The American Political Campaign

Curated by Ryan Pumroy

“Screen Lessons” is a series on the 2 Shot where we focus on a particular theme, aesthetic, or person.

With “Super Tuesday” one day away, Ryan Pumroy looks at a select few films and TV shows about political campaigns in the United States.


Citizen Kane (1941), dir. Orson Welles

I’m not sure if there is anything new I can say about Citizen Kane, which has been hailed for so long as one of the greatest films ever made. For entering politics, Kane seemed to do everything “right.” A rich and powerful media magnate marries into a political family (he’s married to the President’s niece, after all). His campaign for Governor of New York looks fruitful, until his main opponent, who Kane doesn’t even recognize by sight, threatens him with blackmail if Kane doesn’t drop out. I won’t let you take the love of the people of this State away from me, he says to Jim Gettys. The ensuing scandal that tanks his political hopes is Kane’s first major downfall, and he continues to spiral until his death. Turns out politics for Kane fits into the film’s major through line; his fundamental character flaw: he desperately needs to feel loved.

State of the Union (1948), dir. Frank Capra

State of the Union is one of those Classic Hollywood-era marital comedies. Spencer Tracy plays Grant Matthews, an aviation magnate who is goaded to run for president by his girlfriend, Kay Thorndyke (Angela Lansbury), who owns and operates a chain of Republican-backed newspapers. Matthews and his wife, played by Katherine Hepburn, are separated, but they are brought together for campaign optics. Matthews is classically Capra – a rich man who backs the “little guy.” He is initially pro-union, anti-Big Business, backs FDR-style social spending, and even proposes a type of world government that goes beyond the United Nations. Needless to say, these aren’t the most Republican of positions. Over the film, Matthews gets drawn into the campaign. When it appears that he actually has a shot at winning the nomination, he gets deeper in bed with his advisors, compromising his basic principles, flipping on his positions. The scene above comes at the end when Matthews sabotages his own radio address, admitting to all that he’s a sell-out. It’s a powerful scene, delivered masterfully by Tracy, and it still resonates today.

vco8ev2Primary (1960), dir. Robert Drew

A landmark in American direct cinema, Robert Drew and company’s Primary takes us behind the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary race between Senators Hubert H. Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. Much of the legwork seems unchanged today – riding in the campaign bus, shaking hands, and stumping in gymnasiums, auditoriums, and anywhere people might listen. The still above is from a scene which shows Kennedy standing out in the cold, shaking the hands of disinterested would-be voters. Despite whatever office you hold, how much money you spend, or what your last name is, the democratic basis rings true: you have to get people to vote for you.

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The Candidate (1972), dir. Michael Ritchie

In California, Democrats cannot find a candidate to challenge the sitting Republican Senator for his seat. They’re sure the Republican will win, but they at least want to put up a fight. So who can they run? They choose Bill McKay, a young, liberal, handsome, idealistic lawyer (and son of a former governor) who spends most of his day in a crappy office fighting for the disadvantaged. He’s perfect, and without the pressure of needing to win, he can say and do what he wants. That’s until polls show a GOP landslide, and his staffers start grooming Bill to more moderate positions. Turns out he wants to win after all. He stumps across the State, letting his frustration out during car rides by blabbering and goofing on his talking points. He makes deals he never thought he’d make. In the end, Bill wins. During the celebration, he asks his campaign manager (the great Peter Boyle) “What do we do now?” He isn’t ready for this. The question is drown out by cheering staffers. Bill wanted to change the race, but the race also changed him.

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Tanner ’88 (1988), dir. Robert Altman

The twelve episodes of Tanner ’88 aired on HBO between February and August 1988. It follows former Congressman Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) on the campaign trail, starting off as a long shot in New Hampshire and ending up as a potential come-from-behind victor at the Democratic National Convention (where the production actually filmed). Many now consider it to be an early sign of the trend toward reality television. Real life figures such as Bob Dole, Gary Hart, Pat Robertson, Kitty Dukakis, and Bruce Babbitt make appearances as themselves. Altman and writer Garry Trudeau create a campaign that’s semi-fictional – it’s hyperreal. There’s realness yet fake-ness, fake-ness yet realness. It is in this realm that we see an examination of how the media operates toward elections, how candidates discipline themselves to 30-second soundbites and overly choreographed performances, and how people can succumb to the allure of power and importance.

Bob Roberts (1992), dir. Tim Robbins

Never one to hide his politics, Tim Robbins wrote, directed, and starred in this dark satire about an ultra-conservative, nationalistic, fundamentalist folksinger running for a US Senate seat from Pennsylvania. Robbins takes aim at Reaganomics and the New Right. In the clip above, Roberts sings the song “Complain, Complain, Complain,” which has tongue-in-cheek lyrics like “Some people will work / Some simply will not” and “It’s society’s fault I am a slob.”

The War Room (1993), dirs. Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker

From the New Hampshire primary to the General Election, Hegedus and Pennebaker take viewers into the “War Room,” where James Carville, George Stephanopoulos, and the rest of the Clinton ’92 staff spin and fight their primary opponents, the media, and then-President George H.W. Bush. The documentary chronicles the ups and downs of the campaign; the Jennifer Flowers incident and better-than-expected finish in New Hampshire; winning the Democratic Party’s nomination; the uncertainty on Election Day, which gives way to a solid victory. Carville is a standout. He brings a lot of charm, keenness, and sharp political sense (“It’s the economy, stupid”). Twenty-six years later, we see many currently familiar faces in the film, catching glimpses of Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Gwen Ifill of PBS, reporter Mark Halerpin, and current Governor of California Jerry Brown.

The Ides of March (2011), dir. George Clooney

Co-written by Beau Willimon, The Ides of March contains early portents of House of Cards – sinister backroom deals, horsetrading, the give and take with the press, sex scandals, and lots of cursing. The Ohio Democratic primary is the backdrop as Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) fights Senator Ted Pullman of Arkansas. Steve Meyers (Ryan Gosling) runs the day-to-day of the Morris campaign, until ambition gets the better of him and he gets the boot. But he knows secrets, and after being put through the wringer and having his faith shaken, he edges his way back in. Pull back the curtain, as the film urges, and realize that almost no one is innocent.

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Game Change (2012), dir. Jay Roach

One of the scariest movies I have ever seen. It’s 2008. The McCain campaign is losing ground to the Obama juggernaut. In an effort to play for the win, they choose a relatively young, female Governor of the great State of Alaska as their vice presidential nominee. Unfortunately, they do not properly vet her, and it winds up she is wholly unprepared to be President or even to weather the national spotlight. The scary part? We see the team behind the scenes grooming Palin (played marvelously by Julianne Moore) for the media and the debates, but she doesn’t really know what she’s saying. Campaign strategist Steve Schmidt (Woody Harrelson) calls her an “actress” in a scene before debate preparation (she just needs to memorize 45 minutes, after all). Despite everything, the film is sympathetic – we feel for Palin, Schmidt, and John McCain (Ed Harris). These people have good intentions, but they get eaten alive by the consequences.


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