Political Celluloid: What to Watch when Decision 2012 is Unwatchable

It’s a presidential election year once again. Democracy is an amazing process, despite some of the gridlock we have experienced lately. I’ve never missed a chance to vote and look forward to being able to cast another one this coming November. I do get annoyed with all the mudslinging and attack ads, but that seems to be the new normal, or maybe it’s always been the normal normal.

No doubt the media, analog as well as digital, will be at full volume and 24/7 with who knows what over the next several months. Unfortunately there’s no way to avoid it without becoming a recluse. Escaping the noise from time to time is necessary, so I want to share what I do each election year to get away from the rhetoric and shrill of the campaign trail. I go to my DVD library and pull out my favorite presidential / political discs and have a movie marathon.

I highly recommend it. And to help you along I’ve chosen a select group of films that always seem to get viewed every four years. Have a look and pick one of these movies (or two, or three), pop some corn, sit back and enjoy. Oh, turn off the phone ringer so those annoying robo-calls asking for political donations don’t interrupt you.

There are probably a hundred or more films about presidents, elections and political power, but these are my favorites, listed in order by release year, latest first.

Frost / Nixon (2008) –  A searing, in-depth recreation of the famous interview that in many ways settled once and for all President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate for the American public. Frank Langella is the cold, calculating Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost, who bet a personal fortune that he would get the goods on Nixon as well as a big audience. Takes place entirely post term and captures the time and culture perfectly. Directed by Ron Howard. Full review here.

W. (2008) – A psychoanalytic vista of the life and first term of President George W. Bush. It ultimately becomes a story of the entire Bush family and the presence of the elder President Bush is felt throughout. James Brolin plays W. pitch perfect, and surprisingly, Mr. Stone does not go off the reservation on this one. It’s toned down, compared to his other political outings. Worth a look, or another look to remind us of what things were like during the eight years under Bush. Full review here.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) – An updated version of the 1962 classic. Soldiers from the first Gulf War are captured and brainwashed. An alternate takes credit for being a war hero and becomes a Vice Presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber). His commanding officer, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) begins to think things are not what they seem. The details soon unravel for the master planners and they take additional actions to ensure their plan is carried off successfully. A high octane, paranoid thriller directed with precision by Jonathan Demme.

The Contender (2000) – Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson who is running  for Vice President to President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). The story line takes many twists as the characters fight for power and to preserve their view of the way things should be. Sexy secrets are found out about Hanson who refuses to discuss them as irrelevant to her qualifications for the office. Bridges chews the scenery and Allen is steely strong. Gary Oldman is superb.

The West Wing (1999-2006) – Highly acclaimed and popular TV series covering the lives of the President and staffers inside the White House’s west wing. 154 episodes were produced and aired. This series captured the attention of millions for it’s realistic portrayal, likable characters and its occasional wink. Created by Aaron Sorkin with Martin Sheen as President Josiah’Jed’ Bartlet. Quality scripts, acting and production.

Wag the Dog (1997) – Wonderfully funny, oddly prophetic and highly entertaining. Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are over the top. Anne Heche swears like a drunken sailor and Denis Leary is, well Denis Leary. Barry Levinson and David Mamet scooped the Monica Lewinsky scandal before it even happened, with eerie parallels. The White House staff members create a fake war to distract from the president’s troubles. Hoffman, a seasoned Hollywood producer is hired to carry out the task.

Nixon (1995) – A biographical story of former President Richard Milhous Nixon. Oliver Stone follows Nixon from his days as a young boy to his presidency, which ended in resignation during his second term. Anthony Hopkins inhabits the persona of Nixon so thoroughly that you completely forget it’s not Nixon as early as the first reel. The Vietnam conflict was a major event during the Nixon presidency and Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself, intercuts combat scenes into the political theater. He takes the filmic style used in JFK and pushes it even further, mixing eras and cultures freely across the screen.

JFK (1991) – Oliver Stone’s (again) telling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy caused quite a stir in many camps. Regardless of what you believe about the murder, this picture broke new ground in filmmaking style. It plays more as a sonic mix than an edited picture. Based on the book Crossfire, it features an ensemble cast. Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones are stand outs, while Gary Oldman nailed Lee Harvey Oswald. Special nod to Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), as an absolute loon.

All the President’s Men (1976) – Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Nixon’s resignation. Perhaps the best explanation available on the Watergate scandal. A taught drama that combines intrigue, power and investigative reporting. Excellent work from director Alan J. Pakula.

The Missiles of October (1974) – Made for television mini-series about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, three years after Castro assumes power in Cuba. William Davane plays JFK in this tense, detailed and an up close look at the process of decision making for an American President in a time of crisis. Also stars Martin Sheen. A good history lesson.

The Parallax View (1974) – Another reporter vehicle. This time Warren Beatty uncovers some nasty things while investigating the assassination of a prominent United States Senator. Ultimately he finds a conspiracy net with a powerful multinational corporation behind it all. The ’70’s produced some of our most interesting films thanks to “director as auteur” freedom afforded many filmmakers by the studios. Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men) directs.

Enjoy and please feel free to add your own favorites.

The Arc of the Moral Universe and the Empowering President

Source: NYT - Electoral Map at 12:52 AM CST

This is not a political post, it’s a citizenship post. Tonight my faith in this country is renewed with the election of Barack Obama. As I was listening to his speech from Grant Park in Chicago (where I live), I felt so fortunate that we will have a president that can actually speak with emotion and intellect and inspiration in a commanding and sonorous voice. President Clinton was that kind of speaker, and we have one again. President Elect Obama has used parts of Dr. Martin Luther King’s words throughout his campaign. And why not, Dr. King was one of the most eloquent speakers of his or any other time. This evening he evoked one of my favorite quotes by Dr. King, but updated it for the moment.

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Mr. Obama made it more personal by stating each one of us can place a hand on that arc and bend it in the direction of hope and change. He kept the ethereal, cosmic properties in tact, while making it accessible and actionable for everyone, empowering us to have direct control over something that might have seemed out of reach. The empowering president. I have heard him do this time and time again, and truly believe this has been a major factor in how he inspires and energizes. This is an amazing asset.

I wish the best for Senator John McCain, someone that I have long admired, and hope he fuses his love for democracy and advancement of this country and the world, with the new bend in that moral arc provided by the citizens of the United States.

Exercise Your Right to Vote

I voted today. There are a lot of cities that now offer early voting, and it’s definitely the way to go. No lines, no last minute issues that could prevent you from getting to the poles on November 4th. I’m still perplexed at how many citizens don’t bother to vote in elections. Voting for an American Idol or who we may think will make the playoffs seems to elicit more emotion than selecting leaders with vision and strength. It’s such an honor to be part of the process, and as we have seen, who you vote for really does matter over time.

Today’s voting experience was great. I went with my 4 year old as his school was closed (Columbus Day) and so I took the day off work to spend it with him. I never miss a chance to cast a vote and I plan on passing this sense of importance to my son. I gave them my driver’s license, signed my name, and in minutes they handed me a ballot, gave me clear instructions and off I went. Less than 5 minutes later my vote in this crucial moment election was cast. No voting machines where I live, we still use paper. Simply fill in the oval next to the candidate’s name.

Above is an iphone photo of my ballot. If your city offers early voting I highly recommend you take advantage of it, as anything can happen on November 4th. Your car could breakdown, kids get sick, etc… Casting your vote has never been more important. Read about my Super Tuesday primary voting experience here.

Super Tuesday, Good Experience

We’re so spoiled. Anyone who grew up a U.S. citizen and is reading this has always had the right to vote under the rules of our democratic process. No dictators ruling with an iron fist, no military coups forcing regime change. We get to have our say. But so many of us don’t choose to exercise this wonderful privilege. But I guess not voting is also making a choice, and I have to accept that.My oldest son (26) is keen on the voting process. He carefully reviews what the candidates are saying, and makes a thoughtful choice. He prints out the ballot from the county web site ahead of time so he is prepared when he enters the booth. This is serious business for him.

Photo Credit: Getty Images

My youngest son (3) had his first experience at the polls on this Super Tuesday. Of course he has yet to declare a party affiliation, for today he was only observing the process, and quite a smooth process it was. There are a variety of ballots and machines available for casting votes in this country. For many years I used the punch card process. Some areas of the country employ a touch screen. Standardization would be a good goal for the country some day. In my precinct, we use a very low tech paper and pen method. Although it was not fancy, it was quite orderly and very easy.We entered the polling place at about 8:30 am to find there was no line. Simply gave the official my name and address, signed for a ballot, and went behind a cardboard booth to vote. Every aspect of the process was clear and well signed. Granted the signs could use a little updating, but hey, this is not about the presentation, it’s about the content. Once again my iPhone camera comes in handy.


I took the black felt tip pen and filled in the oval next to the candidate’s name as instructed. Like my son I had taken a sneak peek at the ballot, so I knew what to expect. Once my selections were made I inserted the completed ballot into the privacy sleeve and fed it into the ballot counting machine that looks like a giant industrial paper shredder. My civic duty had been neatly dispatched.


Although it was over in short order–no more than 10 minutes from beginning to end–the elapsed time had no bearing how I felt. When alone with the ballot, I play out numerous scenarios in my mind. What if this person was in office and this happened? How would they react? Has the country really matured enough to elect a woman or an African American to the nation’s highest office? It’s a satisfying feeling to be sure. But not one of power or entitlement. Instead I feel a heightened sense of responsibility. The process has weight and importance and heritage.I am very proud my oldest son is actively participating, and committed to ensuring my youngest one will be exposed to the process every time the opportunity arises. No it’s not s perfect system, but name one that is. Nothing is sadder than sitting on the sideline outside of the deal flow when you could be right in the middle of it. If you voted, congratulations, and thank you. If you didn’t, it’s never too late. The big one comes in November.