Throwback Thursday: Three Great Political Films

Charles Liu

With the presidential primary season underway, The Daily Texan suggests readers watch these three political films.

“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939)
Funny, emotional and inspiring, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” follows the difficult life of the naïve but idealistic young U.S. Senator Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart). Smith is attacked by the press and manipulated by his peers, including his crooked mentor, Senator Paine (Claude Rains). 

Smith drafts a bill for the federal government to buy a boys’ camp in his state comes into conflict with his party’s graft scheme to build a dam on that same land. To sabotage Smith, Paine provides falsified evidence that Smith owns the land in question and was attempting to profit from his bill. Driven to stand up for himself, Smith attempts to prove his innocence with an endurance-testing filibuster that remains one of cinema’s most moving speeches.

Stewart gives a career-defining performance that launched him into superstardom, and director Frank Capra demonstrates his skill in making sentimental films that connect with viewers and enrich their ways of thinking. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” presents a harsh and cruel political world but also a hopeful one in which there are indeed good leaders who strive to do what is best for their people.

“All the President’s Men” (1976)
In 1972, The Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward investigated the Watergate scandal. Their reporting on the crime at the Watergate complex led to a series of government investigations that resulted in President Richard Nixon’s resignation.

“All the President’s Men” recounts the story of Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Woodward (Robert Redford) with an all-star cast, including Hal Holbrook as the reporters’ mysterious informant, “Deep Throat.” Director Alan J. Pakula and writer William Goldman imbue the picture with iconic imagery, like the shadowy meetings between the reporters and “Deep Throat” and memorable lines like “follow the money.”

“All the President’s Men” is a classic political thriller that serves as an ode to the freedom of the press and a fable about the dangers of power in corrupt hands.

“The American President” (1995)
Democratic U.S. President Andrew Shepard (Michael Douglas) is running for re-election. In the midst of his attempt to get his unpopular crime control bill passed, he meets Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Benning), an environmental lobbyist. Shepard, a widower, falls in love with Wade.

Troubles arise when Republican Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), a potential presidential candidate, attacks Shepard’s character and his relationship with Wade, driving the President’s ratings down. Shepard also finds himself three votes short of passing his crime bill, and he realizes the only way to convince the last Congressmen to support his bill is to shelve Wade’s bill. Shepard must decide whether or not to betray his girlfriend to achieve his goal.

Director Rob Reiner grapples with the difficulty of choices in politics, and sharp writer Aaron Sorkin displays his trademark wit, later carrying on a few plot points from the film onto his well-regarded series, “The West Wing.” “The American President” is a fantastic drama and romance about fighting the battles worth fighting.