As the second debate between President Donald J Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden hits our screens, here’s a look at gladiatorial verbal duelling in the movies.
I’ll keep the selection to specific pictures where characters go head-to-head in a semi-official environment, deliberately excluding Court Room/Inquisition dramas, which would easily fill a top ten of celebrated scenes of eloquent sparring.
It’s no great surprise to say that the vast majority of these choices are conducted with a greater degree of civility than the first Trump/Biden clash.
The Two Popes (2019) – Netflix
Theological debate is at the heart of Fernando Ferreira Meirelles’ (City of God) picture, which presents a fictional version of the relationship and often opposing views of now Pope Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his successor Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce).
The drama is complicated by Pope Benedict’s guilt at his knowledge of recently revealed sexual misconduct in the priesthood and Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio’s (the future Pope Francis) own lingering remorse at his conduct during the ‘Dirty War’ (1976-83) of the military junta in his native Argentina.
Sounds grim, but the movie is leavened by humour and both Pryce and Hopkins were deservedly nominated for Academy Awards.
Best of Enemies (2015)
This entertaining documentary film concerns the televised debates between intellectuals Gore Vidal (left) and William F. Buckley Jr. (right) during the 1968 United States presidential election.
The pair cordially hated each other, which is pretty evident from the picture. The heated atmosphere of the times and the mutual loathing of the duo approaches fisticuffs territory with this memorable exchange.
Lincoln (2012) – Amazon Prime
Spielberg’s biopic follows the last few months of the Civil War and the life of President Abraham Lincoln, played in an Academy Award winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis.
For me, the movie really shines in the Thirteenth Amendment (abolishment of slavery) debates in the House, with some fine acting from the likes of Tommy Lee Jones, Lee Pace, David Costabile, James Spader and Tim Blake Nelson.
The venerable Hal Holbrook (now 95 years young) also features as Lincoln advisor Francis Preston Blair, with Sally Field as the President’s highly-strung wife Mary Todd.
The Sunset Limited (2011) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy
Tommy Lee Jones directed and starred with Samuel L Jackson in this little-seen adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s (No Country for Old Men) bleak two-hander The Sunset Limited.
Jones plays the suicidal atheist White, who debates with believer Black (Jackson) the meaning of life and the existence (or not) of heaven/hell.
Great performances, but not exactly a movie that will put a spring in your step.
Agora (2009) – Amazon Prime
More religious debates, this time in Alexandria in the late Roman Empire, when Christianity is extinguishing the last embers of paganism and science.
Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia of Alexandria (370-415 AD), the philosopher, astronomer, and mathematician who lectured and debated at the Platonic school in Alexandria. Fortunately, the picture spares us her apparent real-life fate of being skinned alive by a Christian mob.
Co-stars include Max Minghella, Oscar Isaac, and the late Michael Lonsdale (Day of the Jackal) as her father, the noted scholar Theon of Alexandria.
The Great Debaters (2007) – free to watch on YouTube, also Amazon Prime
Based in part on a true story, Denzel Washington directed and plays debate coach Melvin B. Tolson, who succeeded in getting the historically black Wiley College to compete with (and beat) white universities.
All in the 1930s ‘Jim Crow’ era of lynching, routine discrimination, and voter suppression.
In the same year, The Great Debaters was released, Washington donated $1 million to Wiley to re-establish the team.
The full movie is currently available to watch for free on YouTube:
Rocket Science (2007) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy
From the same year as The Great Debaters, this Wes Anderson-lite high school debate team comedy-drama has a serious case of the cutes, although it has its admirers.
Writer/director Jeffrey Blitz began thinking of the movies whilst making Spellbound, his 2002 documentary about 1999’s Scripps National Spelling Bee, so we can assume he knows the subject pretty well.
The cast includes an early starring role for Anna Kendrick (Pitch Perfect) and a pre-Superbad Jonah Hill.
Man of the Year (2006)
Barry Levinson’s misfire stars Robin Williams as Tom Dodd, a TV satirist in the Jon Stewart/Jon Oliver/Bill Maher mould who decides to run for president as an Independent.
Although Dodd drums up support during his campaign and has a successful debate against his Democratic and Republican opponents, he’s genuinely shocked to discover himself elected POTUS on Election Day.
Rightfully so, since a computer glitch (hello!) is actually responsible for his elevation. Check out the Presidential Debate scene.
Head of State (2003) – Amazon Prime Rent/Buy
A very similar theme to Man of the Year, as Chris Rock writes, directs and stars in this comedy about DC alderman Mays Gilliam, who becomes the unlikely Democratic Party candidate after the original presidential and vice-presidential nominees die in a plane crash in which he saves a woman.
Despite the schemes of his own side who choose him as a token nod to minorities until the next election, Gillian is voted in as President.
The movie also includes a Presidential Debate scene which in present times seems vaguely quaint. Gilliam nominates his brother Mitch (Bernie Mac) as Vice President, which conversely appears more than a little prescient.
The Name of the Rose (1986)
We return to ecumenical matters with a possibly overlooked aspect of this medieval whodunnit; the fact that William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) is at actually at the abbey in the first place as part of a Franciscan delegation to debate with papal emissaries the nature of the poverty of Christ.
Which kind of gets forgotten in the multiple murders, suicide, arson, forbidden homosexual/heterosexual trysts, and general mayhem.
In one memorable scene, Baskerville discusses whether Jesus laughed with the killjoy Benedictine the Venerable Jorge (Feodor Chaliapin Jr). Michael Lonsdale (again) appears as the Abbot.