Q of the Week: What Political Movie Should Every American Watch?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

As our own Megan Garber leads The Atlantic’s movie club in the weeks leading up to Election Day, we asked what politics-related film our Politics & Policy Daily readers consider to be mandatory viewing for all Americans. We got loads of submissions for classics like The Candidate, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and Advise & Consent. Big props to Michael J. Sweat for reminding us about the 2006 film Idiocracy, starring Luke Wilson.

And to Alicia Shepard for All the President's Men, which she calls “a fascinating window into the changing world of journalism and the nefarious world of Nixon’s presidency.”

And from avid Daily reader Howard Cohen: “Given the conspiracies that Trump has been putting out going back to the birther issue—including that the election will be rigged if he loses—there is no better political flick to watch before November 8 than The Parallax View.”

Another reader offered a movie for both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, letting us “guess for which candidate each film is germane”:

1. Hitler: A Career: The rise and fall of a firebrand and despot who uses pure emotion to rile the masses

2. Evita: Wife of a dictatorial president who yearns to break out on her own

The common thread?  In both cases, film and real-life, it’s all about them.

And thanks to John Donovan for offering a selection of more obscure political films based on genre:

Satire—Bulworth: A flawed film but dead-on depiction of the nihilistic political hucksters gutting our democracy. Worth a watch just for Warren Beatty rapping and romancing Halle Berry, and Oliver Platt’s brilliant portrayal of a craven Hill staffer.

Serious—Battle of Chile: Historic documentary filmed as the overthrow of Allende happened. You’ll never forget the footage of a soldier firing at and killing the cameraman filming him.

Classic—The Great McGinty by Preston Sturges. Corruption has never been funnier … until maybe Chris Christie.

Cult—Maidstone: written, directed, and starring Norman Mailer who plays a presidential candidate. Famous for scary, semi-real assassination attempt by hammer-wielding method actor Rip Torn. Pure madness.

Finally, Mark Febrizio offers up the 1974 classic Chinatown which, despite not being about politics, he writes, “offers a dark, yet realistic, depiction of the repercussions of eroded political and legal institutions.”

More from Mark:

On a basic level, the water shortage is a consequence of institutional—not just environmental—problems (I think this is something most can agree on regardless of one’s preferred solution). Furthermore, we also see the results of a government bureaucracy (the L.A. Department of Water and Power) captured by business interests, and the paralyzing effects of the distorted incentives for law enforcement officials.

Chinatown isn’t a movie that provides political solutions but instead offers substantial food for thought, especially for the many Americans who may feel that contemporary political and legal institutions have similarly eroded. Additionally, it’s worth watching just for the exceptional screenplay, gripping performances, and taut direction.