With the events in Belarus and the rising anxiety over the US Presidential vote this November, a timely delve into the world of elections on film.
There’s a long history of pictures where elections are either the main theme or serve as a major part of the backdrop to the action, including The Great McGinty (1940), Citizen Kane (1941), Fame is the Spur (1947), State of the Union (1948), All The King’s Men (1949, remade in 2006), Left Right and Centre (1959), No Love for Johnnie (1961), The Candidate (1972), Shampoo (1975), Bob Roberts (1992) and many others.
You may notice that the majority of the movies I gave as examples were from the US; that’s largely due to the economics of the industry; it seems British films about the electoral process have yet to woo cinema goers in sufficiently large numbers.
There are of course exceptions, such as Costa Gavras’ excellent political-thriller Z (1969), where a military coup in an unnamed Southern European state (in reality, the directors’ home country Greece) forestalls a vote.
Here’s a selection of no less than twelve movies from the late 90s onwards, where elections take centre stage:
Primary Colors (1998) BBC I-player
John Travolta was still enjoying his post-Pulp Fiction career boost when he essayed the role of Democratic candidate Jack Stanton, a very thinly disguised portrait of Bill Clinton during the 1992 Presidential campaign.
Writing as ‘Anonymous’, columnist Joe Klein’s Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics was the source material for director Mike Nichols’s enjoyable comedy-drama, which unfortunately failed to make much of a dent at the box office. Emma Thompson plays Travolta’s wife, the spiky Susan Stanton, who gets a decent percentage of writer Elaine May’s best lines.
Election (1999) – Amazon Rent/Buy
It would be churlish not to include Alexander Payne’s Election, a razor-sharp satire revolving around student body elections at a US high school.
Despite the presence of Chris Klein in the cast this is definitely not an American Pie-style teen comedy. Reese Witherspoon excels as the scheming student Tracy Enid Flick, who gets the better of civics teacher Jim McAllister, a great performance from Matthew Broderick.
Despite critical raves, the movie also bombed.
The Deal (2003) – All4
Although Stephen Frears’ The Deal wasn’t released at the cinema, I’m counting the film as a mulligan and including it as the sole UK entry on my list.
The tortured relationship between the chirpy Tony Blair (Michael Sheen, in the first of three performances as the former PM) and the dour Gordon Brown (David Morrissey) is seen through the lens of Labour’s election defeats, which, aside from ego, provides the chief motivating factor behind their struggle.
The Ides of March (2011) – Sundance Now/Amazon Rent or Buy
George Clooney’s earnest political drama tries too hard for its own good, examining ethical issues under the guise of the story of a junior campaign manager (Ryan Gosling) and a candidate for the Democratic nomination (George Clooney) who isn’t as squeaky-clean as he at first appears.
Still, the picture actually made some money ($76m on $12.5m budget) and boasted a first-rate cast, including Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, and Evan Rachel Wood.
Recount (2008) and Game Change (2012) – HBO films
These two HBO films from director Jay Roach concern the ‘Hanging Chad’ US election of 2000 (Recount) and eight years later, Obama vs McCain, with the selection of Sarah Palin as the Republican running-mate (Game Change).
Much depends on your enjoyment of the minutiae of American elections; as a follower of the US political scene, I found both fascinating, but prepare to engage your brain when watching.
The two pictures are notable for their strong casting, with Kevin Spacey, John Hurt, Laura Dern, Tom Wilkinson, Bob Balaban and Denis Leary in Recount and Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Ed Harris, Sarah Paulson and Ron Livingston in Game Change.
The Campaign (2012) – Amazon Rent/Buy
A change of pace for Jay Roach, as he returns to his comedy roots (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents) for this knockabout comedy about opposing Democratic (Will Ferrell) and Republican (Zach Galifianakis) candidates in a North Carolina congressional district.
Wackiness, mirth and mayhem ensue, although it does feel a bit by-the-numbers for this jaded viewer.
The Purge: Election Year (2016) – Amazon Rent/Buy
More mindless violence in the the third instalment in the franchise, as anti-Purge candidate Senator Charlene “Charlie” Roan (Elizabeth Mitchell) enlists the help of the previous movie’s hard nut Leo Barnes (Frank Grillo) to help in her bid for the top job.
The Front Runner (2018) – Amazon Rent/Buy
Hugh Jackman stars as the enigmatic would-be Democratic nominee for president in the 1988 election.
Brought down by allegations of an extra marital affair and his own refusal to play the game, Jackman portrays Hart as a difficult character to warm to, but one who possesses his own unique code.
The picture made a feeble $3.2m at the box office.
Long Shot (2019) – Netflix
A modest hit, this well-reviewed and surprisingly sweet comedy pairs Seth Rogan’s Vice-style journalist Fred Flarsky with his former babysitter, Charlize Theron’s Secretary of State Charlotte Field.
After an accidental meeting Fred takes up Field’s offer of writing her speeches, the situation ramping up further to when Field decides to run for the presidency.
A hacked video surfaces of Flarsky ‘enjoying’ himself, proving that the course of true love never did run smooth, as the Bard once said.
Irresistible (2020) – Amazon Rent
Jon Stewart followed his Iranian prison drama Rosewater (2014) with this light-hearted liberal fantasy. Widely slated by viewers of all political stripes, Irresistible stars Steve Carrell as a disillusioned Democratic campaign consultant on a quest to reconnect the party with rural voters in the Mid-West. Yawn.
Stewart gathered a talented onscreen company, with Rose Byrne, Chris Cooper, Topher Grace and Natasha Lyonne rounding out the cast.
Election Night (TBC)
And finally, this upcoming British Purge-style picture set during Election Night; don’t ask me if it’s any good though, as it’s yet to released…
Still on the lookout for movies about elections?
Then checkout Silver City, Welcome to Mooseport (both 2004), Swing Vote (2008), Knife Fight (2012), Our Brand is Crisis (2015) and All The Way (2016).