ELECTION DAY 2008 – A Hammer To Nail List

In the weeks, and especially days, leading up to one of the most historic elections in our nation’s history, it’s been hard to concentrate on cinema. Even for nerds like us. But we have a job to do here at H2N, so we banded together to make a list of our favorite politically-themed/motivated/charged movies when it comes to the good ol’ U S of A. If you haven’t seen these films, you should. And if you have your own suggestions, please add them to the comments section below.

“Hammer to Nail’s Official Election Day 2008″ List

American Blackout (Ian Inaba, 2006) — This infuriating expose of the manipulation and racism that corrupted the 2000 election gets a desperately needed jolt of positivity and inspiration in the form of U.S. Representative Cynthia McKinney. Inaba’s rousing documentary shouldn’t make viewers feel like their hands are tied and the situation is hopeless. Instead, it should spark us into action in order to ensure that this type of thing never happens again! (Michael Tully)

Being There (Hal Ashby, 1979) — One of my favorite films of all time. When a simple-minded gardener named Chance (Peter Sellers), living a secluded life on the grounds of a Washington, D.C. mansion, is forced by fate to engage in the real world, he undertakes a meteoric rise through D.C’s political society by simply espousing “wisdom” he learned from watching TV. Chance is a complete cipher, a stand-in for the common man, and yet I don’t think there is a better movie that exposes the absurdity of American political celebrity as so-called “profundity” as the repetition of received wisdom. (Tom Hall)

Bulworth (Warren Beatty, 1998) — I’m sure I will have more and I probably will be scrambling to find rare ones because I write significantly slower than most, but for now I’m just gonna say the word Bulworth and leave it at that. (Michael Lerman) BONUS: And put Shampoo (Hal Ashby, 1975) with it. What a great one-two punch. (Ted Hope)

Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941) — We usually don’t think of Citizen Kane as a movie about politics—Kane’s campaign for governor makes up only a minor part of the story—but Welles has a lot to say about demagoguery, corruption, politics and the media, politics and big business, and much else. (Nelson Kim)

Dr. Strangelove or: How I learned to stop worrying and love the bomb (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) — When I saw this movie as a teenager living in Ronald Reagan’s America, my faith in the infallible wisdom of the “system” and our leaders was destroyed forever (as if living in Reagan’s America wasn’t enough). Watching it now, it feels even more prescient; on the heels of Oliver Stone’s W., the specter of Peter Sellers’ doofus President Merkin (the physical twin of Dick Cheney) has been our reality for the past eight years. Thank God the Cold War is over! (Hall)

Election (Alexander Payne, 1999) — A no-brainer. Based on the novel by Tom Perotta, Payne’s cringingly funny satire of a high school election gone haywire is as smart, sharp, and funny as it gets. With this film, Payne has mastered the art of caricatured humanity, using pitch-perfect direction to balance the line between sympathy and sarcasm. Election is one of those sweet treats that viewers can laugh with and at in equal measure. (Tully)

Frontrunners (Caroline Suh, 2008) — Compared to the exhausting, high stakes, hyper-analyzed, negatively charged national election that has emerged this year, Suh’s Frontrunners is a gust of fresh air. Funny, pleasant, and engaging, Frontrunners proves that the kids might just be alright, after all. (Note: I am credited as the film’s “music consultant,” so if you don’t want to take my word for it, take Tom Hall’s.) (Tully)

Gore Vidal’s The Best Man (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1964) — This a brilliant and insightful (and funny as hell) study of the clash between political ambition and moral scruple. Vidal nailed, presciently and perhaps permanently, so many aspects of electoral politics in these here United States that the movie stays relevant year after year, election after election. When the film was originally released, audiences recognized that the main characters were inspired by Stevenson and Nixon. But seen today, it’s clearly “about” the Clintons, Gore vs. Bush, Rove, Obama, Palin, et al… and rest assured, come 2012, 2016, and so on, it’ll speak just as directly to what’s happening then. (The Best Man isn’t available on DVD in the U.S., but VHS tapes are easy to find, and those with all-region DVD players can cop the just-released Region 2 disc at Amazon.co.uk. Or you can read Vidal’s 1960 play, from which the movie was adapted.) (Kim)

Great McGinty, The (Preston Sturges, 1940)— A reminder of why we are all so cynical, Sturges’ film satirizes not only a crooked political system, but also a thickheaded general public who refuses to open their eyes to the reality of things. A bum (Brian Donleavy) assists a corrupt politician with voter fraud, and winds up a much-loved town mayor. When the public learns the truth, they still love him! Unfortunately reminiscent of our current political climate. (Cullen Gallagher)

Grin Without A Cat, A (Chris Marker, 1977) — The spirit of 1968 and the hard lessons learned by the peace and love generation is the subject of the amazing Marker’s A Grin Without A Cat. The global impact of the war in Vietnam and the unique problems that arose around the world in response to the social engagement of young people, women and workers is Marker’s primary subject, but only Marker could connect the dots this way, showing us the interconnected nature of global politics.(Hall)

Greensboro: Closer To The Truth (Adam Zucker, 2007) — Having spent the entire month of September listening to right-wing nut jobs belittle “community organizers,” I couldn’t let this opportunity pass. On November 3, 1979, five “community organizers” were gunned down by members of the Ku Klux Klan and The American Nazi party while trying to organize African American industrial workers. The film tells the story of this unfathomable tragedy and the attempts of this broken community to reconcile after decades of division sown by this terrible injustice. (Hall)

Harlan County U.S.A. (Barbara Kopple, 1976) — As manufacturing and mining jobs are shipped overseas or eliminated and our nation’s 20th century economy grinds its way to a devastating end, it is important to remember the battle fought and won in the fight to fair pay and safety for America’s workers. The story of a violent coalmine strike in Kentucky, the movie is a reminder of what is at stake when we talk about “the economy”. In my opinion, the best documentary of all time. (Hall)

Journeys With George (Nancy Pelosi, 2002) — Eight years after The War Room, Nancy Pelosi’s journalist daughter Alexandra turned a camera on the junior Bush for her HBO Documentary Journeys with George. This daughter of democracy followed Bush on his campaign trail and formed a quick and often affectionate comic rapport with the future president, especially notable considering her own political stance. Through her lens, Bush appears witty and sweet and basically harmless, save for an occasional hint of ego. We see him in his most casual, unguarded moments: sleeping on a plane in an eye mask, digging into a bologna sandwich. But rewatching the film now, eight years after the election that he sort of won, this winning charm can’t help but seem sinister. “What are you going to do for me if I vote for you?” Pelosi asks. Bush answers easily: “I’m going to give you a little kiss on the cheek.” (Lena Dunham)

Manchurian Candidate, The (John Frankenheimer, 1962) This is a 2008 special “must-see.” As web ads and attacks from the right try to paint Barack Obama as an unknown agent of foreign terror, no movie speaks to the paranoia of political cynicism like The Manchurian Candidate. The film paints a Presidential candidate as being under secret communist control and, like so many dirty tricks, the lessons work on both sides of the aisle when the aim is to smear the “unknowable” other. (Hall)

Medium Cool (Haskell Wexler, 1969) — Set against the backdrop of the actual 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago, Wexler mixes narrative, avant garde, and documentary techniques, to not only capture the world as it was, but to point to where we might go, giving the u- and dys- topias equal opportunity. It reaches high, risks all, and is an incredible launch pad for both optimism and outright paranoia—two of my favorite places to dwell! (Hope)

Michael Clayton (Tony Gilroy, 2007) — Under-appreciated for its devastating excoriation of intellectual dishonesty in corporate and political life, Michael Clayton is the one movie of the last five years to have the balls to show America its own soul. Yeah, yeah, the ending is a little too tidy and not cynical enough to be real, but in terms of exposing the moral and mental psychosis of “profit at any cost,” a mindset that lead us into our current economic problems, well, it’s pretty much unbeatable. (Hall)

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (Frank Capra, 1939) — Capra’s unstoppable optimism has never been more affecting or endearing than in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. As the doe-eyed senator who tackles a corrupt political system, James Stewart becomes a hero to all: the embodiment of a pure, untarnished political ideal. Capra’s unconditional sincerity is enough to turn even the coldest cynic into a believer once again, and gives us hope that a real “Mr. Smith” does exist and might be elected. (Gallagher)

Seduction of Joe Tynan, The (Jerry Schatzberg, 1979) — Schatzberg’s portrait of a well intentioned Senator (Alan Alda) who finds himself succumbing to the temptation of power is definitely movie-coated, but Alda’s performance, based on his screenplay, makes it worth watching. It’s hard not to make a connection between Tynan—a youthful, good-looking, Senator-on-the-rise—and Barack Obama, a similarly admired figure who is on the verge of making the most meteoric rise of all. (Tully)

State Legislature (Frederick Wiseman, 2007) — Ordinarily I wouldn’t select a film that I hadn’t actually seen for a list such as this one, but a 217-minute Fred Wiseman film about the 2004 session of the Idaho legislature? They don’t get more politically American than that! (Tully)

Street Fight (Marshall Curry, 2005) — The story of a young, upstart African-American politician running against the old guard – sound familiar? Marshal Curry’s documentary is an intense and suspenseful microcosm of the drama currently playing out on the national stage. Politics-as-usual has been galvanized this year by a candidate whom legions of supporters truly believe has their best interest in minds – an attribute that shouldn’t feel as novel as it does. It’s the same thing Cory Booker clearly had going for him when he entered the mayoral race in Newark, New Jersey in 2002, and it’s what makes his fight for the election so thrilling: simply enough, he really does care. (David Lowery)

Tanner ’88 (Robert Altman, 1988) — Everybody refers to The Player as Robert Altman’s big comeback, but to me this 1988 HBO miniseries, written by Garry Trudeau, was the definitive proof that the old man was still the freshest, hippest, smartest filmmaker around. Trudeau and Altman invent a Michigan congressman named Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) and set him loose in the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination. The fictional narrative turns into a pseudo-documentary as Tanner and his campaign team travel around the country during primary season, and real-world notables like Bruce Babbitt, Bob Dole, Linda Ellerbee, and many others appear “playing themselves.” Trust Altman to make the definitive “reality TV” series more than a decade before the genre even had a name. (Kim)

War Room, The (D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus, 1993) — Anyone who was surprised by the Monica Lewinski affair definitely didn’t watch The War Room, Pennebaker and Hegedus’ documentary about Bill Clinton’s first bid for the presidency. In this tightly crafted, adrenaline pumping doc, the audience is given a front row seat to watch James Carville and George “sex in a suit—holla ladies!” Stephanopoulos as they attempt to spin, among other things, the Ginnifer Flowers scandal and get Bubba into the oval office. My friend Audrey Gelman slaved away in “the war room” for Hillary Clinton this past year and assures me that no film better captures the humor, spirit, and crushing anxiety present in the office of a major political campaign. (Dunham)

Wire, The (David Simon and Ed Burns, 2002-2008) — The Wire’s Tommy Carcetti, whose story arc makes up a major part of Seasons 3, 4, and 5, is a great portrait of a contemporary urban politician. Carcetti (Aiden Gillen) is a city councilman whose insurgent mayoral campaign ends in an unexpected victory—and then he has to learn how to actually run a city. He has good intentions and good ideas, but the world being what it is, and The Wire being what it is, good intentions and good ideas only get you so far. And Mayor Carcetti wants to go far indeed—by the end of Season 5, he’s headed for the Governor’s mansion. I don’t know of a more convincing fictional depiction of the day-to-day process of campaigning and governing, with its endless horse-trading, back-scratching, and double-dealing. (Kim)

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