Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in "Knock Down the House." Credit: Netflix.

From City Hall to the White House: Exploring the Role of Politics in American Cinema

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As the most divisive form of public theater in American culture, politics has played a role in movies since the dawn of cinema. Over the decades, we have seen the challenges, tragedies and triumphs of governing on the silver screen, as movies often reflect where we are as a nation at that moment in time. Here are 10 titles that offer a nuanced look at the political experience in the U.S.

All the President’s Men (1976) (HBO Max, iTunes, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play)

A still from “All the President’s Men.”

The national political scandal against which all others are measured, Watergate brought down the entire Nixon administration and ushered in a new era of journalism as a vital element of American democracy. Structured as a gripping paranoid thriller, this adaptation of the watershed book by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein will have you looking over your shoulder for hours.

The Best of Enemies (2019) (Hulu, Vudu, Showtime, YouTube, Sling TV, iTunes, Amazon Prime)

Taraji P. Henson in “The Best of Enemies.”

The role of civil rights in politics — not to mention the impact of every single vote — lies at the center of this fact-based, stranger-than-fiction story adapted from Osha Gray Davidson’s book. Shot in Georgia, “The Best of Enemies” stars Taraji P. Henson and Sam Rockwell as a civil rights trailblazer and a KKK honcho whose paths cross on a lifelong journey that will provoke some very, very interesting conversations with your fellow viewers.

The Candidate (1972) (HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, YouTube)

A poster for director Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate.”

Director Michael Ritchie was on a fiery streak when he tackled this biting political satire starring Robert Redford as a lawyer pushed into running for the senate under bizarre circumstances. Jeremy Larner nabbed an Oscar for his razor-sharp screenplay, which still serves as a model for how to build dialogue and plot in a political arena.

The Dead Zone (1983) (Amazon Prime, Vudu, iTunes, Google Play, YouTube)

Christopher Walken surrounded by flames in “The Dead Zone.”

Stephen King’s unsettling novel about an average Joe — portrayed here by Christopher Walken — awakening after a years-long coma only to discover he has uncontrollable psychic abilities only takes a turn into political territory in the final third, but that nightmarish section has since become a catchphrase for rabid politicians bent on destruction. Martin Sheen is perfectly cast as Gregg Stillson, the jingoistic man of the people whose horrific path to the presidency leads to a climax under the guidance of director David Cronenberg that no viewer has ever forgotten.

A Face in the Crowd (1957) (iTunes, Vudu, YouTube, Google Play)

Andy Griffith in “A Face in the Crowd.”

The darker side of American politics was a bit of a shocker for audiences when this Elia Kazan classic first opened and featured Andy Griffith cast against type as a manipulative shark whose way with words pushes him up the ladder to national prominence. Unfortunately, we’ve since found out the turn of events that takes him down at the end wouldn’t even make a dent these days, but otherwise, this film is still as fiery and chilling as the day it opened.

JFK (1991) (Amazon Prime, iTunes, Vudu, Google Play)

A still from “JFK.”

Political dramas don’t come much more epic than Oliver Stone’s sprawling three-hour depiction of the events surrounding the assassination of John F. Kennedy, including the cover-up that continues to provoke heated debates to this day.

Just Mercy (2019) (Amazon Prime, Vudu, Google Play, YouTube)

Jamie Foxx and Michael B. Jordan in “Just Mercy.”

Stories of people navigating the legal system evoke everything from outrage to triumph. Michael B. Jordan demonstrates his formidable acting chops once again in “Just Mercy” as Bryan Stevenson, a young attorney who takes on the murder conviction of Walter McMillian — portrayed here by Jamie Foxx — in a lengthy process that ripples throughout Alabama’s civic system and raises important questions about the nature of justice.

Knock Down the House (2019) (Netflix)

There has been no shortage of political documentaries in recent years, though few are as fascinating or dig deeper than this fly-on-the-wall look at the revolutionary campaigns of four women — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Amy Vilela, Cori Bush and Paula Jean Swearengin — running for Congress in 2018. We know how it all turned out, but that doesn’t matter, as you get to see exactly how much change is possible when you least expect it.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) (Vudu, Google Play, YouTube, Amazon Prime)

A still from “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.”

The first Hollywood film to really show the struggles and frustrations of the American political process remains one of the best. Frank Capra delivers a compelling and nuanced look at how the strange path of morally upstanding Midwesterner James Stewart sets him up as the fall guy for corruption and shady handshake deals leading to an unforgettable finale that introduced the world to the filibuster process.

Seven Days in May (1964) (Hulu, iTunes, SlingTV, Vudu, Amazon Prime, Google Play)

A still from “Seven Days in May.”

What seemed like a paranoid nightmare at the time is a little too close for comfort now in this tense thriller about influential general Burt Lancaster whom colonel Kirk Douglas suspects is spearheading an overthrow of the president for his own ultra-nationalistic ends. One of the finest films from director John Frankenheimer seems eerily plausible today and serves as a warning for how power in the wrong hands can be a threat to us all.

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