10 great American election films

With the Biden vs Trump battle coming to a head, we round up a selection of the best US election movies.

3 November 2020

By Ian Mantgani

Bob Roberts (1992)

In the US, everybody from heads of state to schoolboard presidents and sheriffs are elected, with hoopla that makes for dramatic ritual. As Richard Wolffe puts it in Journeys with George (2002): “Elections are that mixture of entertainment and information – human interest, big stakes, big game… it’s perfect, it’s got it all… it’s the greatest story in the world.”

But what is an election movie? Some cinematic works are notable for their periphery to politics, using elections as mere markers for eras: the silly Our Gang silent Election Day (1929) was an excuse to show child hijinks yet is telling in its commonplace eruption of Prohibition gangster violence. Medium Cool (1969) floats in and out of the infamous 1968 Democratic national convention, but is less about candidates than urban chaos, media displacement and class alienation. Shampoo (1975) has Nixon’s victory on the radio as its doomed sex-comedy crumbles in the foreground, using politics to underscore the dwindling of a libertine dream.

Primary (1960)

Some films are directly about democracy, but it’s not the office that’s of consequence so much as the effect on community – a race for high-school president is explosive in revealing the pettiness of teacher and student personalities in Alexander Payne’s bleak comedy Election (1999). And some are as instructive about technology as populations – the 1960 documentary Primary, which captured John F. Kennedy’s photogenic glamour against the hick backslapping of Hubert Humphrey, could not have been made without mobile 16mm cameras and revolutionary portable sync-sound equipment. John Ford’s The Last Hurrah (1958), with Spencer Tracy as an old-school Irish mayor working his community in the face of a remote, media-propped WASP opponent, looks elegiacally at community politics while anticipating an age of televisual saturation.

There are straightforward re-enactments of moments of political import, like Jay Roach’s Recount (2008), about the Bush-Gore debacle in Florida, and Game Change (2012), following John McCain’s wild-card vice-presidential pick of Sarah Palin. There are election comedies that serve as simplistic star vehicles, like Head of State (2003), Swing Vote (2008) and The Campaign (2012). There are hagiographic documentaries, like One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern (2005) and By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009).

But most renowned films about US elections are on some level cynical. If this is a country that demands patriotic optimism for candidates to be viable on the ballot, it’s also happy for its art to portray the process as a meat-grinder for good intentions. Of the many terrific movies about the American electoral circus, here are 10 of the most interesting.

Betty Boop for President (1932)

Director: Dave Fleischer

Betty Boop for President (1932)

In the mire of the Great Depression, the Fleischer brothers released this one-reel cartoon in which a singing, stumping Betty promised “some heidi-ho” and “I’ll give you all a great big kiss when I’m the president.” The opponent who offers tax reduction and shepherding of citizens is ‘Mr Nobody’, while Betty’s campaign song drifts off into a surreal hallucination of street cars climbing up apartment blocks to pick up individual citizens, a giant umbrella to protect America from rain and, more importantly to citizens living under the Volstead Act, a big frothing mug of beer.

Despite coming out on the eve of the USA electing Franklin D. Roosevelt, one of the nation’s most transformative leaders, Betty Boop for President discloses a disbelief in the effectiveness of the ruling class and a desire for simple entertainment as an antidote to rhetoric. Remade on the tail end of the FDR era as Olive Oyl for President (1948), this escape into the comfort of stardom has proven a durable idea.

State of the Union (1948)

Director: Frank Capra

State of the Union (1948)

“Don’t you shut me off, I’m paying for this broadcast!” says Spencer Tracy as Grant Matthews, in a line later paraphrased by Ronald Reagan. While the springboard for Reagan’s career was being a hired spokesperson for established interests, in State of the Union that proves to be the Tracy character’s ruin. Matthews is a patriotic aviation industrialist who has built his career on harmonious relations between management and labour; when he’s courted by Angela Lansbury’s press magnate and the Republican party, he claims no interest in being president, but they see he has “idealism out of one eye and ambition out of the other”. Katharine Hepburn, as his wife, reflects “I know he’s a big man, you know he’s a big man – my bad days are when he knows he’s a big man.”

Hepburn watches as Tracy gets power-hungry, seduced by pacts and eroding his message until he’s “a party to his own murder”. Typically for director Frank Capra, redemption is found in spite of the system’s flaws and corruption; later, in the Vietnam era, Robert Redford would star in Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate (1972), the cynical and hopeless version of this same compromised idealist narrative.

The Best Man (1964)

Director: Franklin J. Schaffner

The Best Man (1964)

“Power is not a toy that we give to good children, it’s a weapon – and the strong man uses it,” notes Lee Tracy in an Oscar-nominated role as Trumanesque president Art Hockstader in The Best Man. He’s only a supporting player, but his catchphrases (“Striking a blow for freedom!” every time he raises a glass) are the chorus to this piece, directed in 1964 by Franklin J. Schaffner from the 1960 Gore Vidal play.

It depicts a fictional Democratic national convention, where the race for president has come down to Henry Fonda as a man of principle who’s also a philanderer and a dithering aristocrat, against Cliff Robertson as a Commie-baiting, tax-cutting “man of the people” who proclaims segregation is a “local matter”. If the plot revolves around which candidate will be ruthless or smart enough to ruin the other man and consequently win Hockstader’s endorsement, the ideology is Vidal’s working out of his feelings on the wings of the Democratic party. Fonda stands in for twice-defeated Adlai Stevenson, a figure too noble to muckrake; Robertson is Vidal’s vision of Kennedy as a new breed of hateful, opportunistic fraud. What emerges is a powerful melodrama that revels in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of a convention hall (“It’s a spontaneous demonstration – carefully planned!”), wrestles over whether might actually is right, and indexes some of the forces at play in American politics, from high ideals to low deal-making and the sordidness of building a career on playing the public’s fears.

Tanner ’88 (1988)

Director: Robert Altman

Tanner ’88 (1988)

For an 11-episode, 353-minute TV happening, director Robert Altman led his crew through the real Democratic presidential primary season of 1988, but within it placed a fictional candidacy and watched what happened. Michael Murphy stars as former Michigan congressman Jack Tanner, an invented personality who nevertheless rubs shoulders with actual politicos like Bob Dole, Bruce Babbitt and Jesse Jackson, not to mention celebrities like Rebecca De Mornay and Waylon Jennings, all the way through to a backroom delegate challenge at the DNC in Atlanta. Some scenes are improvised, most are scripted drama by Doonesbury cartoonist Garry Trudeau, who wrote each episode on the fly in response to how the previous one turned out.

The result is a smudge of the line between reportage and screenplay, a satire in which Altman’s roaming camera captures the incredulity of staff as Tanner haplessly gets overtaken by events, the absurdity of candidates going through speech dynamics classes, the deflating pettiness of hangers-on like the pretentious NYU grad documenting the campaign for ‘neorealism’ and the primary voters for whom this is a circus to autograph-hunt.

For all its lightness of touch, Tanner ’88 is a powerful chronicle of this moment at the end of the Reagan era, as Tanner recalls the idealism of the 60s, witnesses first-hand the violent decay of inner cities and laments “the systematic transformation of a country that once sought to be good to a country that now seeks only to feel good”. Altman called this “the most creative work I’ve ever done”, and the cast is a rogue’s gallery of powerhouse character actors, including early work from Cynthia Nixon, Pamela Reed, Matt Malloy and Jeff Daniels.

Bob Roberts (1992)

Director: Tim Robbins

Bob Roberts (1992)

Working with Tanner ’88 and The Player cinematographer Jean Lépine, Tim Robbins wrote, directed and starred in this mockumentary adapted from a character he’d played in a folk-circle book-burning sketch on Saturday Night Live. Having grown up on a commune and, in the 1980s backlash against hippie utopianism, reinvented himself as an insider-trading Wall Street power player, Bob is a Pennsylvania candidate for US senate, a ‘poet’ and a ‘fencing enthusiast’ who picks guitar and croons pro-establishment tunes against moochers. With post-Dylan titles like ‘The Times Are Changin’ Back’, his hits proclaim ideals such as “We’re marching for self-interest, we’ll march forever more.”

If Bob Roberts begins in zippy, sardonic mode, with Robbins relishing playing a motivated demagogue, this is also a film that closes in, sketching an increasingly desolate vision of the national trend. Its many colourful supporting roles include Gore Vidal as Brickley Paiste, Bob’s ineffectual liberal opponent; Giancarlo Esposito as a stonewalled muckraking reporter; Alan Rickman as the menacing campaign svengali and a young Jack Black as a glass-eyed, obedient supporter – and by the end, when the rivals are sidelined, there’s a totalitarian vision of lockstep followers literally cheering the death of truth.

“The rebel conservative – now that is deviant brilliance; what a Machiavellian poseur,” one character points out early on. But in a world that’s seen the emergence of conservative rockers like Ted Nugent, radical raging pundits like Glenn Beck and billionaire rabble-rouser Trump, the idea of the insurrectionary establishmentarian becomes less like satire and more relevant to politics as usual with each passing year.

The War Room (1993)

Directors: D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus

The War Room (1993)

In 1960, D.A. Pennebaker was on the crew of Primary; in 1967 he directed the classic Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back. And in 1993, he and Chris Hegedus released this film, which the ads called “the making of the first president from the rock’n’roll generation”. Rather than live backstage with Bill Clinton, The War Room sweats along for 9 months with the governor’s brain trust, as they forge a new style of campaigning for the 90s, of Democrats determined to get tough.

When scandals like accusations of draft-dodging or the affair with Gennifer Flowers emerge, strategist James ‘The Ragin’ Cajun’ Carville announces to the troops that “George Bush and Roger Ailes and the whole sleazy cabal” aren’t going to get away with knocking down their candidates any more. Of the incumbent president, Carville proclaims: “He’s so yesterday, when I think of an old calendar, I think of George Bush’s face.”

This is an intimate portrayal of the nuts and bolts of phone calls, ad-script minutiae and running down hallways, a reminder that familiar Beltway insiders like Carville, and communications director George Stephanopoulos, were once hungry, innovative insurgents. Behind the klieg lights, campaign life is a matter of folding chairs, motel rooms, bad coffee and too much pizza, full of driven, obsessive wonks with their eyes on the prize.

Primary Colors (1998)

Director: Mike Nichols

Primary Colors (1998)

If The War Room documented the nucleus of the Clinton campaign, Joe Klein’s anonymously-published, thinly fictionalised novel Primary Colors was the scandal sensation that satirised its personalities from top to bottom and sought a reflection on the values of the era. Director Mike Nichols’ film version, photographed in candy colours by Michael Ballhaus, reinvented the melee as Hollywood iconography, moving the action along in a buoyant combination of thoughtfulness and farce, casting John Travolta in a broad Clinton impersonation as ‘Governor Jack Stanton’ alongside Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates as they bop along the campaign trail, strategise against opponents and tumble at every turn from Stanton’s compulsive womanising.

Released to much hype about the audacity of an all-star parody of a philandering sitting president, amid the tumult of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, Primary Colors was somewhat underappreciated in its time – it was marketed as more of an outrageous comedy and was expected to mimic the book’s revelatory stir. But Elaine May’s script mixes humour with realpolitik to achieve something more complex: a witty American road movie epic that reflects on the mixture of depraved secrets, reconstructed idealism and touchy-feely charm that summarises the destiny of the Boomer generation.

The action, of course, is not seen through Stanton’s eyes, but young campaign manager Henry Burton (Adrian Lester). Burton suffers from “rampant TB – not tuberculosis, but true believerism”, and inevitably faces a crisis; in parallel to stories of worn down candidates, this is a disillusioned observer narrative, akin to The Ides of March (2011). Another companion piece is Warren Beatty’s Bulworth, also from 1998 – if Nichols and May were taking stock of how the rebels of the 60s had settled into power, Beatty’s film, about an “old liberal wine in new conservative bottle” senator who snaps at his own soullessness and decides to speak the truth, was a comic rage against the same generational journey.

Journeys with George (2002)

Directors: Alexandra Pelosi and Aaron Lubarsky

Journeys with George (2002)

Alexandra Pelosi, daughter of Democratic congressional leader Nancy Pelosi, was a producer for NBC, assigned to cover the campaign bus of Texas governor George W. Bush. Armed with an unassuming consumer camcorder, she filmed her downtime on the trail, getting unparalleled, unguarded access to the man who would be boy-king. The goofing around makes for a light film with heavy implications – as Pelosi notes on her staple snack, provided by the campaign itself, “The day we start travelling with the governor, we have to start eating baloney.”

Bush’s handlers give the press not just sandwiches but schedules; they “herd us out of bed” and “I’m no longer a person, I’m part of a pack – what we call The Bubble.” Breezily, factually, Journeys with George reveals how investigation of issues is anathema to mainstream media coverage of politics; they’re locked on the inside, hidden from societal consequence, filming the same scripted soundbites daily and knowing it. Bush himself emerges as a man “truly gifted at shaking hands”, and at flirting and self-deprecation; likeably at ease with himself, he’s consequently a skilled manipulator. “We were writing about trivial stuff because he charmed the pants off us.”

Street Fight (2005)

Director: Marshall Curry

Street Fight (2005)

There’s a gulf between 2 generations of black American politicians: the seasoned ones who grew up in segregation, came of age in the civil rights era, and established themselves as machine politicians; and those who worshipped the struggle from afar, were educated in Ivy League schools, and discovered the streets as a matter of pilgrimage. In the era where they intersect, this can lead to bruisings for ambitious golden boys – witness how Barack Obama got his clock cleaned by Bobby Rush when he first ran for congress, and look at Street Fight, in which Cory Booker, now a New Jersey senator, ran a brutal 2002 battle for Newark mayor against incumbent Sharpe James.

Booker tars James as a complacent and corrupt example of boosterism and graft, while James touts presiding over a regenerative renaissance and calls Booker a carpetbagging Johnny-come-lately. All in a day’s work, but director Marshall Curry’s camera also captures James’s police force trying to stop Booker from canvassing in apartment blocks and systematically removing his campaign signs, while hangers-on seize journalists’ cameras, send zoning officials to intimidate Booker-supporting businesses and, the film implies, are responsible for breaking into Booker’s office and car, leading to Booker carrying a gun for protection. This is a tense, immediate document of how elections can very much still be up-close, personal and dirty.

Anytown, USA (2005)

Director: Kristian Fraga

Anytown, U.S.A. (2005)

Opening with Tip O’Neill’s dictum that “all politics is local”, Kristian Fraga’s playful documentary portrays passions and tensions running unexpectedly high in the small-town race for mayor of Bogota, New Jersey in 2003. Property taxes are high, the school system is in disrepair. The incumbent mayor, partially sighted Steve Lonegan, is absurdly truculent, slow-clapping his dissenters in town meetings and asking “Are you finished?” Yet he seems on track to sail to re-election, as his dour Democratic opponent, Fred Pesce, achieves low name recognition.

Enter Dave Musikant, another partially sighted local, former captain of the high school football team, whose write-in campaign seems like a joke until he enlists Jesse Ventura’s campaign manager, uses a giant HB pencil as his mascot, and guilelessly sweet-talks almost everybody in town.

The jovial use of classical music and ironic cutting to achieve a satirical tone and whip up an unpredictable narrative sometimes make Anytown, USA feel like an extended special report from The Daily Show, but such tricks also help emotionalise the cast of characters and remind us that neither news media nor cinema traditionally covers local races with this level of intimacy. For a while, watching this movie, you get the sense, however illusory, that in America anything really might be possible.

  • This is an updated version of an article first published in November 2016