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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