Must-see films about the world's greatest political giants and civil rights activists who have changed the course of history.
In 1942 the Ministry of Information backed the war film In Which We Serve. Heavily based on the heroic exploits of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten, in command of a Navy destroyer sunk off Crete, the film was co-directed by Noel Coward and David Lean, with Coward also writing the music and playing the fictionalised ship’s captain, Kinross. John Mills also stars as Ordinary Seaman ‘Shorty’ Blake, and Richard Attenborough makes his first screen appearance as a young stoker. They don’t make propaganda like that anymore, but we still make excellent politically themed films with stellar performances and important messages.
Here are twenty-one of our favourites, in no particular order. Have your say if we’ve missed one of yours.
Stephen Spielberg directs and Daniel Day-Lewis stars as President Abraham Lincoln begins his second term in office with the American Civil War raging on. Facing carnage on the battlefield, and noisy opposition to his cherished Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery, Lincoln must also deal with his tempestuous wife Mary (Sally Field) and their son Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt)’s insistence on dropping out of law school to enlist in the war. Day-Lewis scooped the Best Actor Oscar for a record third time (after 1990’s My Left Foot and 2008’s There Will Be Blood).
All the President’s Men (1976)
Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford star as Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodard, who uncover the Watergate scandal that will lead to President Nixon’s downfall. Screenwriting guru William Goldman wrote the screenplay, and Alan J. Pakula directs, in the third of what became known as his ‘paranoia’ trilogy, with Klute (1971) and The Parallax View (1974). Scintillating and inspiring.
In 1977, three years after Nixon’s post-Watergate resignation, David Frost circled the disgraced former president to persuade him to record a series of TV interviews. Nixon had withdrawn from public life, but saw an opportunity to begin to clear his name, while Frost had his eye on his main chance to break through as a serious reporter/presenter. This pivotal moment in chequebook journalism and the showpiece political interview was the subject of Peter Morgan’s hit West End and Broadway play, which he subsequently adapted for the screen. Ron Howard directs and Martin Sheen and Frank Langella star.
The Queen (2006)
Helen Mirren walked off with the Best Actress Oscar for her portrayal of our current monarch as she deals with the aftermath of the death of Princess Diana – and the British public’s unprecedented outrage at Her Majesty’s refusal to make a show of mourning. Go-to Tony Blair guy Michael Sheen (who also played him in 2003’s The Deal and 2010’s The Special Relationship) leads the surrender to public hysteria. But of course it was Blair whose popularity would wane quickest. Among the factual titbits we glean are Cherie Blair (Helen McRory)’s deep antipathy towards the monarchy, and that Prince Philip (James Cromwell)’s affectionate nickname for our Sovereign is ‘cabbage’. Stephen Frears directs.
Cate Blanchett won a BAFTA and a Golden Globe for her portrayal of Liz 1.0, as the young queen ascends to the throne after the death of her half-sister and former gaoler Mary I. Britain is bankrupt, divided and under threat of invasion, and Elizabeth is strongly advised to make a good marriage. Instead, she embarks on a reckless affair with Robert Dudley (Joseph Fiennes) – before declaring herself the ‘Virgin Queen’ wedded only to her country. Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush as Sir Francis Walsingham reprise their roles in Elizabeth: The Golden Age (2007), as the mature queen faces new trials.
Mel Gibson dons historically inappropriate kilt and woad, starring and directing himself as 13th-century über-Highlander William Wallace, filling the Scots people with fervour for honourable victory over the villainous English. Despite its many inaccuracies this is a rip-roaring tale about good versus evil and the making of a legend, with epic battle scenes and set pieces shot against glorious landscapes. All together now: Freedo-o-o-o-o-om!
The King’s Speech (2010)
This story of King George VI’s battle with timidity and a debilitating speech impediment upon his sudden ascension to the throne won Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay Oscars, and was among the nominations for eight others. Colin Firth, Helena Bonham-Carter and Geoffrey Rush star as the king, his queen (Elizabeth, the future Queen Mum), and pioneering speech therapist Lionel Logue, who moulded the uncertain monarch into a true leader. A superior historical drama and a powerful tale of personal triumph.
The Gathering Storm (2002)
Albert Finney stars as Winston Churchill and Vanessa Redgrave as wife Clemmie in this intimate portrait of a marriage at a time when the great leader’s political future was in the balance. It’s the 1930s and Churchill is a backbencher and a lone voice in parliament warning of Germany’s rearmament. Confronting personal demons of debt and depression, ultimately his voice is heard and he’s able to re-emerge as an energetic leader and hero.
Churchill’s finest hour is counterbalanced by this remarkable depiction of Adolf Hitler’s last, despairing days in his Berlin bunker. Bruno Ganz is the raging Führer, goading his generals and advisers to fight to the last man as the Soviet forces close in on the Third Reich’s capital. Joseph Goebbels stands by his leader to the last, while other senior Nazis including Himmler and Goring look to defect. Internationally acclaimed, Oliver Hirschbiegel’s film has famously garnered one of the most enduring and amusing self-referencing running spoofs on YouTube.
Forest Whitaker inhabits the larger-than-life frame and personality of Idi Amin in this fictional tale of impressionable Scottish doctor Nicholas Garrigan (James McAvoy), who becomes Ugandan dictator’s personal physician and confidant. Whilst Garrigan is an invention, Amin’s brutal, paranoid reign was all too real, and the film is a little light on detailing his many atrocities – although the menace in Whitaker’s portrayal is unforgettably unnerving and was deservedly rewarded with Best Actor wins in the Oscars, Golden Globes and BAFTAs.
If it were cast today, it is doubtful that the title role of this otherwise exemplary biopic would go to a tall, white British actor, yet remarkably Ben Kingsley made the role his own. Scooping up eight Oscars, five Golden Globes and five BAFTAs in all the main categories, Richard Attenborough’s inspiring epic about India’s independence leader covers an astonishing fifty years of Gandhi’s quiet and determined non-violent revolution, and taught a new generation of movie-goers the rewards of sitting still in the dark for over three hours.
Malcolm X (1992)
Following its subject’s early life as a small-time gangster, through to his growing influence as a Black Nationalist leader and a minister in the Nation of Islam, Spike Lee’s film never flinches from its brief to inform, provoke and entertain. Denzel Washington delivers a performance of tremendous depth, capturing Malcolm’s anger, charm and rigid dogmatism. The film also doesn’t shy away from the tensions, mistrust and opposing principles of Malcolm and Martin Luther King as they strive for similar goals.
The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)
Gael García Bernal stars as a young Che Guevara as he takes a break from his studies to go on an epic motorbike ride across South America with his friend Alberto Granado (Rodrigo de la Serna) that will profoundly affect both men’s hopes and dreams. Based on Guevara’s personal travelogue, plus additional material from Granado’s own account of the trip, this is a fascinating coming-of-age story about two friends with a taste for adventure and the quest for a life of meaning.
Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller about the assassination of John F. Kennedy and a perceived cover-up by New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) is the most controversial – and successful – of the director’s three films about American presidents. If some of the theorising is frankly bonkers, a tremendous cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman (as Lee Harvey Oswald), Joe Pesci, Kevin Bacon, Sissy Spacek, Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau have the power to make you believe anything.
Anthony Hopkins plays the title role in Stone’s second stab at understanding a presidency. Richard Nixon is by turns difficult, brooding, admirable and (of course) deeply flawed. The narrative is interspersed with Nixon meticulously reviewing secret recordings and newsreel-type summaries, as if fumbling for some kind of positive legacy. That he may have been hard done by is neatly summed up in a line at the end of the film. Addressing a portrait of his predecessor JFK, with his own reputation in tatters in the wake of Watergate, he says: “When they look at you, they see what they want to be. When they look at me, they see what they are.”
Stone’s chronicle of George W. Bush’s rise from directionless alcoholic to Leader of the Free World is notable for Richard Dreyfuss’ uncanny portrayal of string-puller-in-chief Dick Cheney, as well as the palpable tension between ‘Dubya’ (Josh Brolin) and George Bush Sr. (James Cromwell) who, naturally enough, had hoped and expected the younger and more capable Jeb would follow in his footsteps to the White House. Released in the US less than three weeks before the election that delivered Obama, it is not thought the film greatly influenced voter opinion on Bush Jr.’s compromised and divisive double-term in office.
Primary Colors (1998)
The nearest we have to date to a Bill Clinton biopic, Mike Nichols’ film stars John Travolta as a charismatic Southern Democrat governor who runs for president. Based on Joe Klein’s fictionalised account of Clinton’s 1992 campaign, Travolta’s Jack Stanton wins the day despite an aggressive Republican-backed smear campaign highlighting his womanising past. Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates and Larry Hagman head a strong supporting cast in a balanced exposé of political machinations.
Gus Van Sant directs Sean Penn as Harvey Milk, America’s first openly gay politician. The film opens with archive footage of brutal police raids on gay bars, then cuts to Senator Dianne Feinstein’s November 1978 press announcement that Milk has been assassinated along with San Francisco mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber). We then flash back to Milk’s 40th birthday eight years earlier and follow his move from New York to San Francisco to pursue a life as a gay rights campaigner. Milk finally wins a seat on San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, taking office in January 1978. Ten months later he and the mayor are gunned down by another city supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin). Penn’s tender portrayal won the Best Actor Oscar, and writer Dustin Lance Black won Best Original Screenplay.
Co-written by Francis Ford Coppola and Edmund H. North, and directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, George C. Scott stars as controversial World War II general George S. Patton. As he blazes a trail through North Africa and Europe, Patton’s ruthless genius for battle raises fear and respect from his German foes, but resentment and incomprehension from the Allies, and his short temper and insubordination prevent him from being chosen to lead the decisive Normandy invasion. Winner of seven Oscars including Best Picture, Best Actor and Best Director, Patton remains one of Hollywood’s finest war movies, with a compelling and nuanced central performance from Scott.
Cry Freedom (1987)
Set in apartheid-era South Africa, Richard Attenborough’s film tells the story of how liberal white journalist Donald Woods befriended black activist Steve Biko, and campaigned for justice when Biko was unlawfully killed in police custody. Writing an investigative book about the event, Woods is forced to flee the country in order to see it published. Filmed in neighbouring Zimbabwe as political turmoil in South Africa continued some eight years before the release of Nelson Mandela, Cry Freedom won many accolades for its awareness-raising of continuing injustice in the country. Denzel Washington and Kevin Kline play the leads with great passion and gravitas.
Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)
William Nicholson adapted Nelson Mandela’s bestselling autobiography for the screen and Justin Chadwick directs. British actors Idris Elba and Naomie Harris star in this sweeping chronicle of Mandela’s rise from relative poverty in a rural village to become the international figurehead of the anti-apartheid movement and, on his release from 27 years in jail, South Africa’s first black president. Respectful and earnest almost to the point of hagiography, the film nonetheless bears powerful witness to a remarkable life.
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