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.
- In The Loop (Armando Iannucci. 2009)
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)
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.
- Ivan the Terrible Parts I & II (Sergei Eisentstein. 1944, 1958)
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.
- Left Right and Centre (Sidney Gilliat. 1959)
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.
- Richard III (Richard Loncraine. 1995)
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)
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.
- Milk (Gus Van Sant. 2008)
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.
- Advise and Consent (Otto Preminger. 1962)
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)
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)
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?