A Movie Streamer’s Guide to Political Literacy
Watch these movies while you're sheltering in place.
“What we have here, is a failure to communicate.”
This line, from Cool Hand Luke, pops into my head a lot these days. Or at least it did before I started to self-quarantine (now as cabin fever sets in, I find myself saying to my dogs, “No man can eat 50 eggs.”). I think that line because I have become a suit here at The Dispatch. And that means I have to talk to the generation of people who first experienced Star Wars as a cable TV rerun and think, “Now who’s being naïve?” is a line from The Simpsons, if they recognize it at all.
As editor-in-chief of The Dispatch, I started to realize that some of my references were clanging off the ears of some of our younger folks like one of Patches O’Houlihan’s dodgeball training wrenches. I concluded that a certain amount of pop-cultural fluency is required to write about politics——or even to interview some of the olds who run our political institutions—and I worried that some of the twentysomethings on staff might benefit from a bit of a tutorial.
This gave me the idea of creating a list of movies for the politically literate. And then, because we’re running a startup here, this seemed like a good opportunity to generate some quality content on the cheap. So I asked a bunch of folks for nominations of movies everybody who follows politics should be familiar with. The criteria were quite broad. It can be a film that says something serious and profound about politics (like Born Yesterday) a movie that is simply a major cultural touchstone for many who participate in, or comment on, politics (All The President’s Men), or it can simply be a flick that a significant number of people quote—in which it would be helpful to catch the reference.
This last category is something of a catchall, because it can include everything from Casablanca to Billy Madison. For instance, I’ve met some young people who don’t know that when a politician says, sarcastically, “I’m shocked, shocked, to find [fill in the blank] going on here” it’s a reference to Casablanca. As is “Round up the usual suspects,” “We’ll always have Paris,” “Of all the gin joints…,” and so many other phrases (though not “Play it again, Sam” which doesn’t actually appear in the movie).
Some people responded with a quick email, while others responded more extensively. So it falls to me to impose some order. I would send some folks back to the drawing board, but given the pressing national need for movies to watch while sheltering in place, and the fact I got more than what I paid for, I thought it vital to get this advice out there as quickly as possible. Perhaps in the weeks ahead, we will compile a comprehensive glossary of film references.
Kyle Smith, the roving cultural critic at National Review suggested Casablanca (as did many others) as well as Lawrence of Arabia, easily one of the greatest movies ever made, and a major contributor to the geopolitical lingua franca (“Nothing is written!”). He also cited The Godfather for similar reasons but “also as an important guide to taking care of a lot of different business imperatives on one single busy day.” Rounding out his list were A Clockwork Orange (“They really must know about the Ludovico Technique,”) and Silence of the Lambs, —“for the gourmet dining tips.”
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary and a longtime film critic, offers a single entry: The Lives of Others, a truly remarkable film which was named the most conservative movie of all time by National Review. He writes:
The best political movie ever made is also the best movie of the 21st century—The Lives of Others, made in 2006 but set in East Germany at the height of that Communist regime’s domination over its people. It tells the story of the startling moral awakenings of a coddled writer and a terrifying Stasi officer who holds the writer’s life, and the life of so many others, in his hands. It is popular culture’s most extraordinary portrait of totalitarianism, in part because it works so successfully as a gripping thriller. This movie isn’t homework. It’s everything a movie should be and could be—and it’s everything a humanistic portrait of the evils of communism should be and could be. Also, its writer-director, Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, has the best name in the history of anything.
Danielle Pletka, a Dispatch contributor and scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, has a list that also includes Casablanca, because younger folks need to be reminded that “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.” She throws in Elmer Gantry because “Burt Lancaster is the ultimate evangelical grifter. He has so many analogues in American politics, I wouldn’t know where to start,” and The Third Man,” as “a reminder not to underestimate the power of sentiment and decency. We’re meeting a lot of Harry Limes these days.” Last, she suggests Blazing Saddles as a biting commentary on “the nature of political discourse.” (Trigger warning: Clip contains offensive content).
Peter Suderman, polymathic writer for Reason magazine, nominates Taxi Driver, “which helped define the Scorcese/De Niro partnership that continues to this day, and which gave us Jodi Foster (who was like 13, IIRC), and, of course, ‘You talkin' to me?’ It also set the stage for the angry-white-young-man archetype that continues to be part of American political and cultural discourse. Travis Bickle got red pilled!”—which is, of course, a reference to The Matrix.
Christine Rosen, senior writer at Commentary, did such a great job, I will simply reprint her response in its entirety:
The Manchurian Candidate (1962): Kids these days hear a lot of rumors on social media about Vladimir Putin acting as Donald Trump’s puppet master, or conspiracy theories about nefarious plots to undermine American sovereignty. But if you haven’t seen The Manchurian Candidate (1962), you don’t really understand the extent to which fears about foreign infiltration gripped the imaginations of Americans during the Cold War— and how masterfully filmmakers exploited them for entertainment. You get the added thrill of watching Angela Lansbury (known to older generations as a the cuddly old lady who solved mystery capers on the TV series Murder, She Wrote) turn in one of the most diabolical portrayals of motherly ambition ever filmed.
Being There (1979): Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine star in this comedy about Chance the gardener, whose encounters with the Washington elite after a lifetime of isolation serve as a satire and warning about the vanities of the inside-the-Beltway elite. For anyone under the age of 30 who thinks becoming a Davos-attending, pontificating “thought-leader” is a good life goal, think of Chance wandering cluelessly through the halls of power saying things like “Spring is a time for planting” and being declared a genius for doing so. Make better choices!
And because I am a Gen X-er, I would be remiss if I didn’t include:
Election (1999):For every political pundit who complains that there aren’t enough female role models for all those little girls Elizabeth Warren had to break her pinky-promises to when she ended her presidential campaign, I give you: Tracy Flick. Hapless high school civics teacher Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick) attempts to preserve a semblance of fair play during an election for student body president by secretly spiking the candidacy of the rapacious Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon). His plot spectacularly backfires, but not before giving Ms. Flick her first lesson in the cutthroat amorality required of the politically ambitious. Flick is more of an anti-hero than a role model, but she’s also a warning for those who assume (ahem, young people who have marinated in identity politics) that women with power will exercise it less ruthlessly than men.
Rob Long, co-founder of Ricochet, my co-host of the GLoP Culture podcast and a longtime Hollywood TV producer and writer, was equally diligent:
“A young person of my acquaintance once asked me if the old movie, “the one where the two women drive off the cliff and the end, you know?” was called Laverne & Shirley. At first, I assumed that he was attempting to destroy me, the way young people often do to older people who are in their way. But then I realized: He’s just dumb.
Okay, okay: not dumb. Let’s put it this way: He, like a lot of young people, are unfamiliar with the canon. So here, to avoid generational warfare, are some titles that younger people who are interested in America should be familiar with.”:
The In-Laws: The 1979 version, with Alan Arkin and Peter Falk. Written by Andrew Bergman and directed by Arthur Hiller. Not explicitly political—except for the third act, which takes place in a Central American dictatorship—but a comic masterpiece. Watch it and you will understand why people sometimes call out, “Serpentine!"
Best Years of Our Lives: 1946, written by Robert Sherwood and directed by William Wyler, with gorgeous photography by Gregg Toland. Maybe the greatest American movie ever—about war and peace, and social class and sacrifice. You want to know about America? This is the one.
The Manchurian Candidate: 1962, written by George Axelrod (from the novel by Richard Condon) and directed by John Frankenheimer. Starring Frank Sinatra (he used to be big) and Angela Lansbury (your grandparents used to love her show Murder, She Wrote) and it’s why sometimes people quote this line: "Raymond Shaw is the kindest, bravest, warmest, most wonderful human being I've ever known in my life,” with a faraway look in their eyes.
Fail Safe: 1964, written by Walter Bernstein and Peter George, from the novel by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler; directed by Sidney Lumet. Starring Henry Fonda, whose daughter is now really old and on a Netflix show you probably haven’t seen because it only has old people on it, Grace & Frankie.” The story is simple: We accidentally bomb the Soviets and have to decide how to make it up to them.
The Dead Zone: 1983, written by Jeffrey Boam, based on the novel by Stephen King; directed by David Cronenberg. Christopher Walken at his weirdest, Martin Sheen at his most manic, assassination, psychic powers, nuclear armageddon, and the New Hampshire primaries. Watch it for a moment at the end which, in 1983, seemed like a surefire way for a politician to torpedo his own career. In 2020, it’s not so clear.
Finally, there’s my own non-exhaustive contribution. I agree with a great many of the suggestions here, so I’ll confine myself to movies not mentioned:
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Starring James Stewart and directed by Frank Capra. It is one of my favorite movies because it manages to combine patriotic schmaltz, senatorial procedure, and gripping human drama. No other film has ever come close——or perhaps even tried——to turn the senate filibuster into a heroic institution dedicated to giving voice to the remnant of right-thinkers and forces of decency. Every senator who filibusters has this movie close to their heart, even if they never live up to it. “You think I'm licked. You all think I'm licked. Well, I'm not licked. And I'm going to stay right here and fight for this lost cause. Even if this room gets filled with lies like these, and the Taylors and all their armies come marching into this place.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: Also starring Stewart, as well as John Wayne and directed by John Ford. It’s a brilliant and gripping movie that touches on an enormous number of themes, without ever being didactic. The conflict between the rule of the mob and the rule of law is central to the film, but it also has a shockingly nuanced understanding of how civilization requires its own founding myths, which is why the most famous line from the movie is "This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But my favorite line may be when the Wayne character says that the bar is closed and one of the patrons shouts in protest, “A beer ain’t drinkin’!”
A Face in the Crowd: There’s so much I love about this film. Andy Griffith——yes, the sheriff of Mayberry (Young’ns please tell me you understand that reference)——gives one of the most incredible performances I’ve ever seen. Directed by the great Elia Kazan, A Face in the Crowd grapples with the challenge of populism, particularly at the dawn of mass media. It’s relevance to today’s politics cannot be discounted. I’ll spare readers editorializing about the similarities——and differences——between Griffith’s Lonesome Rhodes and the current president, but it’s required viewing for anyone who wants a deeper grasp of how populism and mass media can be a frightening combination.
Network: Sidney Lumet’s 1976 masterpiece is in some ways a bookend to A Face in the Crowd. Made almost two decades before the takeover of our political discourse by cable news, the film captures and anticipates so many of the forces at work today. If you ever heard anybody say “I’m mad as Hell and I’m not going to take it anymore” without realizing they were quoting this movie, you pretty much have to see it.
Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb:I have to wonder how people with no real memory of the Cold War would make of Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece. Roger Ebert called it "Arguably the best political satire of the century," and even people who thought the Cold War was a noble and necessary struggle concede its hilarity and brilliance. If you’ve ever heard someone joke about their “precious bodily fluids” or shout “there’s no fighting in the war room” and not gotten the reference, rent it immediately.
Wag The Dog: I can’t think of a movie that more instantly penetrated the political lexicon than Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog. The phrase—which, in the film, describes the fine political art of manipulating the public to look away from a scandal—was perfectly timed to catch on at the end of the Clinton administration and has since become a permanent term of art in our politics. It is an eminently watchable and brilliant movie that follows in the tradition of A Face in the Crowd and Network. It also has one of my favorite lines in film, “There are two things I know to be true. There's no difference between good flan and bad flan, and there is no war."
Please feel free to add your own nominations in the comments below.
And since this is aimed at a generation of people who probably don’t own any of the titles mentioned above on DVD, we wanted to provide you with a chronological ordering of these movies along with which popular streaming sites have them. Many can be rented at almost no cost, and if you have a Prime or HBO subscription (or if your parents have access to the Criterion Collection, for instance) some of them will be free! Happy viewing, millenials and Gen-Z.
The Best Years of Our Lives—Rent from Amazon
Movie stills from IMDB.