It appears we are spending a lot more time at home than we expected this spring. As viewers scrape the limits of Netflix, Prime, HBO, Disney Plus, and even GEM, there comes a moment where you think you have reached the end of the Internet. I’m here to help!
Recently, the Times of London held a ‘playoff’ of the top political movies of all-time. I was greatly encouraged by what I anticipated to be an elegantly curated list of under-rated political dramas that delivered deep insight and resonated with those of us that closely observe politics. Sadly, the Times under-delivered with a predictable Hollywood-dominated roster and left behind many worthy UK choices.
So, here is my list. I’m not saying they are the best political movies in the world, but I liked them, that’s something. You may have a hard time finding them. They may be relegated to someone’s basement DVD collection or they may be languishing on YouTube in its furthest reaches. That’s on you to find them.
Let’s start with the UK…
You have probably heard of, or seen the move The Queen, starring Helen Mirren. What you may not know is that it is the second instalment of a trilogy starring Michael Sheen as Tony Blair and written by Peter Morgan (The Crown). The Deal is part one.
Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were both elected as Labour MPs in 1983. The up and coming politicians were ambitious, but also opposites – the sunny, media savvy Blair and the dour workhorse Brown. They learnt the ropes during Neil Kinnock’s two failed attempts to win in 1987 and 1992, and then rose to key spots under Kinnock’s successor John Smith. However, Smith died suddenly of a heart attacking 1994, presenting an unanticipated opportunity for Blair and Brown. ‘The deal’ between Blair and Brown, and what was exactly agreed to at Granita restaurant in Islington, is a big part of political lore in the UK, with Brownites feeling Blair overstayed. Brown was never able to secure his own mandate (parallels to the Chrétien-Martin dynamic in Canada).
The third movie in the trilogy, the Special Relationship, looks at the relationship between Blair and Bill Clinton – the weakest of the three movies. Couldn’t really buy in to Dennis Quaid as Clinton.
First Among Equals
Jeffrey Archer wrote the novel in 1984, following the careers of four up-and-coming politicians (two Labour, two Conservative) from the same intake. The story weaves through the 1960s into the 1980s, integrating historical events such as IRA bombings, while dealing with inside political manoeuvrings like seat redistribution, party nominations, and floor crossings. At the heart of it are the relationships between the four politicians and how they evolve over the years. Archer had been a Member of Parliament and knows politics intimately. The novel, and the miniseries give political observers a lot to bite into.
The novel was turned into a 10-part mini-series produced for ITV in 1986 and aired, back then, on PBS. It has been available on YouTube at times. One of the four politicians is played by well-known actor Tom Wilkinson. I have read the novel, and watched the series twice, feeding my political junkie soul and satisfying my love of UK politics.
A Very British Coup
This drama made a splash when it was released as a mini-series in 1988. It is the story of a working-class, hard-left Labour MP who becomes leader and is elected prime minister. Imagine Jeremy Corbyn being elected prime minister and actually following through on his agenda. This is essentially what a Very British Coup carries through, but thirty years earlier. While the plot satisfies lefties who see the deep state resisting the democratic will of the people to unilaterally disarm its nuclear weapons among other things, it’s an interesting political scenario that, in some respects, was a preview of future campaigns (eg. Trump, Bernie, Brexit, presenting a leader who goes against the establishment and taps into popular support. The movie differs from the book it is adapted from, which also inspired the 2012 drama Secret State, starring Gabriel Byrne.
A stylish 2010 film starring Pierce Brosnan, Ewan McGregor, Kim Cattrall, and aforementioned Tom Wilkinson, and directed by Roman Polanski. It’s based on the Robert Harris novel. The plot revolves around a retired UK prime minister who is staying in the US and has become deeply unpopular in his own country over the invasion of Iraq (sound familiar?). Except, everything is not as it seems, and ghost writer Ewan McGregor begins to put the pieces together. Lurking not far from the action is – suspenseful music – the C.I.A.
Harris is a tremendous writer. Check out another of his novels – Imperium.
House of Cards (UK)
It really was a sensation when it was released in 1990. We were all so innocent then. The US-version followed the UK-version quite closely in its early years, mirroring key plot moves. The UK version, for its time, was more daring.
The drama picks up following the demise of the Thatcher government. Francis Urquhart, masterfully played by Ian Richardson, is the Chief Whip for the Conservatives. The second installation in the series, To Play the King, foresees a constitutional crisis with a new king (thinly disguised as Charles III). Filmed in the early 1990s, there is a Diana-dynamic that Urquhart exploits as well.
The final part in the trilogy didn’t stand up to the first two in my opinion. If you like UK politics like I do, and haven’t seen the original House of Cards, you will probably get a kick out of it.
Let’s move on to the US…
Primary Colors / The War Room
These go hand-in-hand. For those millennials out there who missed the 1992 presidential campaign, it was a turning point in politics. With the onset of 24/7 news programming, the Clinton campaign mastered “quick response”. In part, they were facing a very traditional opponent (President George H.W. Bush) and they benefited from a third-party candidate that was chewing through Republican votes (Ross Perot). However, the winners write the history and the documentary The War Room mythologized James Carville and George Stephanopoulos as the new political craftsmen of the 1990s. It certainly helped that Carville is extremely colourful. The documentary was directed by D.A. Pennebaker, one of the greats of all-time. (Footnote on Carville: he starred as himself in the 2003 drama series ‘K Street’. He and his real-life wife Mary Matalin run a fictional K Street lobbying firm. The cast includes ‘Roger’ from Mad Men. Cameos from the likes of Howard Dean are woven into the episodes. It lasted a season. I have the DVD if you’re desperate for it).
A ‘fictional account’ of the 1992 campaign, Primary Colors, was written by ‘Anonymous’. The book was a bestseller though the publisher would not reveal the name of the author. It was clearly someone who knew the inside of the 1992 campaign and the scandals that dogged Bill Clinton over his personal behaviour. It would be revealed that journalist Joe Klein authored the book. By 1998, it was a movie starring John Travolta in the role based on Clinton (I did buy into Travolta), Emma Thompson in the role based on Hillary, and a strong supporting cast. This movie will feel familiar for a lot of former political staffers who encounter a lot of crazy situations, live through controversies and disasters, and make it through to the other side.
Face in the Crowd
This 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan, stars Andy Griffith, well-known as the amiable Mayberry sheriff in the Andy Griffith show and as Matlock. It was Griffith’s debut role and he is a menace.
His character, ‘Lonesome’ Rhodes is a drifter and radio host that was discovered by a media producer. He rises to stardom based on his homespun, southern charm and enjoys considerable influence. However, he is not a positive or even benign influence; he demonstrates a darker side that his enablers – actors Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau – must grapple with. It’s a ride on a populist wave and we see it through the eyes of the populist, on his way up and down.
The 2012 HBO movie is based on the 2008 presidential campaign of John McCain. McCain, played by Ed Harris, is the outsider who must earn the trust of GOP supporters while shaking off the unpopularity of George W. Bush. McCain attempted to recruit his friend and Democratic senator Joe Lieberman to the GOP ticket. When that failed, he went all-in on Alaska governor Sarah Palin. The movie is based on the inside story written by veteran US journalists. We are taken behind the scenes of the McCain campaign and see the sausage being made.
Woody Harrelson plays McCain’s key campaign advisor while Julianne Moore delivers a stellar performance as Sarah Palin – I was beginning to believe I was watching a documentary. The movie takes us through the roller coaster. For about a week, Palin re-energized the McCain campaign and pulled off an exciting speech at the GOP convention. The tracks would soon fall off the snowmobile.
Robert Redford’s portrayal of a long shot would-be senator in The Candidate had a documentary feel and captured a mood coming out of the 1960s of a Baby Boomers seeking to change the status quo. I also like movies that integrate the campaign advisors into the storyline in a sensible way. An interesting sequel would have been Redford as senator after three terms and see what happened to the guy.
Danish drama Borgen is first rate. It follows the career of a centrist politician who finds her way to the top in Denmark’s brokered political system.
Another Scandinavian offering is Occupied (Netflix), a drama set in Norway that sees into the not-to-distant future where Russia occupies Norway to secure its oil supplies, with backing from the EU.
Again, from the UK, for its broad sweep of British history, you have to pay homage to The Crown, though the latest season is a bit tiring. What I like about the Crown is that deviations from history are quickly reviewed and chewed over. The Bodyguard (Netflix) is a political thriller that has a bit of sizzle to it.
Thanks to loyal reader Bruce Burley, I am reminded of Boss, starring Kelsey Grammar as a tough as nails mayor of Chicago, fighting his own private health battle, and not afraid to overcome political obstacles with brute force. Grammar fits the role perfectly, delivering as a plausible political leader and a monstrous operator.
A little known political drama from 2006-08 is Brotherhood, starring Jason Clarke and Jason Isaacs, two actors who enjoyed considerable success after the show ended. The show revolves around brothers – a Rhode Island state legislator and his crooked brother. The show was inspired by real-life story of mobster Whitey Bulger and his politician brother in Massachusetts.
For satires, VEEP is probably the funniest political show. I have heard from a clutch of Thick of It/In the Loop devotees – and I am unmoved.
No question that West Wing broke a lot of new ground when it came out, and it’s well done, but annoyingly self-righteous at times. A precursor of West Wing was American President, which pushed its agenda. Michael Douglas fits the role, and I always welcome Michael J.Fox in any role, but, like West Wing, it pushes its agenda to satisfy one half of the audience.
Finally, this one is a departure from my tendency to appreciate accuracy and realistic portrayals of politics and government. 24 – Kiefer Sutherland’s Jack Bauer created a new format for TV. It was basically live-action drama. For sure, it was preposterous at times, but 24 provided some great portraits of political leaders, such as the heroic President David Palmer, a Nixonish, weak and calculating President Charles Logan, an LBJ-ish president played by Powers Boothe, and William Devane as the Secretary of State who could be counted on. At least there was always a higher purpose (“save the world!”) unlike Scandal, 24 makes the list because it employed a lot of Canadian actors.
Speaking of Canada…
This three-part documentary, directed and narrated by Donald Brittain, should be curriculum in Canadian schools. It’s brilliant. It follows the trajectories of Pierre Trudeau and Rene Levesque, side by side, from their childhoods to the climatic moments of the 1980 Quebec referendum and 1982 repatriation of the Constitution .
Rene Levesque’s back story may be a revelation to many young Canadians who were not around for those constitutional wars. Levesque emerged from humble roots to become a renown war-time and post-war journalist. He was able to break down complicated issues and explain them to a broad audience. For a time, he and Trudeau were allies, resisting the repression of the Duplessis regime. Levesque was a prominent cabinet minister in the Jean Lesage Liberal government (‘the Quiet Revolution’) in the early 1960s. Meanwhile, Trudeau was recruited to federal politics in 1965 alongside Jean Marchand and Gerard Pelletier. In the late 1960s, Trudeau’s and Levesque’s paths diverged – Trudeau catapulting to prime minister of the federation; Levesque choosing to leave the Quebec Liberals and form a party dedicated to break up the federation.
These two foes were giants. It makes politics today look trivial by comparison.
Champions is available online through the National Film Board.
Where are the other Canadian offerings? The National Film Board does have a selection of documentaries on leaders like Prime Minister Diefenbaker, Tommy Douglas, and Danny Williams, and trailblazers like Flora MacDonald. I haven’t seen them yet and interested to hear any reviews.
As for Canadian political dramas, there is not a lot to consider. There was a mini series on Premier Duplessis in 1978. A biopic on Pierre Trudeau in 2002. Again, would be good to hear any contributions to a Canadian list. As a British Columbian, it’s pretty thin when it comes to BC political stories in film or video.
There is an inexhaustible supply of political films and documentaries. The list above are some that stuck with me over the years. It would be great to hear your recommendations.