1. Mr. Smith Goes To Washington (1939)
Frank Capra's super-sappy melodrama isn't just the quintessential movie about American government at work, it's a handy guide to congressional procedure. An idealistic young nature-lover (played by Jimmy Stewart) gets appointed to a vacant Senate seat, decides to push through a bill to establish a national boys' camp, and ends up framed in a graft scandal that makes Teapot Dome look like Travelgate. Along the way to redemption, he learns when not to yield to a question on the senate floor and finds a way to make filibustering look heroic in the days before Bill Frist's "nuclear option."
2. All The King's Men (1949)
As Mojo Nixon once sang, "You can vote for one fool or another." But keep on voting for the same fools over and over, and eventually they'll get entrenched, get corrupt, and start building a political machine to keep the paychecks coming. Robert Rossen's adaptation of Robert Penn Warren's novel—based on Huey Long's manipulation of the old-boy system in Louisiana—stars Broderick Crawford as a political pawn who steals power and becomes a tyrant. What was that other song? The one about meeting the new boss?
3. Washington Story (1952)
A lesser-known (and in some ways better) story of D.C. idealism and corruption than Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, Robert Pirosh's Washington Story stars Van Johnson as a squeaky-clean young senator—why are they always senators?—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 mind without any money switching hands. How do you squeeze a good scandal out of that? While the plot plays out, Pirosh 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.
4. Advise & Consent (1962)
What's more exciting than a Senate confirmation hearing, where party hacks on both sides of the aisle deliver 10-minute stump speeches in lieu of actually questioning the nominee? Oh, that's right… everything's more exciting than a Senate confirmation hearing. But Advise & Consent injects some drama by dredging up a gay scandal for one of the major opponents of proposed Secretary Of State Henry Fonda. You will learn how a nominee gets processed, from the hearings to the floor debates to late-night sleuthing in gay bars.
5. Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb (1964)
Going to war is the most serious use to which our money can be put, especially when it's a world-destroying nuclear war, and especially when it happens because of a technical glitch. But how can the Army find money to fix its electronic communication problems when so much of the budget goes to maintaining The War Room and The Big Board? We can't afford a Big Board Gap!
6. McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971)
Notorious gunslinger Warren Beatty drifts into a snowy Northwestern outpost and sets up a brothel/casino that—with the help of classy opium addict Julie Christie—becomes the kind of success that whole towns are built around. Then a big consortium swoops in with a lowball offer, backed by hired goons, and when Beatty goes looking for help, he lands in the office of politician William Devane, who promises to use Beatty's situation as a keynote in a campaign of trustbusting. And while Beatty waits for Devane to get elected and take his case to the people? He shuffles through the drifts in a heavy fur coat, dodging bullets that an elephantine government can't protect him from.
7. Close Encounters Of The Third Kind (1977)
Our federal government is at its best and worst in Steven Spielberg's naturalist science-fiction masterpiece. First the Army bullies citizens to prevent them from knowing the truth about UFOs. (Boo, government!) Then the various agencies pull together to greet our alien visitors in the spirit of peace and curiosity. (Yay, government!) If there were a box on our tax forms to donate a dollar toward building one of those multicolored light-up organs, who wouldn't check it?
8. Stripes (1981)
The days of FDR's "alphabet soup" may be over, but the government will still provide a job to anyone willing to pick up a gun. For Bill Murray and Harold Ramis, the Army offers a chance to find some purpose in their slobby lives. For John Candy, it's a health spa with benefits. And for drill sergeant Warren Oates, it's a lifelong calling, training today's dead-end kids to operate the super-weapons of tomorrow. Be all that you can be, slackers.
9. The Right Stuff (1983)
Mistakes may be made, but with the will and the resources, the government can still dare great things. In Philip Kaufman's clear-eyed distillation of Tom Wolfe's starry-eyed novel, bureaucracy and red tape almost choke off the ambitions of a handful of test pilots who want to sit on top of rockets and scrape the atmosphere, but with persistence and imagination, they get the job done. Whether the job was worth doing is still up for debate, but there are still few better testaments to the power of collective ingenuity.
10. The Times Of Harvey Milk (1984)
Here now is civic life in all its promise and horror, in a documentary about an openly gay San Francisco politician who goes from hippie to hero, humble servant to PR maestro, and icon to martyr. The Times Of Harvey Milk covers the organized radicalization of San Francisco after the counterculture figured out how to become The Man. It also covers the assassination of Milk and Mayor George Moscone by conservative politician Dan White, whose trial gave the old-guard California power structure a chance to make its voice heard in opposition to an unstoppable libertine wave. In its own bitter way, this is a movie about how and why the system works.