Written and directed for $10, The Great McGinty (1940) won Preston Sturges the Oscar for best original screenplay – as startling a turn as any of the sudden reversals in this comedy about corrupt politicians. It revolves around a bum (Brian Donlevy) who impresses the local boss by voting for him 37 times in one evening, and is elevated to become the town’s “reform” mayor and later governor. He marries his secretary (Muriel Angelus) for convenience, only to fall in love with her and threaten to go straight. Thankfully, the film never does: it’s bent to the core. Whipped along by Sturges’s coarse, salty wit, it cleaves to the same principle that guided the political satires of Ben Jonson and François Rabelais: the shameless chicanery of political buccaneers is a subject deserving not rueful tragedy but sharp-elbowed farce.
If JFK was America’s president-as-movie-star, then Robert Drew’s groundbreaking 1960 documentary Primary shows us the star in the making. Shot on lightweight hand-held cameras that allowed the film-makers to perch in the back seat of the cars ferrying Kennedy and his opponent Hubert Humphrey across a rainy Wisconsin, Drew’s film, one of the first cinéma vérité documentaries, affords us a view of the scuffed shoe-leather of the campaign trail. Kennedy’s magnetism is palpable. In the first scene, followed by a single 75-second tracking shot, he threads his way through a crowd, down a long corridor, up a stairway, through a doorway, and out onto a stage facing an auditorium of packed, expectant faces. The camera later ducks behind Jackie to find her fiddling nervously with her gloves behind her back as she speaks – the kind of detail film-makers wait a lifetime for.
Feverish legend surrounds The Manchurian Candidate (1962) released just a year before Kennedy’s assassination: did John Frankenheimer’s film lend a template to the speculation surrounding Lee Harvey Oswald? Did Frank Sinatra, its star, withhold distribution out of guilt over Kennedy’s death? Whether the legends are true is beside the point: the hallucinatory blur of paranoia and speculation is the film’s subject. Laurence Harvey plays a decorated Korean-war veteran who returns home without any memory of his capture by communists; Sinatra plays another member of the patrol whose nightmares lead him to suspect they have been brainwashed – that Harvey is a “sleeper” agent, awaiting his trigger to assassinate a presidential candidate. A salad of tones and textures, the film has the white-knuckled grip of a nightmare rendered with pin-sharp clarity.
Films exposing demagogues – and there are many, from Elia Kazan’s “A Face in the Crowd” (1957) to Tim Robbins’s “Bob Roberts” (1992) – tend to be stiffs. Politics and the movies share too much DNA for the accusation of mass-mindwash to stick. Hal Ashby’s Being There (1979) succeeds through numbness, the acidity of its satire slow to register, so poker-faced is Peter Sellers’s performance as Chance, a functionally disabled gardener. Chance’s bland vacant homilies (“As long as the roots are not severed, all will be well in the garden”) are mistaken for wisdom by a powerful businessman (Melvyn Douglas) with the ear of the president. The Washington elite are soon hanging on his every word. No film peered harder into the vacuum at the heart of Sellers – there’s a high wind-chill factor – but the film casts its wintery spell, accurately heralding the rise of Reagan, Dubya and every candidate from Palin to Trump who has paraded their plain-speakin’ anti-intellectualism as a virtue.
Writer Aaron Sorkin looked around for the last pocket of idealism in Washington and found it in the loyal staffers running the White House. In The West Wing (1999-2006) Martin Sheen plays President Bartlet as a cross between Teddy Roosevelt and Father Christmas, gruff-voiced, twinkly eyed, fair and tough, settling disputes among his staff like a father listening to seven or eight extremely clever children bidding for his attention at the dinner table. Family dynamics are the key to all great tv shows and Sorkin’s mammoth feat of writing – he wrote four of the seven seasons – raced along on eddies of brainy, wonkish, self-delighting chatter, as did his scripts for “The American President” and “Charlie Wilson’s War”. If politics is the art of persuasion, Sorkin’s characters, as glamorous and giddy as those in screwball comedy, seem like they could persuade themselves, and you, of anything.
In Election (1999), reportedly Barack Obama’s favourite film about politics, Reese Witherspoon (above) plays Tracy Flick, an over-achieving Goody Two-Shoes seeking election to the presidency of her high school in Omaha, Nebraska. Opposing her is a campaign secretly orchestrated by her teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), a conscientious, pained man who loathes Tracy and all she stands for. Working from Tom Perrotta’s 1998 novel, director Alexander Payne opens this microcosm out into a caustic fable that might have been made to illustrate Yeats’s line that “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity”. We’ve all met someone like Tracy Flick, hand in the air at the front of the class, eyes narrowed to slits, smile brooking no contradiction; Broderick slithers down the slippery slope, made monstrous by his objections to a monster.