This list of ten political films includes everything from biopics about campaign leaders to innovative reinterpretations of the past (and even more imaginative projections of the future).
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1. Milk (2008)
Sean Penn plays Harvey Milk, a passionate American homosexual rights activist who became a public figure in the late ’70s after being the first openly gay person elected to public office in the state of California. 30 years after the assassination of Milk in San Francisco, where he worked tirelessly to ensure a brighter future for gay people in the city and across the United States, the Best Actor Oscar-nominated film, Milk, was released. As a tribute to the original events and locations, director Gus Van Sant even used Milk’s old photography shop on Castro Street.
2. Dr Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
While the Cold War was still raging, Stanley Kubrick was the one to savagely satirize Western fears of the atomic bomb. Comedy artist Peter Sellers effortlessly changes between three different roles in this black-and-white film, in which the American government scrambles for the President’s approval to call off a nuclear assault on the Soviet Union. World politics in the 1950s were described as “chaotic” by a group of clueless politicians and dimwitted army leaders with evocative names.
3. V for Vendetta (2005)
Based on Alan Moore’s graphic novel V for Vendetta, V for Vendetta is a film set in the year 2020. With the help of Natalie Portman’s female accomplice, a masked vigilante, the protagonist strives to topple the authoritarian British government. V’s Guy Fawkes masks have been adopted by hacktivist group Anonymous as a symbol of their political activism, despite the film’s apocalyptic backdrop. With the Wachowskis brothers, who directed The Matrix trilogy, helming the screenplay, the film is both exhilarating and somber at the same time.
4. Malcolm X (1992)
Spike Lee had always wanted to direct a major picture about Malcolm Little’s legacy, and when the public insisted that a black director take charge, he jumped at the opportunity. Following Malcolm X’s transformation from small-time criminal to Islamic adherent, Lee depicts him as the head of the African-American Civil Rights Movement, a more radical alternative to Martin Luther King Jr.’s approach. Denzel Washington plays the key role in Lee’s film. It is hard to overstate the importance of Malcolm X’s 1965 autobiography, which served as Lee’s primary source of information, in cementing his status as an iconic defender of the African-American race.
5. Frost/Nixon (2008)
As a British talk show host, David Frost decides to take on Richard Nixon in a series of interviews and bring him to justice over the Watergate scandal. Michael Sheen, known for his accurate portrayals of historical figures like Tony Blair and Brian Clough, continues in this vein as he assumes the role of Frost. Frost has to break through Nixon’s impenetrable defenses in order to extract a confession from him. Getting the interview is no cakewalk. The film may take some liberties with the facts, but it cannot be faulted for the suspense generated by the intense exchanges between these two powerful characters and the intensity of the psychological war that occurs.
6. Il Divo: The Spectacular Life of Giulio Andreotti (2008)
Giulio Andreotti, a powerful Italian politician before Silvio Berlusconi, was likewise guilty of abusing his position of authority. In Paolo Sorrentino’s biopic, one of the most enduring political personalities of the 20th century, who served as president of his country for seven consecutive terms, is examined in depth. While in office, Sorrentino uses camera and lighting techniques to suggest Andreotti’s guilt and frame him for the crimes he’s accused of, such as conspiring with the Mafia. Toni Servillo, who portrays Andreotti in the private space of his house, does an excellent job of replicating his caricatured looks as well as revealing a lighter, more human side to Andreotti.
7. No (2012)
A referendum on Augusto Pinochet’s fate as Chile’s leader ended in defeat in 1988, and he was deposed. No mention is made of the process that led to that momentous event, instead focused solely on the opposition’s ingenious advertising campaign that drew the public’s attention in a way never previously seen in politics. As an ad executive, Gael Garca Bernal, who has previously been directed by greats like Pedro Almodóvar and Alejandro González Iárritu, is the show’s star. To give the video a vintage feel, the director used a low-definition magnetic tape, giving it an appearance that resembled that of television news footage from the 1970s.
8. The King’s Speech (2010)
The King’s Speech, a biopic on the life of King George VI, is a great way to learn about this lesser-known monarch. The people of Britain are hoping for a strong leader as they prepare to go to war with the Germans, but the stuttering king falls far short of their expectations. Queen Elizabeth (Hellena Bonham Carter) arranges for him to meet with the speech therapist (played by Geoffrey Rush), who after a tough start makes great progress with him ahead of the all-important radio-address – his ultimate chance to show himself to the people as an honorable king. With four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Colin Firth as the king, the film was a resounding success in 2011.
9. Recount (2008)
In spite of its limited theatrical release, HBO Films’ Recount has all the makings of a political blockbuster. With a focus on the 2000 American presidential election, the film chronicles George W. Bush’s victory against Al Gore, coupled with a debate about Florida’s voting procedures. Al Gore strategists are asking for a recount of the votes and going all the way to the Supreme Court as they seek justice for their respective leaders. Both Laura Dern and Kevin Spacey shine as the confident Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris, who was ultimately responsible for the election of George W. Bush, respectively.
10. The Last King of Scotland (2006)
When Idi Amin, Uganda’s self-declared leader in the 1970s, took control, James McAvoy’s fictional character Nicholas Garrigan became embroiled in the human rights crisis. Dr. Garrigan never expected to be hired as Amin’s personal physician when he arrived in Uganda on a medical mission. His initial attraction to this monarch with an affinity for grand-sounding titles (one of which was “Last King of Scotland”) faded as he began to see the oppression and political oppression that the dictator was inflicting on his subjects. He began to look for ways to escape. As the Ugandan tyrant, Forest Whitaker was praised as the greatest actor of the year by reviewers, and he won both a Golden Globe and an Oscar for his performance.