Political. Po-lit-i-cal. adj. 1. Of relating to, or dealing with the structure or affairs of government, politics, or the state.
Political drama’s can often be a huge point of contention. Facts are missed or twisted, stories are over exaggerated and actors face the challenge of portraying a ‘real-life person’ who has been either loved or loathed. Even stories that are perfectly told cause controversy and anger, as when based in politics, and like politics itself, you are never going to please everyone.
Some however, despite having quite obvious dramatisation (we are talking about films after all), stop the press. In hope that they will captivate and inspire, they come at times when the world needs them, telling stories of people and days gone by, reminding us of the struggles and pain endured, the battles won and lost, and the leaders who changed it all so that we can live the lives we do today. The films are so believable, so astounding, that they become and remain classics.
Now some of you may take a look through my Top 10 Political Drama’s and think I have taken a few liberties with my collection as not all of the films could have the above definition stamped directly on them. But hopefully you can forgive me, as where government based politics are missing, prejudice and beautiful shiny courtrooms are ever-present. Keep in mind as well that this list is entirely my own opinion, developed from films that have interested me with and without any previous knowledge of the subject matter and have truly moved me through storytelling.
10. Frost/Nixon (2008)
Starring Michael Sheen as David Frost and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, the film re-tells the televised interviews between the two men three years after the Watergate Scandal, where by President Nixon resigned following the discovery of his own tape-recordings in the Whitehouse that implicated him in the cover-up of extensive illegal activity.
Adapted from the play in which both Sheen and Langella starred in the same roles, the incredible partnership of screenwriter Peter Morgan and director Ron Howard (most recently known for the Formula 1 based melodrama Rush) is also reunited. The story is beautifully told through their vision but what it truly triumphs in is its cast. Sheen and Langella are electrifying in their portrayal of the iconic characters, powering through each interview, each scene, with such charisma and relentlessness that you find yourself rooting for both characters. Those around them are also faultless, in particular Sam Rockwell and Kevin Bacon whose passion to succeed for their respective protagonists, is both compelling and heartwarming.
Parts of it are fabricated, most notably the intense midnight phone conversation between Frost and Nixon, but as far as ‘real’ stories go, this one is as truthful as it gets. Howard’s Frost/Nixon, much like the 1977 interviews, is a complete success.
Trivia – Rotten Tomatoes rating – 92%. Nominated for 5 Oscars. The entire film was shot in 38 days.
9. Milk (2008)
Sean Penn is no stranger to difficult roles. Brutal and cold Sgt. Tony Meserve in ‘Casualties of War’, mentally retarded yet loving Sam Dawson in ‘I Am Sam’ and revengeful Jimmy Markum in ‘Mystic River’, and in ‘Milk’ he plays Harvey Milk, the first openly gay man to be elected into office in the state of California in 1977.
Directed by Gus Van Sant (My Own Private Idaho, Good Will Hunting) the film is an incredible portrayal of an incredible man. Milk was a visionary who ‘imagined a righteous world inside his head and then set about to create it for real, for all of us’ (Anne Kronenberg – Harvey Milk’s final campaign manager), and Penn plays him as such. It is a strong and yet beautifully delicate performance, helped along by the supporting cast of Josh Brolin, Emile Hirsch and James Franco.
A truly inspirational and moving biography, that speaks out about issues both past, and unfortunately present.
Trivia – Rotten Tomatoes rating 94%. Winner of 2 Oscars including Best Performance by an Actor for Sean Penn. Josh Brolin doesn’t appear in the film until the 45th minute.
8. Lincoln (2012)
When Daniel Day Lewis comes up in conversations I often find myself taking a moment to remember who he actually is. Not because I have never heard of him, but because he immerses himself into roles so deeply that he becomes one with them and I forget that Daniel Day Lewis ever existed. This is proven in the simple fact that he is the only actor in the history of film to win the Oscar for Best Actor three times.
Lincoln is a brave film. Not only does it take on the astoundingly iconic figure of Abraham Lincoln but it choses to tell the tale of when he fought for the abomination of slavery in the United States in 1865, at the same time as the Civil War was coming to a close. So who better than to take on the sky-scraper of a task than world-renowned director Steven Spielberg. And what a remarkable job he does. As well as Lewis providing his third performance of a lifetime, Sally Field plays her role of Mary, the sad and desperate yet encouraging wife of President Lincoln, to absolute perfection, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt makes it a truly family affair with his powerful performance as the Presidents son Robert.
Lincoln doesn’t shy away from uplifting, and occasionally cheesy, speeches but its power is undeniable. Packed full of stunning moments and intelligent scripting, it does justice to a time of both cruelty and bravery.
Trivia – Rotten Tomatoes rating 89%. Spielberg spent 12 years researching for the film.
7. Citizen Kane (1941)
What can be said about Citizen Kane that hasn’t been said already? It has been over 70 years since the films release and it is still one of the most influential films in history. Directed by and starring, for want of a better word the ‘genius’ Orson Welles, Citizen Kane is about a group of reporters who aim to decipher the final word spoken by Charles Foster Kane, the millionaire newspaper tycoon: ‘Rosebud’.
It is an incredible piece of cinema, one that despite its dated use of language speaks to any generation, predominantly through Welles’ central performance. Simply, watch it.
Trivia – Rotten Tomatoes rating – 100%. Winner of Best Writing, Original Screenplay Oscar. Despite it’s now timeless and iconic status, the film was originally a box office flop and at the 1941 Academy Awards when each nomination was announced it was simultaneously booed.
6. Hunger (2008)
For full length review please follow the link below:
Trivia – IMDB star rating of 7.5. Winner of 36 awards world-wide including Carl Foreman Award for the Most Promising Newcomer for Director Steve McQueen.
5. Argo (2012)
Remember earlier when I said that political dramas can often be a huge point of contention as they sometimes miss out or twist facts? Well Argo did exactly that. Set in 1980, it follows the life of CIA agent Tony Mendez who sets out on a dangerous mission to rescue six Americans who managed to escape during the U.S hostage crisis in Iran. The film focuses almost entirely on the American effort to rescue its people, but fails to properly acknowledge the extensive involvement made by other nations in the rescue attempt, most notably Canada and its Ambassador Ken Taylor. Now you may be thinking that it seems strange to include the film in my Top 10 as I have begun this section of the article so negatively, but it is simply because Argo is one of the best films ever made.
Upon viewing the film I knew very little, if at all anything about the subject matter and so being unaware I was able to sit back, relax and enjoy the film for what it was. Ignorance is bliss as it were. Every aspect astounded me. The script was complex, interesting and occasionally funny, the situation was hopeless yet somehow always hopeful, the characters were brave yet astoundingly human, and the story was compelling from start to finish. Everything from the use of old news footage, to the pounding soundtrack brought me to life in the cinema. And what a cast! Affleck is impeccable, Cranston is as charming as ever, Arkin and Goodman are hilarious and ‘the six’ including Tate Donovan and Clea Duvall make a huge impression amongst the leads weighty performances.
Knowing what I now know about the film’s subject matter, I would say that Argo and its director/star Ben Affleck certainly took some liberties in portraying the story solely to serve Hollywood, but loving the film as I now do, its hard to imagine it any other way. I guess you would simply have to adopt naivety to enjoy it as much as I did.
Trivia – Rotten Tomatoes rating 96%. Won 3 Oscars for Editing, Motion Picture and Adapted Screenplay. Family members of the real Tony Mendez appear as extras.
4. A Time To Kill (1996)
Long before Matthew McConaughey relinquished himself to a career of romantic comedies before remembering he could act, he proved the latter point in ‘A Time To Kill’, an adaption of the book by John Grisham. When a 10-year-old black girl is raped and left for dead by two white men in Mississippi, the girl’s father Carl Lee (Samuel L. Jackson) becomes hell-bent on revenge and murders the two men. It is then up to Jake Tyler Brigance (McConaughey), a young, broke and inexperienced lawyer to defend Carl Lee, causing controversy in a racially driven deep south town.
Boasting a cast of seasoned experts (Sandra Bullock, Keifer Sutherland, Donald Sutherland, Oliver Platt, Ashley Judd and Kevin Spacey) and a script that is at worst inspirational, ‘A Time To Kill’ is one of my all time favourite films. It’s power lies in its humanistic approach to a brutal act and its portrayal of the statewide epidemic of racism. The final courtroom scene has, in my opinion of course, one of the most intensely brilliant moments in the history of cinema. In the 30+ times that I have watched it, it has never failed to move me to tears, for all the right reasons.
Trivia – IMDB star rating 7.2. Woody Harrelson wanted to play Jake Brigance but author John Grisham objected to his casting.
3. JFK (1991)
If heavily laden scripts aren’t your bag baby, then stay unbelievably clear of this one.
Boasting 189 minutes of screen time, JFK is not for the weak-hearted. It details the life of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison who disbelieves the official story released by the FBI about the events that led to President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and so undergoes his own investigation.
The JFK assassination has and always will be a controversial subject, one that many people believe has had extensive lies and cover-ups attached to it. Oliver Stone, the director, was criticised for the film in many areas with people proclaiming that he had in fact fabricated most of the story. He proved otherwise by printing his screenplay and detailing precise reasons for each decision made and it is with this knowledge that the film becomes even more believable.
Played out like a detective story, JFK grabs you by the brain and never let’s go. It asks you to question yourself, the assassination, government, and the film itself. Its central performances from Kevin Costner, Donald Sutherland, Gary Oldman, Joe Pesci and Tommy Lee Jones are absolutely incredible, particularly with the former whose characterisation of Garrison is all-consuming and poignant.
An absolute classic that due to its controversy will never get the full recognition it deserves, but in my mind Oliver Stone’s best work.
Trivia – Rotten Tomatoes rating 84%. Winner of 2 Oscars. Costner memorised his final speech completely and is said to have claimed that Stone would only need to do one take.
2. 12 Angry Men
A young man whose race is unknown but is not Caucasian, is being tried for killing his father. The defence and prosecution have rested and now the 12 jurors must pile into a small, un-air-conditioned room to determine his fate. What seems to be a foregone conclusion by the majority of the jury, soon turns into an initiated dissection of justice, morality and prejudice, as Juror #8 (Henry Fonda) convinces the other 11 men to consider that the case may not be as obvious as it seemed in court.
For years I had heard of this film, spoken through the lips of many Media and Film Studies lecturers, urging classes of people to watch the timeless classic. And for years I seemed to unintentionally avoid it. So one day when I went DVD shopping (yup) I saw it for just £3 and decided to give it a go. Often when people have spent minutes or hours actively telling me how great a film is, when I finally watch it, it can feel slightly underwhelming. Not this. Not in any way at all.
12 Angry Men is phenomenal. From start to finish, as the plot thickens and the tension builds, you find yourself being drawn further and further into the plot and the room, giving nothing but the television screen your full attention for the duration of the film. There are no explosions, no time-filling montages, no sex scenes and no pounding soundtrack, it is simply 12 men in one room, all giving the performances of a lifetime. Often I completely disagree with film ratings, but the Rotten Tomatoes rating of 100% is completely accurate. It is perfection in cinema.
Warning: Be sure not to fall off the edge of your seat.
Trivia – The film lost out on all three Oscars it was nominated for – The Bridge On The River Kwai won all three instead.
1. A Few Good Men (1992)
Just as political based dramas can sometimes cause controversy, I am sure that the final film in my Top 10 will cause a slight amount of outrage. But number one it is. For me anyway.
Lt. Daniel Kaffee (Tom Cruise), Lt. Cdr. Joanne Galloway (Demi Moore) and Lt. Sam Weinberg (Kevin Pollak) set out to defend the innocence of two young Marines who on being charged with murdering a fellow Marine Pfc. William. T. Santiago, proclaim that they were acting under orders. Directed by Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, This Is Spinal Tap, Misery) and with a supporting cast that includes Jack Nicholson, Kevin Bacon and Kiefer Sutherland, the film is undeniable as ‘one to watch’.
The script, adapted for the screen by the writer of the original play Aaron Sorkin, is fast-paced and intelligent, giving you more and more with every viewing. The plot plays out as a detective story, a thriller and a drama (of course), keeping you glued for its entire 138 minutes. But the genius of the film is in its cast. Not one person puts in a mediocre performance, including brief performances from courtroom witnesses Noah Wyle and Cuba Gooding Jnr, and the main protagonists are electrifying. Moore is strong yet delicate as Lt. Cdr. Galloway and Pollak adds some comedic and touching relief as Kaffee’s accomplice and friend. But the main focus is the relationship between Cruise’s Kaffee and Nicholson’s Col. Jessup, which plays out like a scene from the Roman Colosseum, resulting in the countlessly quoted final famous courtroom scene:
Jessup – You want answers?
Kaffee – I think I’m entitled to them.
Jessup – *You want answers?*
Kaffee – *I want the truth!*
Jessup – *You can’t handle the truth!*
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the Marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.
My favourite film, not just in this Top 10 but of all time, and to be honest, it gets there on that speech alone.
Well there you have it, my Top 10 Political Drama’s. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
And for my latest full-length film reviews follow the link.