Election season has become its own segment of the entertainment landscape, with politically minded spectators (or “voters”) following and reacting to polls, debates, and media coverage with a fervor similar to that of sports fanatics or Oscar-season prognosticators. The fact that every campaign, from the presidential race right on down to a student-council election, has potential for real-world ramifications doesn’t change the fact that running for office is an inherently performative act, with each candidate (or perhaps more accurately, each candidate’s team) approaching their performances from slightly different angles. Being that cinema is rife with political campaigns ranging from successful to disastrous to downright insane, The A.V. Club decided to survey the field of on-screen candidates in search of tips on managing the spectacle that is running for elected office.
Candidate: Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an ambitious, scheming senior whose aggressive campaign for student-body president drives student-council advisor Mr. McAllister (Matthew Broderick) to plot against her so that he won’t be forced to spend more time with her if she wins. When the hollow-man candidate he convinces to run against her (Chris Klein) loses, Broderick unsuccessfully tampers with the votes, leading to his resignation.
Campaign strategy: Accept and embrace the fact that your victory is destiny, and anyone who tries to interfere with that destiny deserves to suffer. Also, cupcakes and posters.
Practical, universal lessons: The electorate is too apathetic to know what’s best for them, so it’s the candidate’s job to stir voters to action through words, actions, and baked goods.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Act surprised. Walk slowly to the podium. Be modest. Thank them for this incredible honor.
The Candidate (1972)
Candidate: Can a Democratic candidate possibly win the Senate in California? Sounds crazy, but the odds are so long for Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the idealistic son of a former governor, that an election consultant (Peter Boyle) convinces him to run under the condition that he can say whatever the hell he wants on the campaign trail. He’ll lose overwhelmingly, but at least he’ll lose on his terms.
Campaign strategy: Much like John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express,” except with actual straight talk, at least for a while. (“He’s a man who shoots from the hip and a man who’s hip when he shoots.”) Eventually, have the “straight talk” become a slogan covering the usual bullshit political rhetoric, much like John McCain’s “Straight Talk Express.”
Practical, universal lessons: For candidates interested in winning elections, idealism always has to yield to pragmatism, even if the compromises necessary to win put a distance between Bill McKay the private citizen and Bill McKay the Senate-elect.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: When the stress of the campaign gets to you and you’re tired of spouting the same old stump-speech platitudes, do a little off-the-record unwinding, whether it’s a laughing fit at a TV studio or mangling said stump-speech platitudes in the back of the car. (“This country cannot house its houseless, feed its foodless!”)
Candidate: As Warren Beatty’s satire opens, Jay Billington Bulworth (Beatty) has turned into the kind of entrenched, unprincipled officeholder viewers can imagine Robert Redford becoming at the end of The Candidate. With his soul corroded and ideals worn to a nub by special interests, Bulworth wants to commit suicide, but realizes that the $10 million life-insurance policy intended for his daughter would be negated. So instead, he arranges to have an assassin gun him down in two days’ time.
Campaign strategy: Since you’re going to die anyway, say and do whatever you want in your hopeless bid for reelection, even if that means reinventing yourself as a rapper spitting unvarnished liberal rhymes at political events. The news media will love you for it, and your moribund campaign will be re-energized.
Practical, universal lessons: Be honest and say whatever the hell you want on the campaign trail. There will be no political repercussions whatsoever. (Note: This only applies to movie candidates. In the real world, that would be political suicide. See Akin, Todd.)
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Warren Beatty does not have a future in hip-hop.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962)
Candidate: Potential vice president John Yerkes Iselin (James Gregory), running under a campaign of scare tactics about the evils of communism and a McCarthy-esque list of hundreds of supposed Communist infiltrators in the Defense department. He’s secretly a Communist agent himself, backed by his terrifying Lady Macbeth of a wife (Angela Lansbury) and her brainwashed, programmed assassin son (Laurence Harvey). Together, Gregory and Lansbury plan to use Harvey to kill their party’s presidential candidate at the nomination convention, so Gregory can use his feigned heroism and patriotism under fire to become the new candidate. Instead, the emotionally broken Harvey makes his own choices.
Campaign strategy: Whip up the rabble into a frenzy of terror and confusion by creating imaginary enemies to fight. Cynically manufacture images of heroism to hide behind. Kill anyone who objects.
Practical, universal lessons: Assassination is an unreliable political tool, a blunt-trauma solution to a complicated problem. There are more ways for it to backfire than there are for it to succeed. Character assassination is generally safer and easier.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Making out with your own brainwashed son after forcing him to kill the love of his life and her father is pretty creepy, and not a good way to foster the kind of bonding that looks good in front of the cameras.
Bob Roberts (1992)
Candidate: “Pennsylvania is Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in the middle,” James Carville once famously said of the Keystone State. And it’s the Alabama of Pennsylvania where long-shot conservative candidate Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) trailblazes, guitar in hand, in an effort to unseat the state’s incumbent Democrat (Gore Vidal). The only thing stopping him is the revelation that his fraudulent anti-drug charity is associated with an old CIA drug-trafficking ring.
Campaign strategy: Play songs off hit albums like The Freewheelin’ Bob Roberts and Times Are Changin’ Back, co-opting the polemics of folk heroes like Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan in service of a far-right reactionary agenda. This way, campaign events become rollicking concerts and the messaging is as effective as a chart-topping earworm.
Practical, universal lessons: The media loves a comeback narrative, and it’ll buy the folksy man-of-the-people act every time, no matter if it hides a radical or corrupt agenda.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: When put into song, the most extreme policies can be made to sound like appealing, common-sense solutions—whether it’s dealing with drug sellers and users (“Hang ’em high for a clean-livin’ land”) or getting ahead on Wall Street. (From the placards in Roberts’ “Subterranean Homesick Blues”-style video: “Take. Make. Win. By any means necessary.”)
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000)
Candidate: Governor “Pappy” O’Daniel (Charles Durning) and his political challenger, secret Ku Klux Klan Grand Wizard Homer Stokes (Wayne Duvall), are only relatively minor characters in the Coen brothers’ Great Depression-era comedy rewrite of The Odyssey. Their colorful battle for control of Mississippi provides a backdrop and several setpieces for escaped criminals George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson, who are pursuing a picaresque quest across the state. Ultimately, Duvall is run out of town on a rail when he denounces the suddenly popular Clooney and company for interrupting a lynching, and Durning publicly pardons the escapees, to his constituents’ delighted approval.
Campaign strategy: Associate yourself closely in the public’s mind with popular causes and populist issues. Be aware of developing issues and ready to capitalize on them. Don’t be a fucking Klan leader.
Practical, universal lessons: Good political candidates should be able to think on their feet, speak extemporaneously if necessary, and make hard decisions decisively and quickly. They shouldn’t get bogged down in tiresome staff debates, for instance about whether their campaign is in the process of getting its collective butt kicked, or paddled.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If your political opponent is reaping great rewards by showing off a midget, take the high road rather than hiring a shorter midget. As Durning puts it, courting the shorter-midget-loving voter base will just make a campaign “look like a bunch of Johnny-come-latelies, bragging on our own midget, doesn’t matter how stumpy.”
Black Sheep (1996)
Candidate: Al Donnelly (Tim Matheson) is a handsome contender for the Washington State governorship, squaring off against the icy incumbent (Christine Ebersole). Donnelly’s campaign is undermined somewhat by his oafish but well-meaning brother Mike (Chris Farley), who’s sent, along with an ambitious campaign aide (David Spade) into the Washington wilds to crusade for the would-be governor in backwater bergs. Unfortunately, not even minimal public contact can contain a Farley-sized family fuck-up. Along his makeshift campaign trail, Farley’s busted drinking with underage kids, destroys a log cabin, runs afoul of a shell-shocked Vietnam vet (Gary Busey), and unadvisedly screams “Kill Whitey!” and an MTV Rock The Vote benefit. In the end, though, the hapless hero exposes election fraud on the incumbent’s behalf, saving the day in that shambling, ass-backwards way that’s a staple of the cinema of Chris Farley.
Campaign strategy: Damage control, damage control, damage control.
Practical, universal, lessons: Never count out the embarrassments on your family tree. They could, somehow, by a weird twist of comic narrative logic, end up proving their usefulness.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: As previously learned in Tommy Boy, you can’t trust a pigeon-chested snarkster like Spade to mind an unstoppable force like Farley. Also, don’t piss off Gary Busey. Actually, that probably stands as one of the film’s universal lessons, too.
Candidate: The movie version of the real-life Harvey Milk (Sean Penn), a late-blooming gay activist who moves to the Castro district of San Francisco and seeks to become the first openly gay elected official in California. After a string of electoral defeats, he becomes a city supervisor, helps institute a gay-rights ordinance in San Francisco, and clashes with anti-gay political figures like Anita Bryant and John Briggs, before being assassinated, along with Mayor George Moscone (Victor Garber) by former Supervisor Dan White (Josh Brolin).
Campaign strategy: Try running on message alone, which unfortunately can’t be done in American politics, even on a miniscule local level. Learn from each one of your demoralizing defeats and build up dedicated staff and backers who will be the foundation of your eventual victory.
Practical, universal lessons: One isolated failure should not discourage a determined individual from achieving his goals—and in Milk’s case, not even repeated, high-profile failures. Also, the Twinkie Defense is a load of horseshit.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: It’s never too late to stand up for your rights and what you believe in. America is still fighting a painfully slow battle to give all its citizens equal rights, and political firebrands like Harvey Milk help to drastically advance that cause.
Wag The Dog (1997)
Candidate: An unnamed president caught in a sex scandal with an underage White House visitor shortly before the national election that will decide whether he will serve a second term. Spin doctor Robert De Niro, advisor Anne Heche, and Hollywood producer Dustin Hoffman get together to create a fictional war to distract media attention from the sex scandal and urge the public to stand by their president in a time of crisis. The ruse quickly spins out of control.
Campaign strategy: Lie. If that doesn’t work, lie bigger, faster, louder, and more.
Practical, universal lessons: People who are willing to win an election by any means possible can’t be trusted to use power responsibly after the election is won. Also, secret kingmakers shouldn’t get greedy for public recognition and adulation as well as behind-the-scenes string-pulling power.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’re going to make up a war with a random country, choose one with a natural rhyme that will make life easier on the folksinger you hire to popularize your position. And if your Big Lie needs a public, heroic face, a nun-raping psychopath is probably not your best choice.
The Great McGinty (1940)
Candidate: Dan McGinty (Brian Donlevy), a penniless hobo who enters politics when he manages to vote 37 times for the machine candidate in a mayoral election, at two dollars a vote. Suitably impressed, the Boss (Akim Tamiroff) takes him under his wing and grooms him for the mayor’s office, and then the governorship. But when McGinty falls in love with the woman he’s married only to further his career, he decides he wants to become an honest public servant in order to be worthy of her, and he and the Boss end up as exiles and fugitives from justice.
Campaign strategy: Make sure your minions have plenty of cash on them on Election Day.
Practical, universal lessons: Politics is a job like any other. The secret to a successful career in government is all about knowing the ropes and keeping your backers happy. Feel free to make flowery speeches, but don’t make the mistake of believing your own bullshit.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Your pals are the ones who brought you to this dance, not that high-toned dame sitting on the couch mouthing good-government bromides. Bros before upstanding political wives.
All The King’s Men (1949)
Candidate: Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), a Southern lawyer with po’-boy roots and a deep emotional connection to the working poor. When this mild-mannered idealist enters politics out of a sincere desire to help those less fortunate, he appears certain to be run over by the powerful forces arrayed against him. But after he learns to use alcohol to combat his stage fright, he transforms into a fiery, charismatic speaker and master politician. Unfortunately, the power he’s sought for honorable reasons goes to his head, and he becomes a dangerous, rabble-rousing demagogue.
Campaign strategy: Visit every county fair, grocery-store opening, and lemonade stand in the state. Wherever as many as three people are gathered, barge onstage and yell at the goggle-eyed yokels that them big-city boys with their fancy book learnin’ and all that bear grease in their hair can’t go on treatin’ us this way, y’hear?
Practical, universal lessons: Be wary of romanticizing your political heroes, for power is a terrible, corrupting force that can turn even a combination of Charlie Brown and Gandhi into Al Capone overnight.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If a candidate is having trouble making contact with voters, get him drunk. This will turn him into a great orator and an unstoppable force at the polls. It will also turn him turn into the hillbilly antichrist, but nobody ever said that politics is an exact science.
The Ides Of March (2011)
Candidate: Mike Morris (George Clooney), the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania and candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. He hires the dedicated young Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) as his junior campaign manager, whose idealistic faith in his candidate takes a hit when he learns that the girl he loves (Evan Rachel Wood), a campaign intern and the daughter of the chairman of the DNC, is pregnant by Clooney. After he’s fired from the campaign and she commits suicide, Gosling, now older and more cynical, contacts Clooney to leverage what he knows into a job as senior campaign manager.
Campaign strategy: Lie, cheat, cover up, and do whatever you have to do—cross your eyes, think of dead puppies, put out lit cigarettes on your wrist—to keep from laughing hysterically while reading the parts of your stump speech about the importance of personal integrity in politics.
Practical, universal lessons: Running a campaign requires a clear head. Don’t set yourself up for disappointment by losing all perspective and forming a man-crush on your candidate.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If you’re making love to a beautiful woman in a hotel room and become so distracted by the sight of the candidate on TV that you stop in mid-thrust, that’s probably a warning sign.
Candidate: Hal Phillip Walker, presidential candidate of the Replacement party. He’s never actually seen, but his voice can be heard issuing populist koans from the loudspeaker of a van that tools around Nashville in the days leading up to the big rally in support of his candidacy, while his people work to secure the support of several of the city’s biggest country-music stars. They sign up an impressive array of talent, but the rally is derailed when an unhinged young man shoots the ethereal singer Barbara Jean (Ronee Blakely).
Campaign strategy: Modeled on the words attributed to Sam Phillips, recounting his reaction to meeting Roy Orbison: “I knew his voice was pure gold. I also knew if anyone got a look at him, he be dead inside of a week.”
Practical, universal lessons: Show business, politics—why, in this age of celebrity and hype, they’re the same thing!
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Since they’re the same thing, maybe it’s best to leave the stage to the show-business people, and then they’ll be the ones who have to contend with any nuts in the crowd who are packing heat.
Man Of The Year (2006)
Candidate: Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams), a TV comedian and political satirist—think Jon Stewart with a higher sap content—who runs as a third-party candidate for the presidency, hoping to inject some truth-telling into the race. To his considerable surprise, he wins, but this is due to malfunctioning voting machines, a fact that the company responsible for their manufacture is prepared to kill to keep secret. In the end the truth comes out, and Williams, satisfied that his irreverent campaign has done its part to energize the political process, steps down from office and marries the whistleblower (Laura Linney).
Campaign strategy: Look at these two other guys! A Democrat and a Republican. They say they belong to two different parties, but can you even tell them apart? Oh, you can, huh? You say they’re completely different in their backgrounds, personal styles, and stated plans and goals, representing a clear-cut choice about the possible future of this country? Now that you mention it… oh, hey, did I mention that I call my penis “Mr. Happy”?
Practical, universal lessons: A comical wise guy can get people caring about politics in this country again in a way that no “real,” “serious” politician could, and he might even win, if they don’t count the votes right.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: Taking a year off from a show-business career to run for president might not end at the White House, but it may prove a more effective solution to the search for Ms. Right than eHarmony.com.
Welcome To Mooseport (2004)
Candidate: After being unwittingly entered into a small-town mayoral election, Handy Harrison (Ray Romano) finds himself going up against popular U.S. ex-president Monroe “Eagle” Cole (Gene Hackman). Harrison considers dropping out of the race, but after Cole hits on his recent ex-girlfriend (Maura Tierney), he goes at the ex-president full bore, hoping if he wins the election, he can win her back.
Campaign strategy: Be honest above all else. It confuses the other, more seasoned candidate.
Practical, universal lessons: To run for office means exposing oneself to public scrutiny and all sorts of political strife. Anyone seeking office better make sure they really want it.
Narrow, film-specific lessons: If both candidates promise to vote for their opponent, and then only one does, and he wins by one vote, just let him win. He needs it more. Concede the election, propose to your ex-girlfriend, and go about your normal life.