The past two decades have been characterized by globalization and increasingly polarized politics. Fortunately, with these politics came a wave of films drawing on 21st century challenges. Some have provided skewering accounts of American involvement in global politics, using our current context to reflect on historical events. Others have used historical events to speak to our current political climate. Many draw on age-old political themes, like greed, corruption, and ambition. However, the internet age has also allowed these films to bleed over into real world politics, causing real controversy and consequences.
After 9/11, the tone became significantly heavier, while patriotism soared and interest grew in geopolitical movies painting America as “the good guy.” Terrorism, previously seen as a vague threat, became a defining force of action movies during this period. 24 soared in the TV ratings. Some movies, like 2002’s The Bourne Identity, even chose to reshoot scenes in order to make the CIA appear less villainous. More nuanced depictions of the US’ political role in the Middle East would come around the 2010s. The past 6 years have seen the rise of a darker, often absurdist and satirical tone (as in Vice or Don’t Look Up), as a wave of national populism and international disasters (and Trump) stain previously rosy pictures of those in power.
Be they based on domestic or global politics, many political films of the 21st century have often shone a mirror to who we are as a country and as a people. How will these recent political movies stand the test of time? Let’s take a look at ten of the greatest movies to tackle politics in the 21st century so far.
9 The Ides of March (2012)
George Clooney’s thriller about fictional campaign politics hits home thanks to its strong performances and timeless themes. Based on Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon, it takes place during the democratic primary in Ohio and follows the early stages of a presidential campaign from the point of view of its press secretary as he falls prey to hubris and corruption. The title references both the timing of the primary and the assassination of Julius Caesar, which was famous evidence for how even the most beloved, idealistic leaders can fall victim to their own pride. The blockbuster cast, including Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, and Marissa Tomei, helps compensate for its somewhat clichéd plot.
8 Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (2020)
How can you continue to make brilliant political satire when the political climate has become a satire of itself? Simply take out a camera and shoot. Though it helps if you add Sasha Baron Cohen as the beloved Kazakh, Borat and newcomer Maria Bakalova in an incredible performance as his estranged daughter. Jason Woliner’s second controversial “moviefilm” in the Borat series toes the line between farce, prank video, and mockumentary. It’s raunchy and unforgettable, skewering American politics scene after scene. There’s Rudy Giuliani being infamously duped and the hilarious “blood moon dance,” among other horrors. Yes, the plot is contrived, but it’s a shocking, if appalling, product of America’s increasingly absurd journey into new political territory.
7 Argo (2013)
Argo epitomizes the increased interest during the 2010s concerning America’s role in the Middle East. While firmly rooted in the true story of how the CIA used the cover of a fake Hollywood sci-fi film to extract hostages from Iran, it takes a more complex view of the 1979 crisis, providing meaningful context around why anti-American sentiment existed in Iran in the first place. The stranger-than-fiction story makes for a fascinating portrayal of the political and diplomatic tensions of the time, all directed by its own star, Ben Affleck. Its perfect blend of tension, humor, politics and entertainment brought Washington DC and Hollywood together, especially when it won the Academy Award for Best Picture.
6 Milk (2008)
The biopic Milk by Gus van Sant tells the story of Harvey Milk, the first openly gay politician elected in America. Milk arrived in San Francisco expecting a gay refuge, but found prejudice and police raids running rampant. While Milk’s undying devotion to activism drove many in his personal life away, it led to real change in his city. He was willing to go toe to toe with anyone, delivering fiery speeches and forging alliances in unlikely places. Sean Penn’s performance drives the film. In his hands, Harvey is an imperfect idealist who will do everything he can for his community. While it ends in tragedy, the story is ultimately one of triumph, with one man speaking fearlessly on behalf of a downtrodden community.
5 Frost/Nixon (2008)
Ron Howard’s entry into the crowded field of movies about Watergate focused on the aftermath of Richard Nixon’s resignation, fictionalizing the famous interviews between reporter David Frost (the unparalleled Michael Sheen) and the scandalized ex-president (Frank Langella). Frost/Nixon garnered praise and award nominations for its complex portrayal of the relationship between Frost and Nixon (or journalism and politics), lending a degree of humanity to the president who had long since become a cartoonish villain of American culture. It provides a much-needed layer of perspective on Nixon as a figure in American politics, because beyond being a monumental political scandal, Watergate was the act of a deeply insecure man wanting to be liked and accepted by his country.
4 Lincoln (2012)
Spielberg’s moving interpretation of the most revered president in American history was widely praised and will endure as one of the legendary director’s finest films. Daniel Day Lewis plays Abraham Lincoln, bringing him to life as more than the hero of our history textbooks. Spielberg focuses on a short period in Lincoln’s presidency as the civil war nears its end. Meanwhile, the president faces a civil war of his own, trying desperately to tamp down infighting and rally votes for a constitutional amendment ensuring the end of slavery. At home, he struggles with the death of his son Willie, worried he will lose another son to the war. Lincoln meditates on what made the leader such an effective master of the era’s politics, even as he battled his own demons.
3 Selma (2014)
Ava DuVernay’s drama Selma centers one of the greatest political minds of American history, Martin Luther King Jr. David Oyelowo plays the icon as he fights for voting rights, meeting with leaders and orchestrating the famous March from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama that would become a defining moment in the civil rights movement. Selma’s thesis remains a prescient one: we can’t just sit back and wait. True change comes only with sacrifice, vigilance, and political engagement. DuVernay explores the internal workings of Dr. King’s life, including his marriage to Coretta Scott (Carmen Ejogo), who is shown as a political player in her own right. Of course, there is the unforgettable climax, “Bloody Sunday” on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, shot with perfect historical precision and excruciating tension.
2 The Death of Stalin (2018)
“Yeah, he’s feeling unwell, clearly,” Beria (Simon Russell Beale) says, gesturing at Stalin’s dead body. Entertaining, unexpectedly timely, and above all hilarious, the 2018 comedy The Death of Stalin transported viewers back to the 1950s Soviet Union, in the immediate aftermath of Stalin’s death. It comes from the razor-witted Armando Ianucci, creator of foul-mouthed political comedies The Thick of It and Veep, and the view it takes of those in power is no less cynical and eviscerating. The callous tone and dark humor (and bleak ending) caught some viewers off guard, but turned out to be the perfect way to approach the political scrambling following one of the bloodiest reigns in history. Additionally, Steve Buscemi is unsurprisingly incredible as a scheming, smarmy Russian politician.
1 Leviathan (2014)
Despite its name, this Russian drama directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev is actually the story of small-town politics and one man’s struggle against a crooked mayor who wants his land. That said, it carries the gravity of universal struggles with corrupt authority, and understands that the political system (no matter how small) can appear to be a destructive, monstrous Leviathan. Though it’s set in modern Russia, it’s inspired by the relatable story of an American car mechanic who demolished the town hall after a zoning dispute with local authorities. The film’s scathing critique of corruption under Putin’s government faced real blowback in Russia, where the film was panned and demonized. The cinematography dwarfs its protagonist, a small man facing a vast, oppressive landscape. The monster in the film’s title, drawn from the Book of Job, references the authoritarianism that seizes rights and property until nothing remains. This is a stunning political masterpiece
Cinema and politics go hand in hand. Let’s rank some of the best movies about politics, from satires and biopics to dramas and romance.
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