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‘Hollywood goes to Washington’: My favorite political-themed films

Although lately it seems the behavior of politicians has been more cringe-inducing than commendable, Capitol Hill continues to serve as a very fruitful source of inspiration for Hollywood. The power struggles and clashes of ideals inherent in politics have made the perfect fuel for big-screen dramas since the beginning of movie-making. Hollywood has shown politicians at their best — such as James Stewart’s idealistic senator, Jefferson Smith, in the classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) — and at their worst — see this year’s comedy/satire “The Campaign,” starring Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis.

While the upcoming November elections promise to provide plenty of real-life drama, ;) here’s a few of my favorite fictional political-themed films:

“Air Force One” (1997)

President James Marshall, played by Harrison Ford, isn’t one to go down without a fight. When Air Force One is hijacked by terrorists, Marshall — a Vietnam vet and Medal of Honor recipient — refuses to surrender. He orders his staff back in Washington not to negotiate with the terrorists, even though he knows it may cost him his life, and he fights to regain control of the plane.

“Air Force One” is an intense, suspenseful thriller with a strong supporting cast that includes Gary Oldman, Glenn Close and William H. Macy. James Marshall may be just a fictional character, but I’d vote for him if he was actually running for office. :)

“The Ghost Writer” (2010)

In this film, Ewan McGregor plays an unnamed ghostwriter who is tasked with helping a former British prime minister (Pierce Brosnan) write a memoir, after the death of the book’s previous ghostwriter. What seems to be a straightforward writing project grows more sinister, and McGregor’s ghostwriter begins to uncover details certain officials would like to remain hidden. As he digs deeper, he realizes he must make a decision: Will he keep quiet and cash his paycheck, or will he reveal the dangerous secrets he’s uncovered, even if it may put his life in jeopardy?

“The Ghost Writer” didn’t seem to be a huge box office success in the United States, which is a shame, because it’s a very timely and thought-provoking film. It’s a slow-burning thriller; there are no high-speed car chases, no dramatic shoot-outs. However, the movie carefully builds up a sense of tension and suspense, and the film’s eerie soundtrack adds to the feeling of unease. I’d also highly recommend the book this movie is based on, written by Robert Harris.

“Independence Day” (1996)

It’s probably a stretch to call this a political film, but it does feature one of my favorite big-screen presidents. “Independence Day” isn’t a deep film, and it doesn’t pretend to be; it’s simply a fun summer blockbuster about the United States’ efforts to fight off an alien invasion.

The film spends a lot of time focusing on Bill Pullman’s character, Thomas J. Whitmore, the president at the time of the attacks. Pullman struggles to keep the country together as society threatens to collapse into a state of panic. He goes beyond just giving inspiring speeches, however — at the end of the film, he pilots one of the fighter jets targeting the alien ships. Is it realistic? Probably not. But it’s still pretty awesome for a commander-in-chief, if you ask me. ;) He joins Harrison Ford’s President James Marshall on the list of Hollywood presidents you really don’t want to mess with.

“The State Within” (2006)

This excellent BBC miniseries is a study of both American and British politics, and how government ethics and foreign policy have been impacted by the war on terror. Jason Isaacs turns in a strong performance as Sir Mark Brydon, a British ambassador in Washington, D.C., who finds himself in the middle of a complex political conspiracy that could lead to a war. There is a sinister thread connecting seemingly unrelated events: a terrorist attack that causes a British airplane to crash on American soil; a man on death row who claims he is innocent; and the assassination of an important political figure. Brydon is not sure who he can trust, or what secrets are being hidden by top officials such as Lynne Warner (Sharon Gless), the American secretary of defense, or Nicholas Brocklehurst (Ben Daniels), an MI6 operative.

“The State Within” is now available for instant viewing on Netflix, and it’s well worth taking the time to watch. It doesn’t push an overt political agenda — it simply asks both the U.S. and the U.K. to take a look at how we’ve changed in the past decade, and what our governments have gained or lost in our post-9/11 world.

So, who is your favorite big-screen president? What is your favorite political-themed film?

5 responses

  1. Mel

    My top four would be, Nixon by Oliver Stone w/ Anthony Hopkins doing work. Frost/Nixon with the amazing Michael Sheen & Frank Langella. Dick w/ Kirsten Dunst & Michelle Williams love that movie and All the Presidents Men w/ Dustin Hoffman & Robert Redford. Wait… I’m beginning to see a pattern. MILHOUS!

    Of your four picks I have only seen Independence Day I will have to add the others to my queue

    September 24, 2012 at 9:31 pm

    • “The Ghost Writer” would probably be my favorite of the four I selected. I’d definitely recommend catching the others, as well, though. A friend recommended “The State Within” and I ended up really enjoying it.

      September 27, 2012 at 2:30 am

  2. Nic

    Star Wars! Star Wars is totally political themed. It has the Empire and Rebels and stuff. All great picks (haven’t seen the last one you listed though). Mr. Smith is the first thing I always think of for political films. I’d throw in Dr. Strangelove, The Conteder (Jeff Bridges!) and Idiocracy.

    I always liked Kevin Kline in Dave and while Man of the Year may have missed, Robin Williams was still badass. My Fellow Americans (Jack Lemmon, James Garner, Dan Akroyd) wins purely based on having three great actors playing presidents.

    September 26, 2012 at 11:18 pm

    • Good choice. I didn’t even think of Star Wars, but you’re absolutely right. I does have many political overtones.

      September 27, 2012 at 2:28 am

  3. Pingback: Geek-ly Roundup: Awesome Posts from Other Bloggers | One Girl Geek

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