Neal Gabler’s ‘Ten Great Political Films’

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In this week’s show, historian and cultural critic Neal Gabler shares with Bill Moyers some of his favorite political films, including State of the Union, a 1948 Frank Capra film that Gabler puts at the top of his list. Below, watch Gabler describe what makes State a must-see, and get his personal takes on other politically-themed movies that captured his interest.

State of the Union (1948)
Gabler: “Starring Spencer Tracy as a businessman who is recruited to seek the GOP presidential nomination and Katharine Hepburn as his estranged wife who tries to keep him idealistic, this Frank Capra movie may be the best political movie of all, combining the American hunger for authentic values with Americans’ belief in the rottenness of the political process. Perhaps no other movie suggests as well our hope for an apolitical politics or our own political schizophrenia.”

The Best Man
Gabler: “”Gore Vidal’s cynical take on political brinkmanship with two candidates, played by Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson, vying for their party’s nomination — one principled but weak, the other unprincipled but strong and conniving. It is tough-minded and surprisingly modern.”

Bulworth (1998)
Gabler: “Warren Beatty plays a liberal Senator who is tired of political prevarication and has what amounts to a nervous breakdown that manifests itself as honesty. A bit of a mess but interesting.”

The Candidate (1972)
Gabler: “Robert Redford stars as a Democratic senatorial candidate in California who is turned into an aesthetic object the better to get elected. Very little has changed in American politics since this movie, which ends with the classic line: ‘Marvin, what do we do now?'”

Election (1999)
Gabler: “Reese Witherspoon is an obnoxious overachiever out to win a high school election; Matthew Broderick is the teacher out to sabotage her. To me, not the classic that some people regard it as, but relevant.”

The Great McGinty (1940)
Gabler: “Brian Donlevy plains a bum who is recruited by political operatives and eventually winds up becoming governor in this jaundiced Preston Sturges comedy that examines American politics as hopelessly corrupt.”

The Last Hurrah (1958)
Gabler: “Spencer Tracy is a longtime mayor of a New England city (read Boston) who finds his old-fashioned political maneuvers challenged by elites who resent the Irish and by an empty candidate groomed for television. It creaks, but there is some real sentiment in it.”

Milk (2008):
Gabler: “The story of Harvey Milk — brilliantly played by Oscar-winner Sean Penn — the first openly gay man elected to public office. Among other things. this is a canny movie about political organizing and electoral success.”

Nashville (1975)
Gabler: “One may not think of Robert Altman’s great phantasmagoria about country music as political, but it does revolve around a political rally, and it has more to say about the dreams and needs that feed politics than just about any, more blatantly political movie.”

Wag the Dog (1997)
Gabler: “Though it is obvious, this satire starring Robert DeNiro as a political operative and Dustin Hoffman as the Hollywood producer that DeNiro hires to stage a phony war to distract the electorate from a presidential sex scandal has its moments. If nothing else, it demonstrates how Americans think about their politics, which is negatively.”

Agree with Neal? Disagree? Share your favorite political films in the comments below. [Editor’s Note: We created a tallied list of your picks, based on responses to this article here and on our social networks.]

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  • Brooke Stephens

    A good list.  You got my three favorites in there.  Wag the Dog; Bulworth and The Candidate.  “Nuff said.

  • pat

    a good list but you missed 2 great films:  Bob Roberts (I don’t know why everybody always forgets about this wonderful film) and Distinguished Gentleman.

  • Toneequa

    Holy Bat Balls, are you mad?  What about “Dr. Strangelove,” “Seven Days in May” and “The Manchurian Candidate”  as well as “Advise and Consent.”  

    History is lost, and we are doomed!!!!!!!

  • bob not Roberts

    Yes, Bob Roberts! Timobbins, I believe. It was a good film way back in 92.

  • Jrsmalco27

    I agree…Bob Roberts should have been on this list. 

  • Ed Ness

    You missed Eddie Murphy’s “The Distinguished Gentleman”, an excellent comedy, but they did a beautiful job in depicting exactly how the political system works in the U.S.

  • Anonymous

    Bump Election and Bullworth from that list; replace them with Mr Smith Goes to Washington and Bob Roberts. 

  • pat

    Yes, that was a great one.  I agree Ed Ness.  That’s why I recommended it above.

  • Shelley

    I like all your selections. I would add Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Advise and Consent, Dr. Strangelove,  Manchurian Candidate, Bob Roberts, and Seven Days in May.

  • pat

     Old UncleDave, I can go with bumping Election but not Bulworth.  That was a monumentally great film.  But I totally agree with you about Bob Roberts.  Tim Robbins was robbed when he was not nominated for an oscar in that film and the film itself was robbed for not being nominated for an oscar for best film. 
    Both of them, brilliant.

  • Anonymous

    I think Bob Roberts should be shown on television every election eve like they do It’s a Wonderful Life on xmas eve. :)


  • Marilyn Welch

    The Contender

    All the King’s Men

    Also ‘Z’, “The Lives of Others”, “The Tailor of Panama”

    I like the first half of your list.

  • Marilyn Welch

    Seven Days in May, The Manchurian Candidate, I put them under Conspiracy Movies with Parallax View

    I’ve never seen “Advise and Consent” so thanks for the tip. Can’t believe I’ve missed it.

  • Wyndham Boulter

    “Being There” with Peter Sellers & Shirley MacLaine… most certainly belongs on this fine list of classics!

  • Anonymous

    good god how can Budd Schulberg’s A Face in the Crowd not be on this list?

  • Judith

    What about “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington?”  Hard to believe Neal missed it.

  • Marianmarracco

    I agree with all the comments. ‘Election’ really??  what about “All the President’s Men”?  Geez…..the perfect political corruption movie.

  • Judith

    Thanks for speaking up for the wonderful Joan Allen in “The Contender.”  The nation’s illusions about the perfect candidate certainly need to be dismantled. 

  • Michael Hughes

    What this list needs is more paranoia. Bring on De Palma’s BLOW OUT, Polanski’s CHINATOWN, and Pakula’s THE PARALLAX VIEW.

  • Thunthelionman

    How about the “Manchurian Candidate”.

  • David W Gebhard Jr

    How could you leave out Meet John Doe? It’s about how a group of wealthy businessmen try to manipulate a populist movement into a front for fascism.

  • Monetscgb

    Isnt that exactly whats going on right now?

  • Monetscgb

    excellent idea

  • Howardmphillips

    No way on some of Gabler’s choices .. how about Advise and Consent, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,

  • Anonymous

    Not a serious movie but one that captures the essence of politics is the Eddie Murphy film, “The Distinguished Gentleman.” Don’t turn your nose up until  you see it.

  • Paul B


  • BrendaB

    Delighted that you included “State of the Union”, a too often unmentioned and underappreciate Tracy-Hepburn collaboration and Capra film. Snappy dialogue and terrific supporting cast. Be sure to catch the scene about painting the White House.

  • Ch

    Bob Roberts

  • Framerick1

    Primary Colors
    A Handmaid’s Tale
    A Clockwork Orange

    A film need not be about an election to be ‘political’.

  • Michael Temlin

    Maybe not the best of movies in and of itself, but how about “Jesus Christ Superstar”? All religious considerations aside, it’s a good parable about how a message and an image is created — and then how it is slimed by the powers that be.

  • Mckniffj

    an essential “The Battle of Algiers.”

  • charle

    Dr Strangelove … for goodness sake ..

  • Bstfren

    Bill Moyers – my favorite TV Show.
    I can trust what I hear Keep up the Good work
    Shirley J. MI

  • Anonymous

    Mr. Smith Goes 2 Washington is surprisingly cynical along with the idealism people want to see. It is sometimes used to characterize real politicians it almost created an adjective.
    Network. I don’t think any movie nailed our situation better; underlying not directly on topic. Strangelove never. Depends upon what you are trying to convey; older films that promoted the modern disillusions probably are the best choices; but to get the concept to others a different list should be made.

  • oddsbodkin

     We’re watching an attempt at making this one a reality in Arizona…Fahrenheit 451

  • Lorne Bostwick

    That is provocative

  • Hopkinsgramma

    I’m with you bussdriver78.  Those three DEFINITELY belong on the list.

  • Del Ketcham

    How about ,”All the Kings Men” ? Broderick Crawford version

  • Tnscratchy

    Yes, though i think Mr. Smith is sappy.  If you thin about it and it is rather easy to conclude,  The Passion of the Christ is a political movie.

  • Andy Martin

    The People vs Larry Flint

  • Mark Bertram

    Already mentioned, but I’d vote for (the original) Manchurian Candidate. Will also throw Citizen Cohn (1992) into the hat.

  • Rbbaskin

    I think The  LastHurrah was the best political movie about James Michael Curley, the mayor of Boston.  The second best was The Candidate.   An accurate portrayal of the John Tunney campaign.  The third best was Mr Smith Goest To Washington.   A classic. 

  • yelnatsfavorite

    A very old film that has a chiller theater type title…The Man Who Reclaimed His Brain.  Was about the media (newspaper), politics and corruption…starred Claude Rains…I’d say 1934.   Have it on VHS somewhere….taped it from late night television…Chiller Theater actually.

  • 19obert63


    1.JFK-conpiracy or no conspiracy: that is the question
    2.13 days
    4.Citizen Kane
    5. DR.Strangelove
    6. Seven days in May
    7. Battle of Algiers
    8. Paths of Glory
    9. All Quiet on the Western Front
    10. Margin Call  

  • 19obert63

    I respect your choices; I pray that MR. Smith will arrive in Congress someday.

  • MG

    How about The Black Pimpernel.

  • Dthomas


  • Aj Aguirre

    The Ides of March was not bad. 

  • Bobc007

    How about “Advise and Consent”?

  • TexFX

    Primary Colors is I think, the most under-rated political movie, and one of the very best!

  • Wfry Co

    I’m a little astounded that no one has mentioned ‘Good Night, and Good Luck.’ ‘Primary Colors’ and ‘Network’ are two of my all time faves. ‘Malcolm X’ could replace ‘Milk’ — which was vague at best.

  • 19obert63

    I agree that Milk is weak; the documentary of Harvey Milk is strong.
    Network is outdated; Good Night, and Good Luck  seems relevant;
    I try to forget Primary Colors; I’ll stick with Reds.
    What is war all about?-Jack Reed answers “profits'; I think that sums it up best.

  • Anonymous

    I liked the remake of *The Manchurian Candidate*.  Meril Streep was amazing.  There is one place in her big scene where she just BECAME Hillary Clinton.  It was surreal.

  • Tom Swift

    ”All The President’s Men”. Excellent.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Some people will work
    Some people will not
    But they’ll complain and complain and compla-a-ain

    (Wrong wing rhetoric in a nutshell)

  • GradyLeeHoward

    All will be well in the Spring
    As long as the roots are not  severed.
                                                    Chauncey Gardiner
    (I like to watch.)

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Bill covered this on the Journal, but “The Wire” remains the best show about American meta-politics ever made. (I am not Terry Gross.) The new mini-series on premium cable often outshine the movies. I think Boardwalk Empire is good on Prohibition era politics too. Cable can be more critical because target viewership is smaller, and more frank because rated for adults. Name me some others:

  • 19obert63

    Yes, I forgot that film, it is excellent; the documentary by Ken Burns on Huey Long is excellent also.

  • 19obert63

    I’m sorry but I always thought the film, the book, the unbelievable story about Watergate was overly appraised.  There had to be much more about Watergate than what was exposed by these efforts; Redford and Hoffman  running around “following the money”, as if that was the crime tip of the century; it perhaps verifies that a good “buddy film”
    could pull off a Pulitzer, an Oscar nomination , arouse a standing ovation, while distracting the audience, as the villian sneaks out of a Dallas movie theater.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Yep, Watergate was a bottle-stopper just like the 9/11 Commission Report.
    The worst investigation that deceived the American public was Iran-Contra.
    This would have been a different country without that cover-up. Notice how there are few films about that one. And now Iran and Central American genocide return yet again, with much obfuscation. Pundits are trampling their own tongues.

  • GradyLeeHoward

    Like Wizard of Oz on Halloween.

  • JohnnyE

    American President
    Sunrise at Campobello
    If I’m Lucky

  • 19obert63

    Love the way you write; “pundits are trampling their own tongues”-great

  • Hjwfreelance

    Guarding Tess
    Air Force One
    All the Presidents Men

  • JanePretex

    a few I didn’t see on the list:

    Inside Job
    In theLoop
    Ides of March


    Thanks everyone for your enthusiastic comments and suggestions! There were so many, we created a new tallied list just of your favorites. See it here:

  • Delketcham

    I agree. My wife and I just watched it last night.  Perhaps more cultural and/or sociological than political but for me still qualifies.

  • Delketcham

    Ditto on All the King’s Men(Crawford version) Have you seen the Sean Penn version?  I have not. Thoughts on it if you have?

  • Janet

    So surprised no one mentioned Meet John Doe.

  • leticia

    1. The Conformist by B. Bertolucci
    2. Z by Costa Gavras
    3. Laughterhouse Five by George Roy Hill
    4. Bob Roberts bu Tim Robbins
    5. Farehnheit 451 by Truffaut
    6. Roger anf Me by Michael Moore
    7. Hiroshima, Mon Amour by A.  Resnais
    8. Tout Va Bien by J.L. Godard
    9. Rosa Luxemburg by M. Von Trotta
    10. The Third Generation by R. W. Fassbinder

    These are some of my favorite films.
    Leticia Cortez

  • Neil from Brooklyn

    How about Charlie Chaplin’s “Modern Times”?  Or even “The Great Dictator”?  Those helped him get kicked out of the country. 

    A lot of people also consider the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” very political.

  • Randy_hyle

    While these are all serious movies, I prefer a little humor and satire. My 2 best choices:

    The Distinguished Gentleman, starring Eddie Murphy

    Head of State, starring Chris Rock


  • 19obert63

    I definitely agree, especially with the Charlie Chaplin movies, forgetting the courage
    it took for Chaplain to do the Great Dictator is an unfortunate oversight, some have even written that Hitler put out a hit on Chaplin for his amazing movie. HE WAS BRILLIANT AND BRAVE.

    Thanks NEIL, for reminding me about a great world hero.

  • 19obert63

    Great list-I still plead for Stone’ JFK.

  • 19obert63

    Thank you, Bill, for providing such an educational and fun forum.

  • Anonymous

    How about “Bob Roberts”? A soundtrack album was due for release on Warner Bros. Records, but it was not released because the film’s writer/director/actor (Tim Robbins) didn’t want the songs played outside of the movie’s context.

  • oldman

    Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood — an interpretation of Macbeth.

  • Gerald W. Landrum

    Probably the most powerful political movie I have ever seen is Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” It is a bleak and hilarious look at the possibilities of being a sane man in a world gone totally wrong as a totalitarian state; though most would not abide the possibility tht the United States could degenate into such fascistic chaos, I don’t think we have that far to go from here, with civil liberties crumbling.

    Gerald W. Landrum
    St. Louis, MO