Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Monday Movie Post

And, once again, I'm going to try to get back to doing these, at least occasionally. I actually have a couple things I've watched that I want to write up, but I never seem to get around to it these days. So today I have a cheat to get me back doing it, and I'll see how it goes.

That is, Jake Tapper did a thing about his "ten favorite" political movies. So I don't like to do personal favorite lists, but I thought it would be fun to see if I can top each one on his list.

First, the caveats. The main thing is that he just said they were his favorites, and so I certainly don't imply any criticism when I try to top them -- he's not claiming these are the best, either as movies or in their political meaning. Everyone is entitled to their favorites. Second, his ground rules were that it has to be narrowly political, which seems to be that it has to be set in either electoral politics or government. As he notes, that excludes something such as The Godfather (indeed, I think Godfather II fits under his definition, but I'll exclude it to stick with the spirit of his list). And I think by his definition war pictures have to be at least partially about high government officials; no Casablanca. Oh, and he specified no documentaries. And I guess they have to be movies, so I can't slip "Yes, Minister" or "The Wire" in here.

So I'll try to come up with either with a better movie or a movie with better politics content. Each entry starts with Tapper's choice, and then tops it. Sorry, long-time readers -- I've talked about most of these before, but maybe it'll get me back to doing movie posts more often.

10. In the Loop. One of two I haven't seen, so I'm going to have trouble coming up with a comp and won't know if I like it better. So I'll cheat and just toss out a great movie with enough politics to qualify: Citizen Kane. But after this one, they have to be matches in some way.

9. The Parallax View. Regular readers know I'm a big Beatty fan, but even I don't think it's much of a movie. Conspiracy, Beatty...this one's easy -- Bulworth is a far better movie, even if it ultimately falls short of greatness thanks to some Mr. Smithism and a bit too much conspiracy.

8. Z. The other one I haven't seen. Small country, repression, leftists: no one does that better than Life of Brian.

7. Dr. Strangelove. Can't really top it, I suppose. Still...I'm going to assume that Kubrick's two other anti-war movies, Full Metal Jacket and Paths of Glory, don't qualify; if they did, I could make a case for either of them. Instead, I'll argue for Sparticus, which surely does qualify. Because sometimes you're in the mood for an epic, and because it's about the best movie I can think of for liberal interventionists, and they should get something. Also because Charles Laughton is so wonderful in it.

6. Bananas. Terrific movie, if not quite as good as Love and Death...but, c'mon, Woody Allen really has absolutely no interest in politics at all, even if revolutions and dictators and Napoleon show up. Yes, it has one great political moment (the bit about the underwear), but so does History of the World Part I (it's good to be the king). Let's see: guy from an imperial power actually not very interested in politics but the romance of it intersects with how he works out his personal issues -- is it Bananas, or is it Lawrence of Arabia? Not sure that Lawrence is a great political movie, but it is a great movie, and it's at least as political as Bananas.

5. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Again, regular readers kmow my views on this: Sturges easily trumps Capra.  Hail the Conquering Hero, or The Great McGinty? (Again, I don't think Sullivan's Travels qualifies here). Gotta be McGinty -- not quite as good a movie as Hero (or Mr. Smith, for that matter), but a great rumination on political ethics by one of the best political directors.

4. Charlie Wilson's War. Odd pick; it's okay, I guess, but I found it entirely forgettable. Do you think the rules allow for Three Kings here? Three Kings is a good comp, I'd say, and a much better movie.

3. Wag the Dog. The only one I'd call a really awful selection; I can excuse Mr. Smith because it is a very good movie, but this one is just awful. Get some real politics: watch Scorsese's Gangs of New York.

2. All the President's Men. A fine movie all around...but one of the easiest to top, with Dick.

1. The Candidate. A fine choice for the highest spot on a favorite's list -- it's not, really, a great movie, but it's awful fun, and none do a better job in getting into a politician's head, even if a lot of the details aren't all that realistic. Hey, you now what that also describes? Henry V. As usual, Branagh's version. Henry is, to me, as great a political play as there ever has been, and I think Branagh's interpretation is concerned with politics a lot more than Olivier's -- although you should see both.

19 comments:

  1. Have you seen Advise and Consent? It gets pretty lurid (and homophobic) towards the end, but there's something convincing about its portrayal of how shit gets done in the Senate. In one of my favorite scenes, the Majority Leader is giving a stirring oration on patriotism or something on the floor to basically take up enough time while the Whip is trading political favors with another Senator to get a crucial vote passed.

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    1. Apparently Preminger offered cameos to both Martin Luther King (as a Senator from Georgia) and to Richard Nixon (as the Vice-President)! And "King reportedly gave the offer serious consideration".

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Advise_%26_Consent_(film)

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  2. Yeah, Henry V is a great political play, and I agree that these elements are better emphasized in the Branagh version than in Olivier's. Branagh partly inspired my lengthy discussion of the play in my first book, Unthinking the Unthinkable: Nuclear Weapons and Western Culture, which dealt with how the play's politics prefigured many of the concerns of the nuclear age.

    On that point, I have much more recently had occasion to study Henry VI Part 1, an earlier and lesser play of Shakespeare's but, in terms of the events it describes, the immediate sequel to Henry V. (Or, as we would now say, Henry V was a "prequel.") Henry VI is about a bungled foreign occupation under pressure from insurgents and religious extremists (Joan of Arc, in this case), and in that regard has many remarkable parallels to America's recent adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. A forthcoming essay of mine will deal with some of these. I'm not sure whether to credit Shakespeare's penetrating insight here, or the fact that people in power keep making the same basic mistakes century after century. Or maybe that is the penetrating insight.

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  3. Seven Days In May.

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  4. About the only place I'd have a serious disagreement is about Z, which, for my money, is not only a great political movie, but a great movie. Of course, Costa-Gavras (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Costa-Gavras) made other great political movies as well, including the one with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek about Pinochet's Chile, Missing. (One way to get around this is to note that these movies are *almost* documentaries.)

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  5. D'oh! You've missed 2 of the 3 best ones on this list. I recommend fixing that. I appreciate you bringing Three Kings into this conversation, and for what it's worth I'd say Mr. Smith isn't even Capra's best on this front (I'd go with Meet John Doe). Advise and Consent merits a mention too (though yeah the homophobia in that is off-the-charts).

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    1. I think I like Mr. Smith more than I like John Doe...I should watch Advise & Consent again; my memory is that it's lots of fun, but the politics of it is pretty much a mess.

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    2. IIRC, there's a bit of a mismatch between the politics of the original novel (which are pretty standard '50s rightwing) and Otto Preminger's Hollywood liberalism, which makes the movie interesting because it's a little unclear who the good guy was supposed to be. (Also, the guy who employs the most McCarthyite tactics is also the most liberal, when really the impetus to purge gay people from public office came strongest from the right.)

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  6. This list needs more Coriolanus; easily the best political movie of the last few years.

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  7. "In The Loop" is a great movie--or at least I liked it a lot when I saw it.

    What about "A Face In the Crowd"? I think that was mentioned by someone at the WaPo for some list like this, and I agree. Don't know if it's a match (haven't watched the link either) but it's a pretty great picture.

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  8. I'm surprised by your hate for "Wag the Dog." Dustin Hoffman is great in it, and it's got Willie Nelson!

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  9. Oh wow. You should really make it a high priority to watch In The Loop.

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    1. I think my takeaway from doing this is to move In the Loop up on my list. Coriolanus is already high on my list, too.

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  10. In The Loop is probably my #1. It's one of the best movies of the past 20 years, too. The TV show it's based on "The Thick of It" is also brilliant.

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  11. I love, love, love Henry V. Jenny

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  12. wow, I'd add a bunch over most of both your lists. The Manchurian Candidate. The Contender. Milk. The Conformist. The Last Emperor. No Way Out. Reds. Syriana. Election! Being There! Brazil!

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    1. plus, I don't know about you guys, but I liked Valkyrie. Especially for Nighy, Wilkinson, and Stamp.

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    2. Sure. His was his favorites; mine was just topping his with comps that had at least something in common. I'm not claiming it as a top anything.

      On your list...I liked Milk, but it's so clearly not as good as the documentary it's based on that it's hard for me to recommend it. Brazil is great, but I don't think it qualifies here, and generally I'm not sure it's really a political movie. Same with Election -- it's a terrific movie, but I'm not sure it's really a political movie.

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  13. The Best Man a 1964 movie based on a Gore Vidal play was one of the first political movies I watched that I thought were realistic and accurately depicting the political process... up until the final scene I guess. It's also far more realistic than most of the other political offerings of the time. Movies like the Manchurian Candidate or 7 Days in May may be good movies, but I don't think they give any good insights.

    Speaking of movies which went against the grain of their time, 1,2,3 a 1961 movie by Billy Wilder fits the mold. At a time where most movies engaged in the grand narrative of good West/evil East, Wilder did a movie that said that neither was happening: Everyone was gloriously and hilariously corrupt.

    Last but not least, I think that my favorite political movie is Conspiracy a 2001 HBO TV drama, ostensibly about the Wannsee conference that set in motion the Final Solution. I say ostensibly because while the movie is drawn from the actual minutes of the conference, to me it's the most accurate portrayal of a master political operator cajoling and arm-twisting the state bureaucracy into submission. The outcome obviously was horrendous, but the type of actors, the process, the bureaucratic conflicts, the kind of ambition and shallow ideology motivating many of the participants could happen at any place any time...

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