25 best election movies ever

The ballots have been cast, the votes counted and the results are in – these are the best election movies ever!

You'd think basing a movie on an election would be dull as ditchwater, but the next 25 movies prove that's far from the truth. Much like politics, in fact.

Napoleon Dynamite (2004)

If you don’t already own a Vote For Pedro t-shirt, chances are you haven’t seen Napoleon Dynamite. That also means you don’t know how a liger is bred, how to not chat up a girl or how to throw a steak to knock a man off a bike – all reasons you should rent, buy, download or stream this quirky indie comedy with a school presidential election at its heart.

Black Sheep (1996)

With Chris Farley and David Spade heading the bill, Black Sheep could only be a bumbling physical comedy. The story: a gubernatorial candidate hires an assistant just to stop his incompetent brother from ruining his campaign. The verdict: movie critic Gene Siskel said it was the first film he’d walked out of in a career spanning 26 years.

All The King’s Men (2006)

In the South, y’all, governors ain’t what they might seem, a fact not lost on one Louisiana reporter. Despite a cast counting Sean Penn, Jude Law, Kate Winslet, James Gandolfini, Mark Ruffalo, Patricia Clarkson and Anthony Hopkins among its number, All the King’s Men met with a lukewarm critical reception.

Dave (1993)

Presidential ribbon-cutting double Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) finds himself taking a rather larger slice of the administrative responsibilities when the White House incumbent falls into a coma. Sigourney Weaver and Ben Kingsley are also cast in this likeable comedy.

Wag the Dog (1997)

Spin doctor Robert De Niro hires movie producer Dustin Hoffman to stage a war as a smokescreen to cover a presidential affair in the lead-up to election night. There’s a rare pang of sympathy for political PR when the plan starts to spin radically out of control.

The Candidate (1972)

Written by a presidential candidate’s speechwriter, The Candidate addresses a question that’s become more increasingly poignant in an age of multi-billion dollar campaign spends: once you’ve got yourself elected, what do you do next? Robert Redford stars in this searching drama.

Bob Roberts (1992)

Tim Robbins is the writer, director and star of this mockumentary about a conservative folk singer up for election to the US Senate. Republicans might think they’re the target of Robbins’ satire – and to a large extent they are – but he also aims to show how the hippie ideals of the late 60s and 70s didn’t really alter the political landscape of the USA, where greed, venality and self-interest still rule the roost. Also notable for the fact that Roberts’ Democrat rival in the Senate race is played by none other than Gore Vidal.

The Last Hurrah (1958)

John Ford took a break from his epic Westerns to tell this sentimental story of an ageing Irish-American politician running for mayor in a New England city. Spencer Tracy’s Frank Skeffington must contend with a hostile media and a young, photogenic conservative challenger.

The American President (1995)

Michael Douglas is a widowed Commander–In–Chief who falls for Annette Bening’s environmental lobbyist in this romantic dramedy. The pair’s burgeoning relationship threatens Douglas’ chances of reelection, as his scheming rival Richard Dreyfuss seeks to use any means to get into the White House. Co-stars Martin Sheen, who has some experience in Presidential drama.

All The President’s Men (1976)

Set during the run-up to the 1972 US election, this is the true story of how two Washington Post journalists – played here by Hollywood royalty Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman – stumbled across a plot by the then President Nixon’s office to cover up links to a politically-motivated break-in at the Democratic National Committee’s Watergate HQ. Nixon was implicated in a further coverup and decided to resign before he was impeached.

Fahreinheit 9/11 (2004)

Michael Moore’s political polemic on the use of the September 11th attacks to justify wars in Iraq and Afghanistan begins with the documentary maker suggesting that George W Bush used his connections in Florida to effectively “steal” the 2000 Presidential election from Al Gore. Well, Moore is not known for holding back...

The War Room (1993)

Another documentary, this time a little more measured in tone, following the Clinton election campaign of 1992. Amusing and fascinating, its two chief “stars” George Stephanopoulos and James Carville are great value.

More after the break...

Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Frank Capra and James Stewart… you can’t really go wrong, can you? This classic concerns an idealist who ends up appointed to the US Senate, only to come up against widespread corruption. The movie was unpopular in the US for suggesting that its political system was less than squeaky clean, but outright banned in European fascist countries for showing how democracy can work as a system.

Election (1999)

It’s not often you get to watch an election movie which runs the gamut of pornography plot devices (lesbians, oral, teacher-student, etc). Yet that’s exactly what you’ll get from 1999’s decidedly non-pornographic Election, a comedy that sees Reese Witherspoon and Matthew Broderick duking it out in the high school politics arena. Did we mention the titular election is a three-way?

Milk (2008)

There’s nary a pint of the white stuff on show, dairy fans, but if you wanted to brush up on your US state politics, you could do worse than start with this biopic of Harvey Milk (brilliantly played by Sean Penn), the first ‘out’ gay to be elected to public office in California. Gus Van Sant’s direction includes some of the most ‘70s photography since, well, the ‘70s.

The Ides of March (2011)

Political backstabbing goes backstage in this tensely constructed tale of life and lies on the campaign trail. George Clooney (who also penned the flick) is up against Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman in the ensuing power struggle. But who’s the Brutus?


Bobby (2006)

Brat packer Emilio Estevez writes and directs this big-hitting film exploring the final hours before Bobby Kennedy was shot in an LA hotel. An A-list ensemble cast will keep star spotters entertained, though the movie itself was met with mixed reviews.

The Iron Lady (2011)

The closest Britain’s had to a dictator in living memory was always going to be a hard sell to the moviegoing public, but this Thatcher biopic was skilfully played by director Phyllida Lloyd, who depicts the former PM as a delusional old woman struggling to get through life after the death of her husband, the brilliantly down-to-earth Denis. Meryl Streep astounds throughout.

W. (2008)

Oliver Stone took the wheel of this George W. Bush biopic, following the Texan voted least likely to become president on his journey to, well, the presidency. It’s the poor cousin of Stone’s previous political outings (JFK and Nixon), but still well worth a spin in the Blu-ray drive.

The Rise and Rise of Michael Rimmer (1970)

Peter Cook teamed up with John Cleese and Graham Chapman for this biting satire of British politics. The titular Rimmer – played by Cook – materialises from nowhere, works his way to the top of an advertising agency and enters Parliament, using any means to advance his career. Rather unjustly overlooked, the film's depiction of spin and personality taking precedence over policies now looks eerily prescient.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars fans point to floppy-eared space rabbit Jar Jar Binks as the point at which the Star Wars franchise went off the rails – but equally perplexing was Episode I's focus on the numbingly tedious politics of the Galactic Senate. On the plus side, you do get to see Ian McDiarmid's machiavellian Senator Palpatine schmooze his way into the Chancellorship – and lay the groundwork for his eventual coronation as Emperor.

Bulworth (1998)

Warren Beatty's disillusioned senator hires an assassin to kill him – and feeling rather more liberated, starts speaking his mind at campaign events. Co-written by The West Wing's Aaron Sorkin, the film's a political riff on TV satire Network – the establishment figure who snaps and starts telling it like he sees it becomes a media sensation. It also features the frankly terrifying spectacle of Warren Beatty rapping.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Although media magnate Charles Foster Kane's bid to become governor of New York State is a relatively short interlude in Orson Welles' masterpiece, it's the turning point of the film. The failure of Kane's political ambitions – and the shattering of his assumption that he can control the electorate – marks the beginning of his decline and retreat into the isolated splendour of his mansion, Xanadu.

Primary Colors (1998)

John Travolta plays Governor Jack Stanton, a Southern Democrat possessed of folksy charm and a voracious sexual appetite who is absolutely, definitely not based on Bill Clinton. As he embarks on his presidential campaign, Stanton's campaign staff struggle to smooth over his past indiscretions – of which there are many. The story may be focused on the backroom boys, but it's Travolta's slick operator who lingers in the memory.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

American soldiers are captured by Chinese communists and brainwashed into being fifth columnists and assassins in this paranoid political thriller. At the heart of the conspiracy is McCarthyite politician Senator Iselin – who's aiming to take the Presidency and hand the country over to the Reds. A sly dig at McCarthy's scaremongering demagougery, The Manchurian Candidate suggests that political witch hunts play directly into the hands of America's enemies.

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