7 Films that will restore your faith in politics
If you want to know what people in a democracy really think of politicians don’t look at the votes they receive, look at how they’re represented on screen. Right now, the picture isn’t pretty.
Movie politicians have always been pompous and a touch cynical but these days, they’re venal, nakedly hypocritical and even murderous—it might not be a film but the sulphurous antics of Netflix’s House of Cards capture the present, jaundiced opinion of elected officials rather well.
With election season upon us (again), it behoves us to remember why we should get involved. And what better way to renew your faith in politics than with a right good film? So here are some superior cinematic antidotes to apathy and disillusionment; even if they don’t quite light a path to the ballot box, they should remind us of why it all matters.
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You already know it’s coming, so we may as well get it out of the way: here's the obligatory rebuke-to-jaded-westerners movie, the inevitable sharp-reminder-of-how-precious-voting-rights-are flick.
If that has you groaning inwardly, then worry not: Secret Ballot is much, much more than a well-meant lecture. It’s an Iranian film, set on an island where a voting agent is encouraging locals to use what few rights they have. This agent, though, is a woman, something that bewilders the bored soldier who has been ordered to ferry her around. Slowly, though, an unlikely friendship develops.
This is much, much more than cinematic Castor Oil; it’s a film that can be watched (and enjoyed) without a nagging feeling that it’s Doing You Good.
Walesa: Man of Hope
The movies love their Great Men-and-Women, so Lech Wałęsa was ripe for a biopic. He was, in case you’ve forgotten, the Polish electrician who galvanised his fellow countrymen against the Communist authorities, sucker-punching the regime again and again.
Walesa: Man of Hope—directed by the great Andrej Wajda—is no conventional hagiography, though. In stark contrast to stuff like Gandhi, there’s no attempt to turn its hero into a saint. Wałęsa’s numerous flaws are on full-display here—he’s a truculent bugger, irascible and pig-headed. He’s even shown to have worked for the secret police on occasion. Wajda never tries to resolve these contradictions: no matter how great Wałęsa’s achievements, the man himself had feet of clay, which probably comes as cold comfort to the old commies he did out of a job.
Made in Dagenham
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Political engagement comes in many forms. Sometimes, it’s as straightforward as putting an "X" on a ballot paper; sometimes, it’s about kicking up a stink to make sure you get paid properly.
The latter is the subject of Made in Dagenham, a lightly fictionalised account of how the female workforce at the Ford plant in Essex led a campaign for fair play that encouraged the government of the day to introduce the Equal Pay Act of 1970, to the betterment of women workers across the country.
It’s hardly a grim and gritty depiction of industrial relations—it is a comedy, after all, and a very likeable one at that—but it never ignores the importance of its subject, nor the cussedness of those involved. Proof that not every film about activism has to give it the full Ken Loach.
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And talking of cussed women.... Jane Jacobs was an ordinary New Yorker who locked horns with one of the most powerful, if obscure, men in America. Robert Moses was the city planner who shaped modern Manhattan, usually on a whim and generally unopposed. But when Mrs. J got wind of his scheme to drive a freeway through Washington Square, she did more than give him a piece of her mind.
This documentary of her travails and triumphs illustrates perfectly the old dictum that "all politics is local". Watch it before Hollywood makes its own, inevitably inferior version of the same story.
What does a dictator do when he wants to prove he’s not a dictator? Call a referendum, of course. Such was the tactic of General Pinochet in Chile who decided to neutralise international condemnation of his regime—some wet blankets weren’t too happy about the torture, internment and arbitrary murder of his critics—by asking The People to invite him to stay in post.
No is about the opposition, a loose coalition of liberals who campaigned to unseat him. Given that Pinochet had essentially rigged the thing before they even started, they never stood a chance but thanks to some canny advertising, they actually managed to win and the old monster was obliged to go. Even absolute power has its limits.
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Politics is, and should be, a pragmatic profession but it does us good every once in a while to indulge in a bit of fantasy: to imagine a government guided not by ideology but by an informed common sense. To dream of a politician who puts his constituents before his own vanity. And who’s basically competent.
Dave is—hands down—the very best expression of this. It’s a lookalike movie; small town gent Dave Kovic looks just like President Mitchell. So when the Prez has a stroke, his Machiavellian aides bring Dave in to plug the gap, fully expecting to manipulate the unsophisticated rube. But the best-laid plans and all that...
It's a lovely movie, a plea for a better politics that never gets too carried away with its own conceit. A fantasy, yes. But there’s no harm in dreaming occasionally.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
The cuckoo in the nest.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is the most famous Hollywood film about politics and, as such, probably the most famous political film there is. Its influence on the American polity is immense: it’s often singled out as an example of how Congress ought to be and cited by Senators as a personal inspiration. The trouble is, it’s more than a little disturbing.
James Stewart—in full Gee Whizz! mode—plays small-town do-gooder Jefferson Smith who is catapulted to the Senate by nefarious political bosses. Realising they don’t share his wholesome values, he's obliged to make a stand in the Senate to win the support of the common man.
It’s brilliantly done—how can it be otherwise with Frank Capra behind the camera? And parts of it are undeniably stirring, even to non-Americans. But every appeal is to emotion and sentiment while flexibility and compromise are denigrated: you’d think a film made in the 1930s might be a bit more wary of messianic politicians.
For a corrective, why not look at a film made about one of Mr. Smith’s stated heroes? Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln eschews easy populism to show how a truly great politician must master both patience and process: idealism might be an easier sell, but it’s the realists who make a difference.
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