It is difficult for many Americans to understand how the United States democracy works. This presidential election, in particular, has caused many of us to ask ourselves, “How the hell did we end up here?” Thus, we can only imagine how nonsensical this circus must seem to our friends from other countries. To help contextualize this U.S. election and explain American democracy in general, we have put together a list of movies about American politics. After viewing these, you may still have questions about the how, but will better understand why America is so… American.
Bob Roberts (1992)
Bob Roberts is one of those satires that’s been robbed of some of its satirical power this year, as the reality of the presidential election has blown past the boundaries of artistic imagination. In the film, Tim Robbins (who also wrote and directed) stars as the eponymous folk singer who runs for Senate on a social conservative platform. Roberts is a right-wing Bob Dylan, using his music to advocate a return to the values of the 1950s. His signature song? “The Times They Are A Changin…Back” Roberts’ campaign is full of empty rhetoric and bigoted dogwhistles, but he succeeds by virtue of his celebrity and talent for entertaining. He carefully crafts his media image, drawing the public’s attention away from his shady business dealings and anything else that would make him look like less of a hero for the common man. By the end, he’ll do anything to garner sympathy and turn his supporters against the free press. In 1992, this may have seemed like a heavy-handed lefty swipe at heartland conservatism. In 2016, it’s uncomfortably real. – Josh Rosenfield
To understand the extreme partisanship in America, it is important to know that we fought each other in a Civil War about 150 years ago, and we never got over it. In brief: North fought South over slavery and/or “states’ rights,” depending on who you talk to. After years of bloody battles, the North prevailed, and the South was left ravaged and in turmoil. Not only had the majority of the battles taken place in Southern states, but their economy was upended by the war, and so you were left with a region in which whites and blacks alike were struggling to rebuild and get by. The resulting racial tension has lasted to this day. One bone thrown to the south, however, was the idolization of its Confederate generals. Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Lewis Armistead, etc. are revered by North and South alike, and live on as American heroes even while their cause is soundly condemned in U.S. history lessons. This reverence is particularly strong in southern states, which trend Republican, and contributes to a jingoism that colors our democracy as much as the lasting racial tension. If you don’t like our candidate, then you don’t like America. On the flip side, northerners–who trend Democrat–can be quick to dismiss Southerners as racist ignoramuses who long for the antebellum period, and who are blindly patriotic without understanding that their patriotism looks like foolishness to outsiders. The result is an undercurrent of bitterness and disrespect on both sides, which pushes us apart to this day. Getting back to the movie… Gettysburg will give you a feel for the legend of our Civil War generals, and help you understand how this bloody period of our history reverberates through time, affecting our democracy today. -Katherine B. Shelor
Alexander Payne’s breakthrough hit Election is the perfect semi-metaphorical look at American politics– a biting, hilarious, somewhat bitter exploration at the notion of campaigning for representation. The film covers everything: the offputting campaign desperation, the un-endearing political archetypes, the dirt campaigns, the sabotages, the outside influence of selfish parties. Like many metaphors, the understanding of the parallels to American election cycle might not be immediate, but watch a few times and see if you aren’t viewing future political coverage and saying to yourself “Hey, that reminds me of Election.” – David Shreve, Jr.
Iron Jawed Angels (2004)
Iron Jawed Angels is about women’s suffrage in the U.S., and specifically the passing of the 19th amendment to the Constitution, which grants women the rights of full citizens by giving them the right to vote. It’s important to note that this amendment passed less than 100 years ago, and women are still making up for lost time when it comes to representation in politics. Women are, however, a powerful group when it comes to elections, and this movie shows you where it began. Iron Jawed Angels also gives you a glimpse into how fundamental changes are made in the U.S., and highlights our Federal/State division. Alice Paul lobbied, protested, and finally got her constitutional amendment from Congress, but 36 individual states (each of which has its own legislature) had to ratify it to make it law, coming down to one very dramatic vote in the Tennessee senate. So, take away two things from this. 1. U.S. women are powerful, but historically sidelined. 2. Change in the U.S. government is slow… so slow… and no one person can make anything happen alone. – Katherine B. Shelor
Swing Vote (2008)
Perhaps the most baffling part of American democracy is its electoral college vote-counting system (particularly given the electoral count’s conflict with the popular vote in the 2000 election). Though perhaps justly forgotten, 2008’s simplistic family comedy Swing Vote, about a man who ends up being the single deciding vote, is a charming look at both the absurdity of our system and the importance for each person to ensure his/her voice is heard within it. – David Shreve, Jr.
Absurd that Lincoln could be the work of a filmmaker so accomplished that we collectively think of the film as belonging to its director’s “lesser” category. But, because the movie was crafted by one of the great cinematic storytelling minds, what we get is much more than an adoring biopic. Lincoln stands as evidence that bipartisanship has always created as many obstacles as avenues and crafty, calculating, and even underhanded methods were required even by our most pristine historical heroes in their most necessary and history-shaping battles. -David Shreve, Jr.
After this tour through the dysfunction of the American electoral system, you might feel compelled to ask: What kind of person would want to be involved in that? Well, good. That’s the sane question. It seems that running for office, particularly on a federal level, requires an unchecked narcissism. The proof and the answer can be found in the 2016 documentary Weiner. Disgraced U. S. Senator Anthony Weiner’s ego is so inflated that the consequences of his reckless self-interest have been felt prominently in this presidential election, five year’s after a scandal forced him out office. Weiner, the documentary from Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg, documents its namesake’s attempt to re-enter politics in the race for New York City’s mayoral position. It’s a fascinating look at the psychology of the self-interested politician through the journey of, perhaps, the most candidly self-interested politician. This hot-dog factory look into the inner-makings of a political campaign might just de-throne The War Room as the most enlightening and entertaining political documentary. – David Shreve, Jr.
Featured Image: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures