During 2020’s strange, strange presidential race, it’s good to take a look back at memorable films (and one series) that give us a peek into the peculiar business of running for the White House. All films marked “not rated” are suitable for all ages, though the youngest viewers might have trouble following some content.
“Chisholm ’72: Unbought & Unbossed” (2004, not rated): A camera was omnipresent for much of the day-to-day operations of Democratic Congesswoman Shirley Chisholm’s longshot run for president in the 1972 election. Chisholm, the first African American woman to run for the White House, made clear in a visionary announcement of her campaign that she would be president of all the American people. But in no time, she was defined on all sides as the Black candidate, the female candidate and a spoiler damaging George McGovern’s chances to unseat Richard Nixon. With her powerful intellect, savviness and progressive agenda, Chisholm might have lost the nomination, but she made an impact on her party’s future. (Kanopy, YouTube, Google Play)
“The Making of the President 1960” (1963, not rated): Inspired by Theodore H. White’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same title, this documentary traces the 1960 presidential election, in which John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon. The film follows the race among Kennedy, Adlai Stevenson, Lyndon B. Johnson and others for the Democratic nomination. With Kennedy’s Catholicism and family wealth seen as obstacles, Bobby Kennedy, the Massachusetts senator’s brother, works overtime to wrangle enough delegates at the convention to put JFK over-the-top. (Note: It was Washington state’s delegation that secured the win.) If you enjoy the messiness and sharp elbows of campaign seasons, this is for you. (YouTube)
“PACmen: Super-PAC Support for Dr. Ben Carson” (2017, not rated): Donald Trump wasn’t the only political neophyte and populist figure running for the Republican nomination in 2016. Dr. Ben Carson, a brain surgeon with a compelling (if dubious) life story, caught the attention of many when he went after President Barack Obama, who was sitting nearby, during a speech at a prayer breakfast. This fascinating documentary reconstructs Carson’s political fortunes through the lens of two super PACs (political action committees) that begin with deep pockets and high hopes, but end with empty coffers as Carson’s star dims. (Kanopy)
“Recount” (2008, TV-MA) and “Game Change” (2012, TV-MA): This double bill of Jay Roach political dramas digs into debacles in the 2004 and 2008 elections. “Recount” is the story of those awful weeks following the 2004 vote, during which the winner (either Al Gore or George W. Bush) was not determined until a Supreme Court decision some have said stole the election for Bush. Laura Dern is inspired as Katherine Harris, Florida’s cartoonish secretary of state, who fancied herself a kingmaker. “Game Change” features brilliant performances from Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson and Ed Harris in the strange tale of a less-than-thoroughly vetted and unprepared Sarah Palin self-destructing as John McCain’s running mate. (HBO Max, Amazon, VUDU)
“Tanner ’88” (1988, not rated): Imagine Robert Altman’s subversive, 1970 “M*A*S*H” transposed to a clumsy, rudderless presidential campaign. The miniseries “Tanner 88,” a scintillatingly funny yet deeply moving satire about a former congressman, Jack Tanner, who returns to political life by going for all the marbles, is a delicious collaboration among Altman, “Doonesbury” creator Garry Trudeau and star Michael Murphy (“Manhattan”). Bedeviled by missteps (a freezing room for a focus group; the roar of snowmobiles drowning out a Tanner speech), the campaign improves when the erudite candidate begins letting voters know who he really is. A fun feature of the series is walk-ons by real candidates at the time from both major parties: Bob Dole, Gary Hart and Pat Robertson among them. (HBO Max)
“The War Room” (1993, PG-13) and “Primary Colors” (1998, R): Documentary filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker (“Don’t Look Back”) and Chris Hegedus (“Startup.com”) did groundbreaking work in “The War Room,” a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s inner circle at work during his 1992 bid for the White House. Campaign leaders who have since become much more familiar to the public — e.g., George Stephanopoulos, Paul Begala and Harold Ickes — are seen in crunchtime strategy sessions. Clinton’s most important consultant, James Carville, was introduced to many Americans in this film, and he comes across here as the kind of mesmerizing, colorful political animal who could have been a player in any moment of American presidential history. Mike Nichols directed “Primary Colors,” a thinly veiled drama about a Clinton-like candidate (John Travolta), whose charisma and famous empathy with voters is offset by his philandering. Emma Thompson is very good as a long-suffering Hillary Clinton equivalent. (Amazon, YouTube, Google Play)
“Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939, not rated) and “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940, not rated): John Ford’s absolutely sublime “Young Mr. Lincoln,” starring Henry Fonda, doesn’t take the audience all the way to Lincoln’s presidency. But Ford’s poetic narrative tells us who this man was, and suggests his stormy destiny ahead. John Cromwell’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” is written for the screen by Robert E. Sherwood, who adapted his hit play. The film stars a lanky Raymond Massey as the restless Kentucky bookworm whose political life is launched in Illinois, and whose ambitions to lead and emancipate enslaved people comes with a deep psychological toll. (“Young Mr. Lincoln” on Amazon, Vudu; “Abe Lincoln In Illinois” on YouTube, Amazon)