Gauging ‘the most significant political films of all time’
The venerable yet struggling national magazine The New Republic recently published a special summer issue reporting on a survey of several dozen expert film critics. The magazine’s editor had asked the critics to nominate the 10 “most significant political films of all time.”
Editors emphasized they did not want “the best,” “most enjoyable” or “favorite” films. They should be the “most significant of all time.”
And that, of course, is the challenge. Most of us might define “significant” as “influential,” “consequential” or “noteworthy,” yet subjectivity gets involved. But defining “political” is even harder. Some people might consider only our American system of elections and our three branches of government. Others might understandably consider social and economic differences to be an important part of politics.
The magazine realized any proposed list would provoke some controversy. The editors welcomed readers to submit their contending choices. Readers can download their list from the internet.
Most of the 70 film critics The New Republic surveyed were white male reporters from cities like Los Angeles, Chicago and especially New York. Included were film historian Peter Biskind, The New Yorker’s David Denby and NPR’s David Edelstein. Armond White of National Review was probably one of the few conservatives among them. The editors then weighed all the nominations and published a list of 100 films.
About 30 of the films were made in other countries. The top five foreign films were: “The Battle of Algiers” (1966); “Triumph of The Will” (1935); “Battleship Potemkin” (1925); “Shoah” (1985); and “The Conformist” (1970).
The top 10 “most significant” American films nominated by this distinguished jury were: “The Manchurian Candidate” (1962); “Dr. Strangelove” (1964); “All the President’s Men” (1976); “Birth of a Nation” (1915); “Do the Right Thing” (1989); “A Face in the Crowd” (1957); “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939); “Harlan County USA” (1976); “Election” (1999); and “Malcolm X” (1992).
“The Manchurian Candidate” captured the paranoia of the 1950s, mocked national politicians and urged viewers to be careful of conspiracy theories and ideological messaging. It is a great if convoluted classic.
“Dr. Strangelove” was an urgent warning about the need for accountable processes to deal with weapons of mass destruction — atomic and hydrogen bombs The slapstick humor, mocking our military planners and national security leaders, dramatized the real danger of accidental nuclear war.
“All the President’s Men” celebrates two young Washington Post reporters who relentlessly tracked down the leads that ultimately helped unravel the Watergate scandals of President Richard Nixon.
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” directed by Frank Capra, and starring Jimmy Stewart, is the best liked and most patriotic American film in our nation’s history. The film celebrates a newly appointed Senator Jefferson Smith who opposes a corrupt political machine back in his home state, and a corrupt U.S. Senate. Senator Smith’s success embodies the American ideal of the ordinary citizen making a difference. Yet the challenging concern raised by the film is that the American Experiment needs far more politicians like Senator Jefferson Smith if it is to live up to our dreams of Constitutional democracy.
Those four choices were obvious and well deserved. The next few are more debatable.
“Birth of a Nation,” a three-hour silent film made in 1915,was the most racist and embarrassing film in our nation’s history. Set in the aftermath of the Civil War, it portrayed African-Americans negatively and celebrated and justified the Ku Klux Klan as a necessary organization to protect white southerners. The film was a huge box office success and the first film ever shown at the White House. At the time, the Klan used the film to recruit members, just as the U.S. Navy would later use “Top Gun” to recruit pilots.
“A Face in the Crowd” is a lesser known yet important film that tells the story of a shiftless bum who, unexpectedly, becomes a radio-and-television star. As a guitar-playing singer and populist celebrity, he advises and promotes a conservative candidate for president of the United States. Even though he eventually implodes, the film’s narrative is a haunting warning to be wary of celebrity populists and reality TV stars who jump into the realm of politics.
“Do the Right Thing,” by director Spike Lee, is a beautifully filmed story of one long hot summer day in a racially mixed and challenged neighborhood in Brooklyn. Spike Lee raises tough questions about just what is the right way to address urban racial tensions: Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr’s protests and economic boycotts or Malcom X’s more radical approach. This film won prizes and generated debates — as Lee hoped it would.
“Malcolm X” is a second Spike Lee film, based on Alex Haley’s book, “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.” Malcolm X, who was born Malcom Little in Michigan but later moved to Boston, spent six years in prison where he was converted to the Nation of Islam. He became a religious and political crusader who, transcending his earlier calls for racial separatism, called for racial harmony and spiritual collaboration among disparate religions and among the races. He was assassinated by religious zealots in 1965. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated three years later.
“Harlan County USA” is a documentary about a yearlong miners’ strike in eastern Kentucky. It was a low budget film directed and produced by Barbara Koppel, the only woman honored in this top-10 list of American significant political films. It is graphic, disturbing and perhaps the best film about strikes.
The film celebrates the courage and resilience of the miners, and especially the wives of the miners. It leaves little doubt that Duke Power Company is the villain. Despite the brutality and horrors of the working conditions, it carries a message of hope about struggling for fairness and workers’ rights.
“Election” is the most debatable of these “most significant” top-10 film nominees. It was a box office dud, yet it has become a satirically dark camp classic about the role ambition plays in politics. The film gives us Tracy Flick, acted by Reese Witherspoon, who is a smart, cheery, relentlessly ambitious 16-year-old who wants to become her high school’s student body president. She volunteers for everything, has all the right answers in class but she is annoying and a threat to some people including the student government advisor. Does Tracy try too hard and let her ambition show too much?
The movie mocks not only the ambitious Tracy Flick, but also high school politics, an easy target. But it is also a mean-spirited demonization of Tracy Flick, a snarky stereotyping of ambitious political women who might choose to run for office. We are not sure most of the critics understood this.
The real villain in “Election is Mr. McAllister,” the three-time teacher-of-the-year social studies teacher, who does everything he can, including hiding two ballots, to sabotage her success. His behavior as a teacher is atrocious.
The film highlights a central paradox of American elections: a successful candidate has to be driven and ambitious, yet also has to go great lengths to conceal her ambition. This film suggests how deeply embedded anti-feminist sentiment is in our cultural fabric. If Tracy Flick failed to handle her ambition carefully, it was because women, even more than men, must not appear to be too ambitious.
The film is funny yet not, in our view, among the most significant political films “of all time.” At least not ranked this high.
Kudos to The New Republic for triggering this provocative debate. Readers should download the list from the internet and study the critics’ top list and challenge it. We don’t agree with some of the rankings. We would have ranked “All the President’s Men much higher than they did. And we nominate the following films they completely overlooked that deserve to be on their longer list: “High Noon,” “12 Angry Men,” “Catch 22,” “Seven Days in May,” “Grapes of Wrath,” “Gettysburg,” “Casablanca,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “and On The Waterfront.”
What are your most significant political films of all time?
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are news columnists who write about Colorado and national politics.