10 Election-Themed Movies to Watch Instead of the Actual U.S. Election Results

10 Election-Themed Movies to Watch Instead of the Actual U.S. Election Results
Screenshot: Election / HBO Max

Tomorrow is U.S. Election Day and perhaps, if things go as well as expected, the beginning of Election Month. On both sides of the political chasm, the rhetoric is fierce and anxiety is spiking. The mess has people reevaluating their plans to stayed connected as the results roll in (or don’t). Some plan to unplug social media, go to bed early, or head into the woods. Personally, I’ll be throwing my phone into the Atlantic and then watching movies until I pass out.

I’m not sure what I’ll watch — perhaps a cosy screwball farce from Hollywood’s golden age? — but if you want to mark the occasion without actually paying attention to it, there are a host of election-themed movies to choose from. Almost any of them would be a lot more fun to live through than tomorrow is likely to be.

Primary Colours

After the hell we’ve all endured since 2016, it’s comforting to cast our gaze back a few decades and reflect on how quaint politics seems in retrospect. This Mike Nichols film, based on the “anonymous” novel, places a thin veil of fiction over the sex scandals that marred Bill Clinton’s first run at the presidency. A stellar cast, led by a game John Travolta and a hauntingly affecting Kathy Bates as the political advisor who places her trust in the wrong guy, brings to life a story of political gamesmanship that would feel deeply cynical if things hadn’t subsequently gotten so much worse.

The Manchurian Candidate

There are two filmed versions of Richard Cordon’s 1959 political thriller to choose from — the 1962 version with Angela Landsbury and Frank Sinatra, and the 2004 version with Meryl Streep and Denzel Washington. Hardcore cineasts will probably advocate for the former, but the latter is a perfectly entertaining film too. Provided you find terrifying tales of foreign and/or corporate interference in politics to the extremes of brainwashing and murder to be entertaining. Either way, both climax in an Election Day upheaval that would honestly seem like par for the course by this point in 2020.

Shampoo

I had no idea Shampoo was a stealth election movie until I sat down to watch it a few weeks ago. On the surface, the story of Los Angeles hairdresser/lothario George (played by Warren Beatty) juggling the many women in his life with all the skill of Jack Tripper in an unusually over-the-top episode of Three’s Company has little to do with politics. But the absurd farce plays out against a backdrop of the 1968 election, with the day’s newsworthy events playing out on television and in overheard snatches of conversation throughout the film. Whether or not George realises it (he’s too busy chasing after or hiding from the likes of Goldie Hawn, Julie Christie, and Carrie Fisher), Nixon’s victory signalled a sea change in American culture, and the death knell for the idealism of the 1960s. It’s a delightfully entertaining downer.

Election

Alexander Payne’s adaptation of Tom Perrotta’s satirical novel about a hotly contested election for high school student council president succeeds because it treats its relatively meaningless subject matter — has the outcome of a student council election ever mattered to anyone who wasn’t running? — with utter seriousness. Matthew Broderick plays a sad-sack teacher whose visceral dislike for overambitious candidate Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) turns out to be his undoing. In a way, I can relate — no one wants to see the wrong person win — but fixing an election is never the way to go.

The Candidate

Fletch and Bad News Bears director Michael Ritchie helmed The Candidate, a super ‘70s political satire starring Robert Redford as Bill McKay, the son of a former Democratic governor of California, who is hand-picked by a political strategist to run a seemingly can’t-win race against a sitting Republican senator. Since no one expects him to win, McKay is given licence to say whatever he wants to, without factoring in the counsel of political strategists. This proves... unpopular, and since the Democrats don’t want to be completely obliterated, they advise McKay to make his message more palatable to the mainstream. Unsurprisingly, considering he looks like Robert Redford, McKay’s politics becomes more popular the blander and more toothless they become. I’d point out parallels to 2020, but I’m too depressed and I have lots more slides left to write up.

Bob Roberts

Tim Robbins has become something of a liberal caricature over the past few decades, but way back in 1992, this self-penned and -directed satire about a conservative candidate who rises to prominence on the strength of big dollar donors and some catchy folk tunes seemed cutting. A reporter (played by Giancarlo Esposito) hopes that the presence of a documentary crew following Roberts’ campaign will expose him as a fraud, but, well, you know how having hope usually turns out. The finale, especially, is bone-chilling to anyone who has listened to Donald Trump rail against the press as the enemy of the people.

Head of State

Chris Rock wrote and directed this 2003 comedy in which he plays an “everyman,” a low-level failed politician chosen by a scrambling Democratic party to run for president in the hopes that his “authenticity” will connect with voters. Initially inspired, Rock grows more cynical as he learns the real reason the party gave him a shot — they were only hoping to pander to voters and build momentum for the next go-around — and decides to do something about it. The movie then enters the realm of fairy tales, but it’s nice to dream.

Swing Vote

Swing Vote, released eight years after George W. Bush took the White House for the first time after winning (maybe; see slide 10) the swing state of Florida, spins an absurd political fairytale from an even more unbelievable premise: Due to a malfunctioning voting machine, and entire presidential election comes down to a single vote in one state. And that said voter (played by Kevin Coster) is an ill-informed boob who only voted at all because his politically engaged young daughter forced him too, only makes the film’s message (“America is great because we all have a voice!”) harder to swallow.

I saw this one on a plane and I can’t remember how it ends. I’m not sure if this is a recommendation or not.

Tanner ‘88

Directed by the late Robert Altman and written by Doonesbury creator Gary Trudeau, Tanner ‘88 is actually a miniseries, but it goes down pretty easy. Mixing fact and fiction, it blends the made-up candidacy of Democratic presidential hopeful Jack Tanner with the real circumstances of the 1988 primary race that ended with Michael Dukakis earning a spot on a particularly ill-fated party ticket. The cameras investigate the campaign from all angles, from the campaign staff, to the media, to the voters, highlighting the routine absurdity of American politics. Cynthia Nixon appears in an early role as Tanner’s idealistic young daughter, a part she returned to decades later for the four-part followup, Tanner on Tanner.

Recount

This 2008 HBO film puts an impressive lineup of talent (Kevin Spacey notwithstanding) to work recreating the upheaval and uncertainty that erupted after neither George W. Bush nor Al Gore appeared to have definitively won the presidency in 2000. The story opens on Election Day and...

You know what, never mind. Don’t watch this one. If you want to relive recent history, try Game Change (from the same writer/director team) instead.

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