FIELD OF STREAMS celebrates the end of voting season with these politically-themed streaming picks
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Well, the election came and went; but not before lingering for the better part of a handful of days which had the speed of a long, dreary winter. As the continuously growing counts and recounts have stated, Joe Biden is the next President of the United States. It was an interesting election (to say the least) that proved to be both traditional and game changing thanks to the candidates, campaign tactics and the country’s response to both. Regardless of party or outcome, many are willing and ready to embrace that post-election feeling of passion and high energy finally coming to an end.
In celebration of making it through this historic election, I thought it was only fitting to look back at the way cinema has captured America’s political process through the decades. Through a collection of diverse filmmakers and their (mostly) fictional politicians, these streaming titles each give their own views on the changing times of the country, its effect on the political process and how it all played out on the silver screen
MR. SMITH GOES TO WASHINGTON (Prime)
One of Frank Capra’s best films came with this now-classic from 1939. In the same year which saw the release of Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, this story of a patriotic small town American named Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) who is forced into a recently-vacant senate seat in a flurry only to have his well-meaning aspirations crushed by the cold reality of politics remains a classic. As optimistic as Capra’s filmmaking was, there was also a sense of cynicism which he incorporated into his work, giving his films an authenticity which many don’t give him enough credit for. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a perfect example of how the legendary director balanced both through Jefferson’s early naivete and his eventual disillusionment with the idea that he can actually make a difference. Jean Arthur’s “ahead of her time” secretary is the perfect embodiment of the jaded Washington-ite; a woman who has spent her a career as a fringe member of the politico to the point where it’s all but drained her humanity until Smith brings it back to life. Lies, slander, favors, alliances and distractions are all thrown at Jefferson, causing him to doubt the man he thought he was until he decides to fight against that very system with Saunders at his side. A great example of basic Washington practices made incredibly poetic and cinematic thanks to the iconic scenes of the film’s hero standing in front of the Lincoln memorial and very nearly weeping.
THE CANDIDATE (HBO Max)
Although he’s only credited as lead actor, Robert Redford’s behind-the-scenes work on the 1972 dramedy The Candidate shouldn’t be understated. The star helped produce and shape the script for this story of a California legal aide worker named Tom (Redford) who is recruited to run for Senator. It’s hard to find political films as clever and astute as this that also happen to be slyly cynical. Tom is shown to have scruples and principles, which he clings to as tightly as he can even as most of them are challenged by his staff, including his campaign manager (a fantastic Peter Boyle). In a way, that’s what ends up being the real hook of The Candidate — watching its main character go from someone only mildly interested in victory to a burgeoning politician with power very nearly in the palm of his hand. The Candidate isn’t a big film with lots of rousing speeches made by its well-cast leading man. Instead, the beauty of that film is in watching how the political race, the prospect of winning and the power to create transforms Tom. As the gravity of the race begins to sink in with every speech and photo op, we witness Tom take note of the man he’s becoming as the political world and all its elements draw him closer and closer into its grasp. Perhaps the best part about The Candidate is the fact that it has the bravery to close with a semi-open ending in which we see a dazed and bewildered Tom walk towards the future not knowing what it holds or even whether or not he desires it anymore.
While it may not be on the same level as Reds, or even Heaven Can Wait, Warren Beatty’s 1998 satirical comedy Bulworth is a political animal of a film that stands the test of time thanks to a level of boldness it never lets go of. When depressed Senator Jay Bulworth (Beatty) decides to hire someone to kill him during the height of his reelection campaign, he finds himself suddenly emboldened with a new way of thinking which finally makes him aware of what’s wrong in the state of California. One thing after another, and Jay suddenly finds himself running from his campaign manager (Oliver Platt) and hiding out with a beautiful, mysterious woman (Halle Berry). Bulworth alone is worth seeing thanks to Beatty’s dizzying performance. The star/producer/director/co-writer gives a hilarious turn which holds nothing back in terms of energy and “WTH” moments, particularly in the TV interview sequence in which Jay delivers one of the best raps ever put to film. The political issues faced in the film (said to be Beatty’s own) are real and never feel used by the movie, instead adding fire to a film already giving an honest and hilarious criticism about society in late 90s Los Angeles and around the country. An Oscar nominee for Best Original Screenplay, Bulworth, hilariously (and sadly) still holds up.
THE FRONT RUNNER (Sling TV)
The only film on this list to actually be based on a real person, 2018’s The Front Runner didn’t make much of a splash when it was released that fall, disappearing shortly after its election day. Had the film been better handled, this re-telling of the scandal that thrust democratic presidential front runner Gary Hart (Hugh Jackman) into the media spotlight, changing the tenor of the way people looked at politicians the news forever would have become an instant winner. Director Jason Reitman takes the standard docudrama storytelling approach and subverts it by focusing less on “blood and guts” of the scandal and more on the characters. The script (co-written by Reitman) is also fantastic as it poses the questions which spoke to the changing times the events of The Front Runner helped to usher in. Meanwhile, the performances, especially that of its Oscar-worthy lead actor, are phenomenal and do both the landscape and the era justice. What makes the film stand out though is not the way it tries to shed light or gain clarity about the scandal in question (Reitman leaves his opinion on Hart’s supposed actions “up in the air”), but how it chronicles the moment when the world of politics, media, sensationalism, accountability and judgment were all turned on their heads during that fateful week and served as premonitions which Hart himself alludes to when he states: “I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve.”
There are countless services to explore and great things to watch on all of them. Which ones did we miss that you would suggest to us? And, as always, if you’ve got thoughts on titles we’re missing out on or new services to check out, leave a comment below.
Till next week, stream on, stream away.