibly satisfying and compact story. But Hitchcock’s tale of voyeurism and paranoia has never merely been a thriller. While it may be compact, it reaches beyond being a self-contained drama.

The setup is tantalising cinema that plays with the voyeuristic tendencies of cinema audiences. There’s a bedbound photographer in New York, a boiling hot summer and a neighbourhood of flats occupied by shifty and intriguing characters. And when photographer Jeff (James Stewart) spots a murder through his window, it becomes a visually impressive story of armchair detective work.

But what stops Rear window becoming a stale noir film version of Cluedo is the richness of the world it depicts. Far beyond being a dime novel mystery story, it is a tale of American society in the 1950s. It is about city life, the American dream, marriage, depression, loneliness and fear within a world rapidly changing. The flats that the audience peeks at through the window are home to people that symbolise the America of the 1950s – a world obsessed with image and perfection as opposed to reality. There is a songwriter struggling to make a hit, a lonely middle aged woman battling with depression, a newly married couple struggling with their newfound responsibilities, a young ballet dancer subject to endless advances from lecherous men and an older married couple realising that they don’t love each other. Hitchcock and writer John Hayes offer a character study, a thriller and a comment on American society’s flaws.

With the sprawling, fantastic film set of the apartment buildings and a main character that charms as well as well as aggravates, Rear Window is one of Hitchcock’s best.

Victoria (Schipper. 2016)

 

 

victoria.jpg

A two hour and twenty minute continuous shot, Sebastian Schipper’s real time heist film is a swaggering, technically impressive behemoth of a film. And while the one take may normally be a shortcut to cheap applause from cinephiles and practitioners, Victoria is something more. There is no gimmickry to its form. Instead it is pure, unfettered cinematic perfection.

What strikes most about Victoria is its absoloute dedication to its form. Whereas Inarritu’s Birdman tagged on the technique of a one shot to stylishly merge the gap between scenes, Schipper’s creation feels like it is the only way it could have been made. A seamless series of events, the characters dart through the night with a sense of spontaneity, the tension and speed of the film carrying you along at a fantastic, bewildering pace. Much like Run Lola Run a film in which Schipper acted, it thumps along, laced with violence and a touch of the obscene.

At the centre of it is the titular character. Played by the incredibly believable Lei Costa, Victoria is as displaced as we are. A Spanish girl alone in Berlin, she is an anomaly. The film opens with her, isolated yet comfortable, as she dances to the strobe lights and pounding techno music of an underground nightclub. Exiting the nightclub is where the story really starts though. Meeting a group of Berliners led by Sonne (Frederick Lau), she is thrust into a friendship with strangers that leads further than she would have hoped. As the hours progress, she finds herself coerced into helping with a high stakes bank robbery.

The story itself sounds utterly implausible at first. A girl who within two hours becomes involved in a heist? Yet, the strange and beautiful thing about it is that it feels completely the opposite. The situation feels real and plausible. Victoria herself has a disturbing underlying taste for excitement and the unpredictable, justifying her unusual entry into this world. That she takes the leap from Madrid to living and working in a café in Berlin expresses early on that she is missing something from her life. What’s more, the characters with whom she becomes entwined are utterly believable. Unlike the bank robbers of films like Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), they are not professionals but scared young men who have found themselves wrapped up in something they shouldn’t be. You sympathise with them. The one shot allows you to immerse yourself in their characters, their desires and their flaws, bringing the conclusion that they are not heartless robbers looking for quick monetary gain but troubled and cornered survivalists.

Victoria is a glimmering technical achievement first and foremost. Yet behind the one shot conceit is something of deep artistic value. Indeed, what the technique allows for is a plot that progresses beautifully, characters that become known intimately and action that is immersive and thrilling. With the beat and pace of German techno music, this is cinema that captivates from the first second to the last.

High Rise (Ben Wheatley. 2016)

high rise.jpg

For years believed to be unfilmable in every way, JG Ballard’s classic novel about a class divided block of flats has been kept away from the screen. Numerous writers have tried and failed over the past 40 years to bring it to life, yet Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump have finally succeeded. They’ve brought the paradoxical, mad, and hugely uncomfortable story spinning in to life with colour, violence and humour. It is by no means conventional. But that’s its brilliance.

Rather ingeniously set in the time of the novel’s release (a heightened version of seventies Britain), High Rise follows the metaphorical collapse of a giant block of modern flats designed to cater to everyone’s needs. Centering on the young aspiring middleclass Dr Laing (Tom Hiddleston), we see a building designed as a crucible for social change buckle under the weight of the task. When electricity fails, food goes rotten and waste begins to build up, the microcosm of society descends into madness, violence and sex.

Like most good sci fi, High Rise is  mad. Beginning with Laing eating a domestic dog on a balcony covered with paint and human blood, the unhinged nature of Wheatley’s film is utterly brilliant. With a kinetic pace, the film has the behaviour of a madman. It’s prone to loud outbursts of rage and is incredibly violent. What’s more, Laurie Rose’s cinematography offers inspired, dizzying visuals to complement this. In the hazy interiors he manages extremely inventive images – a favourite being a tracking shot in which the camera barrel rolls down the corridor.

The design of the sets, costumes and environments must also be commended for adding to this madness. From the foreboding nature of the brown concrete flats to those that live within its walls, everything is steeped in a gloriously retro seventies vision. Full of shag carpets, mutton chops and minimalist furniture, there is a sense of vibrancy and indulgence to this version of the seventies. Completely unrecognisable as an actual Britain, what the film does is craft an alternative seventies. It’s one that is unreal, fractured and disconnected.

Yet what makes this such a unique piece of British science fiction is the humor it teases out of such a dark subject. As with Kill List  and Sightseers, Wheatley has created something that is raucously funny. The pompous elite that fortify themselves on the top floor have some great lines, offering implausible solutions as to how to fix a societal collapse. The architect of the building (Jeremy Irons) is also dryly funny, absurdly confident that his plan for the building is all going to plan. But the clever thing about it is the bitterness to the comedy. Every joke through dialogue or physical action has a sting and a bite to it, seething with the grimness of the whole scenario. Much like Peter Greenaway’s work, the humour is found in outbursts of people’s true hateful characteristics. In a film about the sourness that underlies all our thoughts on societal class, taste and wealth, this is dark and uncomfortable comedy.

Wheatley’s construction is one of insanity and implausibility. It is hilarious, horrifying, uncomfortable and revealing. And while it may be a document of fears from a past era, the chaos, anarchy and worries of it are at least partly recognisable.

The Shout (Jerzy Skolimowski. 1978)

the_shout_md.jpg

There is a unique bizarreness to Jerzy Skolimowski’s classic arthouse horror film. It’s a mysterious, bewildering, shocking, confusing and kinetic film. Yet for all its unusual qualities, it is a thoroughly intriguing piece of cinema.

Set in quaint rural Devon, the story centres around a couple that’s normal life is disturbed by an enigmatic traveller named Crossley (Alan Bates).  With a theatrical presence to him, Crossley tells his innocent hosts Anthony (John Hurt) and Rachel (Susannah York) of his 18 years spent with aboriginals in Australia. The centerpiece to his story is the ancient technique he mastered in the wilderness – the technique to kill with a piercing shout. Obsessed with sounds and music, Anthony persuades Crossley to demonstrate his skill on the wild shoreline. In doing so, a series of strange and frightening events begin to occur.

A film of labyrinthine structure, is a testing and thoroughly unnerving experience. Jumping between flashbacks and a psychiatric ward in which Crossley retells the story in Devon, there is a genuine sense of confusion. We are perplexed by barrages of images and a nonlinear plot. Yet the confusion is necessary, for the central mood of Skolimowski’s film is one not outright fear but of deep uncertainty and discomfort.  Indeed, a considerable amount of anxiety comes from the disjointed nature of the story, the clipped dialogue and the irregular characters.

The disconcerting mood to the piece goes even further. Much like Nicholas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now , The Shout is not reliant on using the standard tropes of the horror genre to scare. Graphic violence and jump scares are not used to create cheap tension or suspense. Instead, it is the possibility of these moments happening that worries. We as an audience are not terrified by Crossley’s shout itself, we are frightened by the possibility of it being true.

While it may not be an easy watch, The Shout is a truly exemplary piece of classic British horror. With a great performance by the main trio, it stands as an ambiguous but terrific piece of cinema. Taking a quaint setting and muddying it with an element of chaos, it has an itching, nervy quality to it, forever teetering on the edge of some truly horrible event. Its brilliance lies in its curious form and unpredictability.