In the era of Donald Trump, it is more important than ever that we become politically engaged and align ourselves with movements that will help to stop injustice around the world. He is a hateful leader who has expressed offensive views on almost every minority group and as he tries to ruin the lives of the most vulnerable members of society it is valuable to remember that there is a way to stop him. I am a New Zealander so I am not as directly impacted by his actions and statements as many Americans are but I am still disgusted by the comments he has made. As the U.S. Presidential Election approaches, I hope that Americans are able to push back against him by pushing him out of a position of power. In order to understand more about politics, I think it is useful to watch certain films as they tell us a lot about political problems that existed in certain eras and the ways in which people chose to deal with these issues. I’m not saying that filmmakers know exactly how nations should be governed but they produce art that comments on politics and in this time of turmoil we must look towards art that speaks to our current society.
10. Nicholas and Alexandra
This 1971 political drama concerns Tsar Nicholas II and his family who are eventually executed at the hands of the Communist revolutionaries as part of the Russian Revolution. This film is interesting as a criticism of the idea of a monarchy as it shows how this system can produce weak, incompetent leaders who are unable to satisfy the needs of their subjects. Nicholas is presented as somebody who is not fit to be King and even though he is a loving family man he is not treating the people of Russia correctly. He lives off of the money that poor proletariats generate without doing much work himself and he is hopelessly out of touch with the needs of the common man. The revolutionaries who replace him are not presented as more capable leaders as they have such a fervent belief in their ideology that they are willing to go to extremes. This is a sad, sad true story and while this biopic does take some liberties in telling this story it makes its points effectively. It is not right to have an unskilled political leader who is sheltered from the problems of everyday people but revolutionaries must also learn to temper some of their beliefs to avoid engaging in extremism.
9. The Affairs of Cellini
I would call this a considerably lighter political film as it doubles as a screwball comedy but it does have a lot to say about politics. It is about an affair that involves artist Benvenuto Cellini, Fredric March, and the Duchess, Constance Bennett, the wife of the Duke of Florence, Frank Morgan, who ends up trying to kill the artist when he learns about his wife’s affair even though he has been unfaithful to her. We see a political leader who is more invested in womanizing that dealing with financial matters or other heads of state and while he is a cartoonish buffoon we can still look at this as a cautionary tale. He doesn’t really want to kill his wife’s lover and would like to go on living a sexually liberated lifestyle but his associates pressure him to take action and he almost has Cellini executed because of this simple form of peer pressure. When we look at a lot of modern political leaders we notice how they make decisions based on what their cronies tell them rather than doing what they choose to do and we are all frustrated by this way of thinking. Maybe if a politician like Jim Bolger had seen this film he wouldn’t have been so susceptible to the demands of the people around him.
8. Starship Troopers
Paul Verhoeven is known for making critically acclaimed satires as even the widely maligned Showgirls (1996) has its defenders on the basis of it being a takedown of highly sexed erotic thrillers from the 1990s. He made this anti-war satire just a year later and based it on Robert Heinlein’s novel of the same name which serves as a straight-faced defense of a society based entirely around the military. Verhoeven chose to parody the jingoistic beliefs that Heinlein seems to support in his novel and mocks the propaganda films made by various countries in times of war. He attacks politicians who force young people to join the military against their will before sending them off to kill animals who have done nothing wrong. In some ways, his satire was too convincing as several critics were not in on the joke when they reviewed it in 1997 and thought it was the sort of pro-war propaganda picture it was trying to mock. All these years later we can appreciate it for what it really is and notice the subtle comments it makes on the dangers of following along with leaders in a fascist society.
Costa-Gavras made far more radical political thrillers than this but I think this was one of his sharpest efforts as it is able to package its political message within an engaging human story. It’s all about Beth Horman, Sissy Spacek, and her search for her reporter husband Charles, John Shea, who has been murdered by Chilean officials in the middle of the Chilean coup of 1973. She is aided by her father-in-law Ed, Jack Lemmon, and the two clash before banding together to ask tough questions of the American and Chilean governments. The film aims to depict two people with opposing political views growing closer as they realize that they share basic morals that must be defended in the face of a corrupt political movement. Horman and Ed realize that they must publicize the execution of Charles so that Americans start to learn about the problems in Chile. I am sure this was a thought-provoking film at the time and by all accounts, it did make some impact in the United States as people started to understand the seriousness of the political conflicts that raged on in Chile.
On paper Isadora (1968) is just a standard biopic about the life of dancer Isadora Duncan but it manages to cover the time she spent in the Soviet Union in great detail. She traveled to the country in 1921 in order to open up a dancing school and expected the government to provide her with the funds to buy equipment that would help children learn how to perform. When she arrives she realizes she has only been gifted with a large but empty building without any furnishings and she finds starving children in the street who have only shown up at the school because they need to be fed. She can’t reach out to the government for money and sees the suffering that the Communist regime is causing as people are barely surviving and schools don’t have enough resources to operate properly. Duncan is so selfish that she ends up abandoning her plans of opening up a school altogether so she can spend time with wealthy intellectuals but we do see a brief glimpse of what life in the Soviet Union was like in the 1920s and a serious discussion of the shortcomings that the Communist system displayed.
5. The New World
You wouldn’t necessarily call Terrence Malick the most political filmmaker in the world but when he set out to tell the story of Pocahontas he was able to weave some real political commentary into it. He is able to trace Pocahontas’s journey from being a happy young Native American woman who is at home in her own community to her adult life as somebody who has had to give up her cultural traditions. He doesn’t make this a simple story of a woman having everything ripped away from her as she is seen to be quite happy with her loving husband and children but we also sense the fact that she has lost a key part of her identity. She, like so many other Native Americans, was not able to hold onto her own culture when she was forced into engaging with European settlers and ended up having to assimilate into their society instead of remaining a part of her own. Some will claim this story is more personal than political but we see the political leaders of the two warring groups in this conflict and how they choose to approach one another. This is all seen from Pocahontas’s perspective but these disputes are an important part of her life and she ends up representing the experiences of other Native Americans as the things that define her are taken away.
Oliver Stone made several controversial films about political figures and I did seriously consider placing Nixon (1995) on this list but I ended up swapping it out for this 1991 cause célèbre which reignited a debate about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Obviously, this is a film based on conspiracy theories and there is evidence against a lot of the assertions that Jim Garrison made but I interpret this film as an attack against institutions that don’t allow an independent investigation. The government expected the American people to simply accept the conclusions they had reached about the assassination even though they provided some questionable answers to a lot of the questions that people asked. You might not agree with Stone but you have to admire the filmmaking craft on display here and some elements of Garrison’s argument make sense. People do need to question the government sometimes and this film makes a good case for an independent investigation.
This might not be for people who hate costume dramas but if you enjoy scenery-chewing performances from great actors like Peter O’Toole and a smartly written script courtesy of Jean Anouilh you will be satisfied by Becket (1964). It also has a lot to say about the importance of separating church from state as we see the negative influence that religion can have on a political leader in this film. When a certain religious movement and a political leader are tied together too closely it causes all sorts of strife. We might not have Kings and Queens assassinating archbishops nowadays but we do see issues arising from theocratic leadership styles in certain nations. I’m not saying that Becket is the sort of feel-good crowdpleaser you want to watch on a rainy day but if you really want to think about the conflict between religious and political movements and the necessary separation between them then this will be for you.
2. The Remains of the Day
You can’t talk about great acting without thinking of The Remains of the Day (1993) as Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson do some of their best work as a butler and a housekeeper who are kept apart because of his hangups about propriety. Lurking behind the love story is another, more political storyline about Nazi sympathizers who existed within British high society. It is disturbing to watch supposedly well-educated people being so easily taken in by the rhetoric of horrible fascists who espouse racist beliefs. It is a reminder of the fact that those we lionize can end up adopting political views that are simply wrong and we can’t just accept them as right because the people who support them are educated and seemingly intelligent. We see anti-Semitism on the rise in Britain today and this film serves as a timely reminder that we must stop those with power from spreading this awful prejudice. Even if those who support it are rich, famous, and supposedly smart they are not right.
1. Barry Lyndon
Some might balk at my decision to place Barry Lyndon (1975) first because most don’t interpret it as a political film but I see it that way. It is about the ways in which people rise to positions of power because of luck and the fallibility of politicians. The main character is not a political figure and he spends a great deal of his time seducing women rather than considering deep and meaningful issues but politicians help him rise to a position of power. He will stumble into situations where men who are powerful choose to let him rise up the ranks even though he is a scoundrel and a bad gambler. They are seen to have poor taste and they are hardly great judges of character. This is the sort of scathing indictment that we rarely see in films and in a time when we don’t trust politicians it seems like Barry Lyndon speaks to modern voters who feel completely disillusioned with the politicians who are meant to represent them.
If you have any feelings on this list please feel free to comment below. I love to hear feedback on my work and if you have any suggestions for great politically-themed films it would be great to hear them.