TALES FROM THE TRAIL: Top Ten Election Movies

Top Ten Election Movies

By Kelly Hayes-Raitt


All-the-Presidents-MenA recovering politician, I’m inspired by recent “top ten movie lists” to compile my own top ten list of great campaign movies. Chosen for their authenticity in describing tales from the trail are these films, in no particular order:

1.  The Candidate stars Robert Redford as a photogenic public-interest lawyer who gets recruited to run for the US Senate. As a sure loser who unexpectedly climbs in the polls, Redford’s Bill McKay slowly gets corrupted by an election process that panders to the bland middle. Jeremy Lerner, a speechwriter for Sen. Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 presidential bid, won an Oscar for this 1972 script. Best line:  In response to campaign consultant Peter Boyle’s recruiting challenge to Redford (“The question is whether you can put your ass on the line”), Redford’s character answers, “No, the question is whether it’s worth it.”

2.  All the President’s Men won four Oscars, including Best Screenplay for William Goldman’s adaptation of the Carl Bernstein/Bob Woodward book about the Watergate break-in and the subsequent cover-up by the Nixon Administration during Nixon’s re-election campaign. The 1976 film so authentically adhered to the Washington Post reporters’ experiences that set dressers took Polaroids of every reporter’s desk to recreate the Post newsroom on set.  Best line:  Woodward’s mysterious source Deep Throat (who, we learn three decades later, was the FBI’s second-in-command Mark Felt) advises a stuck Woodward, “Follow the money.”

3.  Primary Colors, based on Newsweek reporter Joe Klein’s book penned under “anonymous,” stars John Travolta as a Clinton doppelganger and bimbo banger who can’t seem to shake a determined media corps dogging his presidential campaign. Best line from Elaine May’s 1998 Oscar-nominated script: Billy Bob Thornton’s gum-smacking campaign consultant says, “The media giveth and go f*ck yourself.”

4.  Bob Roberts’ campaign motto is “Vote First, Ask Questions Later.”  The conservative folk-singing US Senate candidate is a guitar-thumping, campaign stumping “millionaire businessman” who performs from his album “The Times They Are A-Changin’ Back.”  Best line in this 1992 satirical mocumentary written, directed and starring Tim Robbins:  “I just wish there was a way I could vote for you 100 times,” gushes a woman in a fur coat.  “There is actually,” says Bob Roberts, expressing every candidate’s ultimate fantasy.

5.  Recount recounts the days and votes immediately following the controversial 2000 presidential election that separated George Bush and Al Gore by 538 votes in Florida.  The 2008 HBO all-star movie’s best line, penned by Danny Strong:  “The plural of ‘chad’ is ‘chad’?”

6.  Milk :  Sean Penn won the Oscar for his portrayal of gay activist Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay elected officials. The 2008 biopic, written by Dustin Lance Black who also snagged an Oscar, follows Milk’s bids for San Francisco Board of Supervisors. Features emotional archival footage of then Supervisor Dianne Feinstein announcing the assassinations of Milk and Mayor George Mascone by conservative Dan White (who infamously invoked the “Twinkie Defense”). Best lines:  “How do you teach homosexuality?  Is it like French?”  “If it were true that children emulate their teachers, we’d have a lot more nuns running around.”  “Politics is theater.  It doesn’t matter if you win.  You make a statement.  You say, ‘I’m here, pay attention to me.’”

7.  Enron:  The Smartest Guys in the Room and Hot Coffee, two documentaries about the impact of corporate influence in elections. Enron (2005) is a remarkable documentary explaining the corporation’s manipulation of the energy grid that led to rolling brown-outs throughout California in 2001, setting the stage for the successful recall of Gov. Gray Davis and the election of Gov. Arnold Schwartzenegger.  [Disclosure:  Several of the interviewees, including Harvey Rosenfield, a “Nader’s Rader” who has battled insurance companies for 30 years, have been clients of mine.  Archival footage shows Marla Ruzicka, the young activist who counted civilian casualties in Iraq before she became one herself, was my roommate during my first trip to pre-war Iraq.] 

Hot Coffee is a searing exposé of corporate efforts to limit consumers’ access to the justice system. One segment highlights a Chamber of Commerce campaign to unseat Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Oliver Diaz, a tort reform opponent.  After Diaz prevailed in his re-election campaign in spite of the multi-million dollar opposition campaign, business interests had him indicted for campaign fraud.  A month after his acquittal, he was indicted for tax fraud;  a jury took fifteen minutes to exonerate him.  However, while those cases were pending, Diaz was recused from the bench, thus achieving corporate interests to “remove” justices who stood in the way of tort reform.

8.  The American President, written by “West Wing” creator Aaron Sorkin. This winsome 1995 film stars Michael Douglas as a president so worried about his re-election he sells out his beau, an environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening. Best line:  Says the betrayed Bening, “Mr. President, you’ve got bigger problems than losing me. You just lost my vote.”  [Disclosure:  This film has a special place in my heart because it features actress Wendie Malick, who taped a robo-call for my campaign.]

9.  The Contender is Joan Allen, a US Senator who is nominated for vice president.  While this 2000 film isn’t about elections, per se, it is about “swiftboating” at its worst.  After the senator is nominated, her main political opponent plants rumors about her private life and past, including innuendos that she’d been a prostitute.  Although the rumors are blatant lies, she refuses to acknowledge them.  Best line, spoken by the maligned senator: “Principles only mean something when you stick to them when it’s inconvenient.”

10.  While Wag the Dog, Canadian Bacon and Fair Game could tie for plots that describe campaigns by presidential administrations to wage war (the first two are fictitious, the last is based on the Bush Administration’s proven “outing” of deep-cover CIA operative Valerie Plame, played by Naomi Watts), I’m reserving this spot for the recently released Ides of March starring George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ryan Gosling.  Looks intriguing!


(Ed. Note: For thirty years, Kelly Hayes-Raitt worked on dozens of campaigns in California before running for office herself, experiences she escapes through celluloid therapy and blogging at www.PeacePATHFoundation.org.  Her forthcoming journalistic memoir Living Large in Limbo:  How I Found Myself Among the World’s Forgotten chronicles her campaign travails.)

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