The Best Medicine
Make politics fun again
Wednesday, January 20, 2021
No matter where you exist on the political spectrum, you’re likely pretty worn out by the events of the past few…weeks? Months? Years? Most of us had hit a point of exhaustion long before the invasion of the Capitol building by domestic terrorists (call them what you will, but I believe “terrorist” to be the most accurate descriptor) snapped us out of our alert fatigue and back to a state of horrified attention.
Now that President Joe Biden has been inaugurated, I’d like to be able to say that the next four years will go a little more smoothly, but the truth is that no one knows what’s in store other than our wild ride is likely to continue, at least in the short term.
Movies have been an excellent form of escape during this largely housebound time, but I’ve found myself straying away from funny or feel-good political fodder. I’ve watched my fair share of cynical political films—In the Loop and Election, I’m looking at you—but straightforward political comedies are a harder watch because when everything is so serious, poking fun isn’t, well, funny. But as messed up as things are currently, I find an emotion creeping back into my heart that I thought I’d thoroughly tamped down: hope. It is tempered with equal measures of caution and wariness, but there’s definitely some hope in there somewhere. It’s not just hope that things will become easier for this country and its citizens, but also hope that politics won’t be quite the horror show they’ve been of late.
Per usual, my watchlist reflects my current state of mind. As such, here are some movies to queue up if you, like me, want to make politics fun again.
Before he unleashed the iconic civics lesson disguised as must-see TV The West Wing and made his name synonymous with both the walk-and-talk and his intellectualized brand of positivity politics, Aaron Sorkin wrote the screenplay for The American President. The film is ostensibly a rom-com—but few rom-coms come with the amount of critical acclaim enjoyed by this one. It’s the story of a widowed president (Michael Douglas) who falls in love with a lobbyist (Annette Bening) and tries to balance his budding romance with the passage of an omnibus crime bill. Douglas brings both gravity and humanity to his role as fictional President Shepherd, Bening sparkles as Sydney Allen Wade, a whip-smart lobbyist with a heart of gold, and everyone makes the most of Sorkin’s dialogue-dense script and its many snappy one-liners—including future West Wing president, Martin Sheen. In both its politics and its love story, this film has a huge heart.
No one would ever make the mistake of describing Thank You For Smoking as being “earnest” or “hopeful,” but it sure is a good time. Based on a novel by Christopher Buckley, it’s the directorial debut of Jason Reitman, who would then go on to helm Juno, Up in the Air, and more. The plot focuses on a smarmy tobacco spokesperson played by Aaron Eckhart—and if ever there was a perfect role for his smooth-talking charisma, this is it. Every single bit of this political satire is ridiculous, from the self-proclaimed MOD Squad (ie the “Merchants of Death,” Eckhart and fellow firearms lobbyist David Koechner and alcohol lobbyist Maria Bello), to the kidnapping during which Eckhart is covered in nicotine patches before being released by his abductors, to Sam Elliott’s turn as a former Marlboro Man, and somehow it all works. This is largely due to an excellent cast that also includes William H. Macy, Robert Duvall, J.K. Simmons, and others. By the time Eckhart utters the lines, “Michael Jordan plays ball. Charles Manson kills people. I talk. Everyone has a talent,” you may not have fallen in love with Eckhart’s morally ambiguous character, but you’ll be thoroughly entertained by him.
I’m not sure what the elevator pitch for Dick was—maybe something like, “Watergate, but caused by two unfailingly upbeat 15-year-old girls who accidentally bring down President Nixon—but this is a movie that is possibly a better watch now than it was upon its 1999 release. When Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams stumble on the Watergate break-in, they’re given a job walking President Nixon’s dogs in order to keep them quiet. All it really does is involve them in a bunch of innocent-seeming hijinks that get Nixon in hotter and hotter water until he tenders his resignation and vacates the White House. Revisionist history can be tricky, but when done well—or done without regard for common sense or the bounds of reality as it is here—it can be a delight. Dunst and Williams excel as giggly teens, Will Ferrell makes an appearance as Bob Woodward, and Dan Hedaya as Nixon steals every scene.
In the realm of movies that revolve around a plot point that is both insane and also somehow believable is Wag the Dog. When the president finds himself embroiled in a sex scandal (remember when behavior like that used to be disqualifying? I long for those more innocent days), top spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) conspires with a bigwig Hollywood producer (an unforgettably coiffed and tanned Dustin Hoffman) to fabricate a war in Albania to distract the media. Thanks to a script penned by David Mamet and Hilary Henkin, the always-capable direction of Barry Levinson, and the acting chops of De Niro and Hoffman, a movie that by all rights should’ve been a dud instead went on to box office success and Oscar nods for Hoffman, Mamet, and Henkin.
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