Top 20 Political Movies

ByMary Marsh and Jackie Shaner

— -- Washington goes Hollywood this week when Vice President Al Gore arrives in Los Angeles for his coronation ceremony, but Hollywood has been going Washington for most of this century.

If the real political world is putting you to sleep, get into the campaign spirit and head to the video store. Check out some of the titles on our list of the 20 best political films and get in the mood to vote.

The Manchurian Candidate

(1962) Starring: Frank Sinatra, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Harvey, Janet LeighClassic political movie of the film noir genre. A brainwashed U.S. soldier unwittingly turns into a presidential assassin. The movie hits on explosive Cold War-era topics: Espionage, McCarthyism, and conspiracy. When John F. Kennedy is assassinated the year after the movie’s release, Sinatra pulls it from theaters, and successfully keeps it under wraps for more than 20 years.

The Candidate

(1972) Starring: Robert Redford, Peter Boyle

Redford stars as a young California lawyer who is talked into running against a well-respected incumbent when grizzled professional political consultants insist that he can run on his power-to-the-people principles. But as the campaign progresses, party manipulation interferes with his ideals. Real-life politicians George McGovern and Hubert H. Humphrey appear briefly in cameos.

A Perfect Candidate

(1996) Documentary

Take a behind-the-scenes look at a Senate campaign as filmmakers follow Oliver North’s unsuccessful bid to unseat Democratic Sen. Charles Robb of Virginia in 1994. Classic scenes include a TV debate in which North — in an attempt to defend his past — claims to be the most investigated person in the history of the world. Wilder points out there must have been a reason for the scrutiny.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington

(1939) Starring: Jimmy Stewart

Directed by Frank Capra, ABCNEWS resident film buff Nancy Gabriner says it’s “the movie that made us love politics.” Classic tale of a naive senator who exposes corruption in Washington. Stewart stars as the wide-eyed country boy who was appointed to finish a dead senator’s term by powers that assumed that he wouldn’t disturb their corrupt schemes.


(1993) Starring: Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver

White House aides replace a comatose president with a stand-in, an ordinary guy who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real commander-in-chief. But no one counts on the replacement becoming more popular — to the public and the first lady — than the actual president.

Bob Roberts

(1992) Starring: Tim Robbins

In this “mockumentary,” chart-topping folksinger Bob Roberts is a right-winger who coopts 1960s liberal ideals to mount a conservative bid for the Senate. Blowing his harmonica and strumming his guitar, Roberts lashes out at the liberals for ruining the country. This satire is studded with star cameos.

Wag the Dog

(1998) Starring: Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman

By an amazing coincidence, this movie about a president manufacturing a war to cover up a scandal was released just as the world was meeting Monica Lewinsky and the United States was going to war. In real life, as the House took up impeachment proceedings, President Clinton ordered an air strike on Iraq, prompting Sen. Trent Lott to say, “Both the timing and the policy are subject to question.” Our film hound Gabriner says, “With Capra gone, we get cynical movies about politics.”


(1998) Starring: Warren Beatty, Halle Berry

After hiring a hit man to put him out of his misery, a despondent senator running for re-election decides he has nothing to lose. So he starts telling — shock of all shocks — the truth. Senator Bulworth is everything people wish real politicians would be: Honest, straight-talking and fun. But Warren, just a bit of advice: You’re believable as a politician, but not as a rapper.

State of the Union

(1948) Starring: Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Angela Lansbury

Another Capra classic. Love triangle. Smoky back-room negotiations. Politics the way it use to be; the politics we love. An industrialist who is having an affair with a newspaper publisher is asked to run for president. Later, in real life, former actor Ronald Reagan the borrows movie line “I’m paying for this microphone” in his 1980 campaign.

The Seduction of Joe Tynan

(1979) Starring: Meryl Streep, Alan Alda

What’s more important: Family values or family? Can a pure guy survive in politics. Senator Tynan (Alan Alda) gets seduced by power … and by Meryl Streep’s character.

The Best Man

(1964) Starring: Henry Fonda, Cliff Robertson

Our best woman, Gabriner, calls this the “best convention movie ever.” The whole film takes place during a political convention. Two contenders slug it out for the nomination, wheeling and dealing amid all the nail-biting suspense that conventions had before they became party infomercials.

The American President

(1995) Starring: Michael Douglas, Annette Bening

Against the advice of his aides, a widower president decides to start dating in the middle of an election year. The object of his affection just happens to be lobbying for legislation he doesn’t want. Witty dialogue, and good-looking scenes at the White House.

Meet John Doe

(1941) Starring: Gary Cooper, Barbara Stanwyck

Another Frank Capra classic. A grass-roots political movement (what the Reform Party wishes it could be) gets taken over by a power-mad megalomaniac who tries to exploit Gary Cooper as an unwitting dupe candidate. We won’t tell you which side prevails.


(1999) Starring: Matthew Broderick, Reese Witherspoon

A high school teacher is tormented by the successful politicking of the most popular girl in school during a hard-fought student council election. Stunning acting by Witherspoon in a film that features a brilliantly subtle parody of Ross Perot’s role in the 1992 presidential election.

The War Room

(1993) Documentary

Gritty, behind-the-scenes documentary about Bill Clinton’s 1992 election campaign. Turns James Carville and George Stephanopoulos into mega-celebrities. (Stephanopoulos is now an ABCNEWS political analyst).

All the President’s Men

(1976) Starring: Robert Redford, Dustin Hoffman

The movie version of the best-selling book that chronicles the implosion of a presidency. The garage scene still scares, and the question remains — Who is Deep Throat?


(1995) Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Joan Allen

A dark look at a dark man, including some controversial scenes of Richard Nixon talking to portraits of dead presidents at the White House. Joan Allen wins an Oscar nomination for her portrayal of the long-suffering first lady Pat Nixon. WARNING: Unless you have a long, rainy afternoon, this could occupy most of a weekend.


(1999) Starring: Dan Hedaya, Kirsten Dunst, Michelle Williams

The light-hearted Nixon. Two young, letter-writing, dog-walking female fans become secret Nixon advisers (Deep Throat?). Nixon gets stoned, and the myth of Woodward and Bernstein is pierced in this biting satire.

The Distinguished Gentleman

(1992) Starring: Eddie Murphy

Art imitating life? A black con man with the same name as a dead white congressman (Thomas Jefferson Johnson) uses the power of incumbency to win election from an unwitting electorate. Rep. Johnson hopes to feed at the trough with the rest of the Capitol Hill swine. But once he gets there, Johnson’s conscience gets in the way of his con. Like Mr. Smith, our hero ends up battling the system.

All the King’s Men

(1949) Starring: Broderick Crawford

Absolute power corrupts absolutely in this classic of Southern politics. The rise and fall of a Huey Long-like character. Gabriner says this movie has “the grit not found in today’s picture-perfect politics.”

Political junkie, big-screen aficionado and ABCNEWS producer Nancy Gabriner contributed to this report.

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