1. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)
Frank Capra was known for his sentimentality and flag-waving patriotism, but his most iconic films tend to be a lot darker and funnier than their reputations suggest. For instance, remove the divine intervention from the third act, and It’s A Wonderful Life becomes a film about a good man betrayed by a flawed capitalist system that favors the wealthy and crushes idealism. State Of The Union is less about the triumph of American values than it is about all the harm that could easily be done by politicians willing to compromise those values. And Mr. Smith Goes To Washington is rightly acclaimed as the quintessential love letter to democracy, but it balances its fierce idealism with a deceptive undercurrent of cynicism about the way our values can be corrupted by powerbrokers only pretending to work in our best interests. James Stewart plays an overgrown boy scout—in one of the film’s signature scenes, he makes a quasi-religious pilgrimage to the Lincoln memorial—chosen to replace a deceased U.S. senator because his clean-cut image plays well with the rubes at home, while his unworldliness ostensibly makes him easy to manipulate and control. But the political bosses’ would-be lapdog proves he’s a pit bull instead, and turns on the Senate’s power structure when they try to thwart his plans to establish a national boys’ camp that would interfere with their corrupt schemes. In spite of its flaws, the system ultimately works when Stewart embarks on an epic, heart-wrenching filibuster on the floor of the Senate in a desperate effort to prove his innocence after his enemies try to depict him as a cynical opportunist. Stewart strikes an unmistakably Christ-like pose as he fights for his political life, becoming a martyr for democracy, and the gold standard against which all future cinematic patriots would be measured.
2. John Adams (2008)
Reaching back to the dawn of American democracy, the HBO miniseries John Adams shows how the man who would be our second president worked to forge the American principles of fairness, sometimes against his own preferences. In one of John Adams’ funniest sequences, the then-vice-president (well-played by Paul Giamatti) is presiding over the first Senate and suggesting fancy titles for the president. Adams is enamored of European royalty and the civility it represents, but he’s laughed off by his peers, who prefer the simple, humble “Mr. President” to “His High Mightiness.” And so one of the nation’s founding fathers is undone by that which he helped found.
3. 1776 (1972)
History and entertainment took a very different tack on Adams in the lively, banter-filled stage musical and later movie-musical 1776, which seems to take as its thesis the old epigram about how people who would respect either laws or sausages should not watch how either are made. The Adams of 1776 (played to perfection in the film by William Daniels) is a patriot and a revolutionary, leading America to declare independence from England. But he’s also a blustering crank who herds Congress along by shouting and bullying, and via chicanery, flattery, and back-room deals. Among other things, he badgers Thomas Jefferson into writing the Declaration Of Independence, cozens Richard Henry Lee of Virginia into putting the matter before Congress, pulls Delaware’s Caesar Rodney from his deathbed to shift his state’s vote, and ultimately caves on the moral question of slavery in order to secure Southern support. While the film does ultimately respect the intellects of the members of the 1776 Continental Congress—and ends with the triumphant signing of the Declaration—it’s still a surprisingly bitter, salty look at how democracy actually works, how government committees reshape even the most crucial proposals to suit specific interests and prejudices of the moment, and how any material that makes it through the sausage-grinder is—as Ben Franklin says here, specifically about revolutions and “bastard children”—“half improvised and half compromised.” (Another delightful Franklin line from 1776: “Don’t worry, John, the history books will clean it up.”)
4. The Devil And Daniel Webster (1941)
In The Devil And Daniel Webster, even Beelzebub is subject to the laws and statutes laid down by the Constitution. Stephen Vincent Benét’s classic twist on Faust recasts the hapless soul-seller as Jabez Stone (James Craig), a New Hampshire farmer who sells, or rather leases, his soul to the devil in exchange for prosperity. When “Mr. Scratch” (Walter Huston) comes to pick up his bounty, Stone hires the brilliant lawyer and orator Daniel Webster (Edward Arnold), who argues that as an American, Stone cannot be drafted into the service of a foreign prince (of darkness, as it were) and has an inalienable right to a fair trial. The Devil And Daniel Webster functions as both an irresistible morality play and a thoughtful meditation on whether our nation’s sins—primarily slavery, which was still a going concern during the period in which the tale is set—outweigh its considerable virtues. Stone, Webster, and the American way of life emerge triumphant: even the devil’s hand-picked jury of the damned has to respect Webster’s silver tongue and tireless faith in the American justice system.
5. Dave (1993)
Granted, a story about a presidential look-alike who’s fraudulently installed in office might not seem like a story about democracy in action—no matter how righteously the fake prez wields power. But Dave takes a turn at the end, as Kevin Kline’s Dave Kovic unravels a conspiracy by the White House chief of staff, and works to clear the besmirched name of the vice president, who later ascends to office legally and continues Kovic’s policies when the real president dies. Faith in the system restored, Dave returns home and runs for city council, now confident that one good man can accomplish something noble through public service.
6. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
John Ford’s episodic look at the early days of Abraham Lincoln sidesteps the usual problems with portraying a figure as looming as our 16th president by catching him before he became an icon. In Young Mr. Lincoln, Henry Fonda plays Lincoln-in-the-making, an awkward, well-liked misfit who finds his calling in the law and uses wit and misdirection to get what he wants. He even solves a murder mystery at one point. Ford is working at the top of his game, but the weight of the piece falls on Fonda’s shoulders. He begins the film an unsure, unsteady young man full of good intentions. He ends it possessing confidence, knowledge picked up deep in the trenches of a flawed system and an unfair society, and a full awareness of the cost of doing the right thing. He becomes Abraham Lincoln, in other words.
7. Tennessee Johnson (1942)
Though the specifics of this Andrew Johnson hagiopic diverge fairly dramatically from actual, y’know, history, the movie’s heart is in the right place. By dramatizing Johnson’s rise from poverty and illiteracy to the presidency, Tennessee Johnson takes the Horatio Alger bootstrap myth to its logical extreme. And in its depiction of Johnson’s impeachment trial and eventual return to the Senate post-presidency, the movie champions the need for the common man to take his place alongside the entrenched, so that all Americans are represented in government.
8. Washington Story (1952)
A lesser-known (and in some ways better) story of D.C. idealism and corruption than Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, the comparatively low-key Washington Story stars Van Johnson as a squeaky-clean young senator shadowed by ambitious reporter Patricia Neal, who itches to catch him accepting a bribe from a notorious lobbyist. The problem? Johnson listens to what the lobbyist has to say, and changes his vote without any money switching hands. How is a muckraker supposed to squeeze a good scandal out of that? While the plot plays out, Washington Story takes viewers inside the personalities and mechanisms of Congress, from the bipartisan alliances to the little trams that shuttle people to and from the chambers. And throughout, the movie makes the point that while the system is corruptible, that doesn’t necessarily make it corrupt.
9. Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” series (1942-1945)
Okay, so Capra’s “Why We Fight” shorts are pure propaganda. They should be—they were inspired by Frank Capra’s encounter with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph Of The Will, simultaneously a vile piece of Nazi propaganda and one of the most accomplished films ever made. Capra felt it was his patriotic duty to counter with a propaganda film of his own, designed to convince our soldiers—and the public—that they were doing the right thing at a time when another foreign war was the last thing anybody wanted. And okay, there’s some stereotyping of the Japanese and Germans that certainly wouldn’t fly today. But for a project so hastily assembled, made with whatever materials were at hand (often years-old stock footage), by a man with no experience making documentaries, the “Why We Fight” series is an often-stirring, masterfully edited, intensely patriotic viewing experience. It makes no bones about the consequences of failure to win the war, and shows no qualms in contrasting the democratic system of the U.S., UK and France with the totalitarian horrors of Nazi Germany and the sadistic imperialism of Japan. Propaganda is never a good thing, but if we have to have it (and we just don’t seem to be able to get rid of it), it couldn’t come in a more effective form, or serve a nobler cause.
10. The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)
Far more politically conscious than a ’90s Eddie Murphy movie has any right to be, 1992’s The Distinguished Gentleman concerns itself mainly with exposing the biggest con game around: Congress. Murphy starts out the movie trying to exploit the system—his character, Jeff Johnson, gets elected to Congress because his name happens to be the same as that of a recently deceased representative. The movie holds nothing but disdain for the way corrupt politicians on both sides of any issue are simply in it for the money, and initially, Murphy is just out to bilk taxpayers too. But when he meets a beautiful activist, he realizes he can do something to change things from within, and uses his con-man powers to work within the system. Being honest, in the end, pays off—except at the box office, which wasn't terribly kind to The Distinguished Gentleman. Murphy’s message-movie days quickly ended, and he put on a fat suit and started farting his way to box-office gold.
11. All The President’s Men (1976)
Few scandals shook the public’s faith in the government like the Watergate break-in and its subsequent cover-up. But as Alan J. Pakula’s adaptation of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s account of uncovering the scandal shows, the spirit of democracy extends beyond the government. Sometimes concerned citizens and tireless journalists keep it alive, and keep those elected to administer it in line. Yes, shadowy men committed shadowy deeds, but nobody, not even the president, got away with it.
12. The American President (1995)
The American President is a government procedural gussied up as a romantic comedy, placing its love affair in the context of a partisan legislative battle. President Michael Douglas woos Annette Bening by striking a deal over an aggressive environmental bill she’s lobbying for, only to renege in order to pass a wishy-washy crime bill that will do little for the country, but is likely to win him a second term. But his love for Bening—oh, and his country—eventually wins out over playing politics, and he sends the crime bill back into the hopper, managing to save his relationship and the environment with one rousing, heartfelt speech.
13. The West Wing (1999–2006)
The West Wing’s regard for the executive branch borders on slavish, with the refrain “I serve at the pleasure of the president” uttered throughout the series’ run as a declaration of patriotic duty and pride. Hell, the very first words President Bartlett utters in the first episode are “I am the Lord your God, thou shalt worship no god before me.” The West Wing carries over a lot of the themes that series creator Aaron Sorkin first presented in The American President, particularly the inherent tension between Congress and the Oval Office, as well as the camaraderie among the White House staff. It also cranks the movie’s “flawed hero” take on the president way up, placing the country in the hands of an arrogant elitist who quotes scripture at the slightest provocation—but he does so with such panache and good intentions that we can forgive him that whole conspiring-to-hide-a-serious-medical-condition-from-the-American-public thing, right?
14. The Simpsons, “Mr. Lisa Goes To Washington” (1991)
Consciously echoing Capra’s Mr. Smith, this third-season episode of The Simpsons sends an idealistic Lisa Simpson to Washington, where her lofty notions of democracy are crushed by the realities of bribery and back-room deals after she visits her congressman and hears more than she’s supposed to. Even the Lincoln Memorial, too crowded with other lost souls turning to the Great Emancipator for answers, can’t help. (At his own memorial, Thomas Jefferson mostly just bitches about Lincoln getting more attention than he does.) But wait: there’s hope for Lisa’s fragile faith in our great nation. Once she brings the scandal to the public eye, the system works with comic swiftness, forcing the congressman to resign in shame. Go democracy!