Thanks to the vast expansion of our cable news industry, you could spend hours tonight watching talking heads speculate about the potential results of the Iowa Caucuses tonight. But fortunately, you don’t have to! You can keep hitting refresh on Twitter or the news site of your choice while watching any one of these movies, which actually get the mechanics of politics right in a way that most others don’t, and that most snap-judgment analysts won’t.
1. Primary Colors (1998): Unlike most political movies, which set up a dichotomy between often-unnamed but clearly defined members of opposite parties, the vast majority of Primary Colors takes place during the Democratic primary. That means you get tough debates, hilariously incompetent campaign volunteers who get whipped into a professional fighting force, the entrance of a late-breaking messiah candidate who turns out to be not-so-messianic, and best of all, a deeply cranky conversation about a meeting with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. This is politics as informed and presented by people who have actually been there.
2. Definitely, Maybe (2008): This movie may be disguised as a romantic comedy, but it’s a savvy look at the disappointment of the Clinton years that draws its small dramas from an actual understanding of political pressure points. Fundraising gets you places. Both candidates and journalists have a dangerous desire to be liked. Not putting union bugs on Democratic paper goods during a campaign is disastrous. The president probably will not remember his early volunteers years down the road.
3. The American President (1995) and Thank You For Smoking (2005): It’s sort of amazing how naive Aaron Sorkin is about lobbying in The American President, a movie that makes the profession look so sexy and principled it’s sort of shocking it wasn’t a product of the influence industry itself. Thank You For Smoking is a loopy tonic to that misconception. Watch this double-header as we gear up for a Super PAC-filled election year, and vow not to get fooled again.
4. Contagion (2011): In the hysteria of an election year, it can be easy to forget that there’s life beyond politics and elected officials. But a lot of what’s important about presidential candidates is the people they’d appoint to serve under them, and any administration is limited in the changes it can make by layers of existing bureaucracy, regulations, and the time it takes to turn a ship much bigger than the Titanic around. Contagion‘s a critically important reminder that in crisis, it’s not always a matter of whose finger is on the button.
5. All the President’s Men (1976) and Dick (1999): These two very different retellings of the same essential story make two different but critically important points. First, journalism is hard, and it’s difficult to do it even when you have all the right breaks and time in which to do it: so how hard must it be to nail down true stories on the campaign trail, where everyone is sleep-deprived and exhausted, and events are moving extraordinarily rapidly. Second, politicians are people, often eccentric, obnoxious people. They want power, but they want other things too, including pot brownies and to kick their dogs.