Election Day: 5 Cinematic Political Races

Is there anything more thrilling than a neck-and-neck political race? After months of fervent campaigning, President Barack Obama and Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney finally face off today in what is shaping up to be one close and nail biting race for the next President of the United States of America (as of last night, a CNN voter poll had the two dead even at 49%). While they can never match the real life nerves of an election, the movies have always done a tremendous job at depicting political races with the taunt suspense and high intellect they deserve. While comedic movie elections like Chris Rock’s Head of State and Jon Heder’s Napoleon Dynamite are great in their own right, a serious film approach to politics can be unlike anything you’ve ever seen – a film that simultaneously tells a white-knuckle race for political power while uncovering the systematic inner workings and more dirty side of American politics. With the results of the 2012 race for President just hours away, it couldn’t be a more appropriate time to celebrate with these 5 exceptional cinematic elections:

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1) Election (1999) – Director Alexander Payne cemented his status as the master of the comedy-drama with last year’s The Descendants, but critics and audiences alike began to propose this title for him as far back as 1999 thanks to his sensational second feature, Election. Starring a perfectly off-the-deep-end Matthew Broderick and a seductive and sneakily spunky Reece Witherspoon (in her breakthrough role no less), the film tells the story of an unhappy teacher (Broderick) who decides to tamper with the school’s presidential election after an overachieving senior who he simply can’t stand, the iconic Tracy Flick (Witherspoon), decides to run. Like most of Payne’s films, the screenplay is full of surprises and works on so many different levels – on one, you have a simple story about school politics, on another, you have a mockery of suburban life, and on another, you have a dark satire of the imperfections of American politics as a whole, which makes it all the more relevant considering today is Election Day. The fact that you can watch the film and find it mocking numerous things all at once is part of its charm, so is its spot on portrayal of dirty high school life and Witherspoon’s great, manipulative performance.

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2) The Manchurian Candidate (1962) – Screw the mediocre 2004 remake starring Denzel Washington and Meryl Streep and directed by Jonathan Demme, for the original film adaptation of The Manchurian Candidate is a psychological thriller like nothing else and a perfect representation of the fear of communism that spread like wild fire during the Cold War and the tense political relations that formed as a result. With a complex central mystery, Candidate is a white-knuckle thrill ride as it tells the story of the Iselin’s, a prominent political family whose military son returns to America brainwashed into being an assassin for a Communist conspiracy. As the plot thickens, allegiances are tested and lines are crossed as the Communists prep the brainwashed son into becoming both an assassin and an elected official who can infiltrate the American government. If the twists and turns, Cold War secrets, and a lead performance by Frank Sinatra weren’t enough, the film is also home to a deliciously menacing and incredible performance by Angela Lansbury as the conniving family matriarch – before there was Tilda Swinton, Lansbury was the queen of the ice-cold stare from hell, and in the film, her deadly stare pierces right through the screen and into your head – now that’s a thriller!

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3) Milk (2008) – When Sean Penn won Best Actor for his stunning portrayal of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician to be elected to public office in California, many thought he stole the award from The Wrestler’s Mickey Rourke, and while opinions over the rightful winner may vary, there’s no denying that Penn’s turn as the optimistic and inspired politician is anything short of masterful. Directed by Gus Van Sant, Milk chronicles Harvey’s tumultuous and controversial rise to political fame, and Penn not only embodies Milk’s posture and vocal flares, but he also channels the politician’s sense of hope and burning passion that made him such an icon in the 1970s. With a supporting cast that includes Emile Hirsch, Diego Luna, Allison Pill, James Franco, and, best of all, Josh Brolin as Milk’s political adversary and eventual assassin, Dan White, Milk is a riveting account of the grass-roots political campaign that would change the world in ways no one could’ve predicted. If anything, Milk is a call for democracy, equality, and personal independence and liberation, themes that America were founded on and that drive each political election every four years.

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4) Street Fight (2005) – Directed by Marshall Curry and nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature, Street Fight is a no-holds bar look at the 2002 political race for mayor of Newark, New Jersey between Corey Booker (D) and Sharp James (R). As we are first introduced to the charismatic nominees and learn about the political landscape of Newark, all seems fine and normal, but with some expert interviews and perfectly paced editing, Street Fight becomes a real-life political thriller as Sharp James’ political machine is slowly revealed and the nasty tactics he uses to indirectly bribe people to vote for him come to light (the way James uses a street rally with games, food, and amusement rides to get voters is particularly shocking). At times hilarious and at times jaw dropping, Street Fight chronicles Booker’s attempts to take the position from the incumbent James, whose hold on the city of Newark and its people is frightening and manipulative. When it comes to elections, the small political race in Newark as depicted in Street Fight becomes a microcosm for dirty American politics as whole, and watching this film as Romney and Obama fight for America’s vote could not be more poignant or revealing of the business that is politics.

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5) The Ides of March (2011) – After riding a wave of critical buzz at the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, George Clooney’s The Ides of March faded fast in the awards season after it failed to gain much heat at the box office and after its stars, Clooney and Ryan Gosling, had other films with more awards appeal (The Descendants, Drive). Box office gross aside, Ides is a taunt, polished, and nerve wrecking political thriller as it covers the fictional presidential campaign of Democrat Mike Morris (Clooney), whose junior campaign manager, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), is pulled into the world of political seduction and temptation when he’s offered a position on the staff of Morris’ rival in the Democratic primary race. Though thrilling for its exposé of politics as a web of business-like intellect and deceit, The Ides of March ultimately satisfies as a great ensemble piece, and while Clooney and Gosling are strong in the leads, the supporting cast truly shines, from Phillip Seymour Hoffman to Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffery Wright, Max Minghella, Jennifer Ehle, Gregory Itzin, and, in a truly vulnerable performance, the delightful Evan Rachel Wood.

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Do you guys agree with my picks? Any other cinematic elections come to mind, or do you despise political thriller movies? Sound off in the discussion board below!

Article by Zack Sharf

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