Our Film Selections
The films selected to be highlighted are grouped together in our six film categories. This is intended as a starting point against which more refined sets of criteria can be applied.
Our list of films is not intended to be comprehensive but covers a spectrum of work that is representative and can provide a foundation for dialogue.
Every film listed in our categories does not neatly fit within a standard definition of a "political" film. This is because of the ways in which we use film to advance the Foundation's educational mission.
Our objective is to use film as a medium by which political issues can be analyzed and discussed.
To look at the film techniques used by film-makers and the artistry of actors to explore the ways in which all are combined to tell a story.
To assess whether these films, film-makers and actors influenced the body politic and the cultural context of their times - or merely reflected them.
Many of these films are award winners and considered classics while others are less widely known or have become controversial due to changing social and cultural values.
With this in mind, as you review the films listed, it's less important that they be thought of as strictly political and more useful to think of them as a means by which we can consider political issues, themes and events through the prism of this great art form.
history of FILM
The history of film encompasses more than 100 years. Even a sub-genre of "political" films drawn from the entire epoch will generate a very large number of films, many of them obscure and some that may not have stood the test of time for either audiences or scholars.
Because we are focused on feature films and not documentaries, a number of films have been chosen because of their broad public appeal. In doing so our intention is to not lose sight of the capacity of film to entertain while also being thoughtful or provocative.
There are also films represented which have promoted fascism, dictatorship, and oppression. No serious study of political film can avoid them. We have included some well-known and controversial examples for the insight they can provide to darker times even if we find their messages to be repugnant. Among these films are Birth of a Nation and Triumph of the Will.
fact & FICTION
Our interest is in film and story-telling and the insight these bring to us. Our lists therefore do not make a distinction between films that are based on literal fact and real historical events or that are fictional representations set in a certain time and place to help create context.
As noted on our Home Page, films are presented in descending order based on the date of their theatrical release in the U.S. The source for this ordering is the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). All films are hyperlinked to the IMDb website listing for that film, which is specifically allowed by IMDB where acknowledgement is provided. We have done so by following the IMDb protocol which requests that the IMDb logo and identifying text be included when IMDb content is referenced on a 3rd party website.
War, Revolution, Propaganda & Protest
In his book On War, the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz wrote:
"The War of a community - of whole Nations, and particularly of civilised Nations - always starts from a political condition, and is called forth by a political motive. It is, therefore, a political act."
Reflecting this, our category is a very large one dominated by films dealing with America at war, or made by Americans about war, as in the classic film about ordinary German soldiers in World War I - All Quiet on the Western Front. Directed by Lewis Milestone, who won the Academy Award for his work on the film as Best Director of 1930, and produced by Carl Laemmle, Jr. The film won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1930.
Propaganda in support of the state, Alexander Nevsky and Battleship Potemkin, and films that promote the theme of the heroic American soldier at war, American Sniper, are represented. A different reality of young Americans at war as it was fought in the jungles of Vietnam is at the core of Platoon. And the tragic legacy of that war for some returning soldiers in Born on the Fourth of July and The Deer Hunter.
There are films focused on the personal sacrifice of men recalled to military service in Korea in the The Bridges at Toko-Ri, and the transition back to civilian life of a soldier, sailor and airman in the immediate aftermath of World War Two, as directed by William Wyler in The Best Years of Our Lives.
The revolutionary component focuses upon the Russian (Reds), Rwandan (Hotel Rwanda), Cambodian (The Killing Fields), and Algerian revolutions (Battle of Algiers).
The path of non-violence is represented by Gandhi. The brutal suppression of the Tibetan people by the Chinese Communist government and Party are represented by Kundun and Seven Years in Tibet.
The counter-culture that arose from the domestic reaction to the Vietnam War is the backdrop for an iconic movie of the 1960s, Easy Rider, and its point of view during one of the most turbulent periods in American history.
Treason, Espionage & Conspiracy
From films based on documented facts and singular events, like Bridge of Spies, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty and Munich, to old-style thrillers like North by Northwest, The Ipcress File and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the emphasis here is on the nation state and the role of individuals in maneuvering through treacherous, violent, and uncertain times.
The backdrop for many of these films typically revolves around state action to protect an interest deemed essential or important to its security, honor, culture or sense of national identity. What makes them intriguing are the motivations, skill, and creativity of the human protagonists in each story.
Though based on historical fiction, no two films better represent the potential for treachery that begets treason than The Manchurian Candidate and Seven Days in May.
In the conclusion to Seven Days in May, the great actor Fredric March, as the idealistic President Jordan Lyman, speaks in defense of democracy and the virtues of the American republic. It was scripted by Rod Serling, a wounded combat veteran of World War II who later gained fame as the creator/narrator of the storied television series The Twilight Zone.
As reported here by writer Patrick Kiger, John F. Kennedy took a personal interest in the film, including facilitating some of the location shooting in Washington:
Justice, Media & The Rule of Law
The themes and ideals, civil liberties and civil rights represented by this category have been inextricably linked throughout American history.
This is where we have focused on films that examine the freedoms provided for within the 1st Amendment to the Constitution - religion, speech, press, assembly, and redress of grievances.
How those freedoms have been challenged, protected or subverted by the legal institutions and checks and balances of our democracy are represented by films like The Post and All the President's Men.
While some films explore the role of the traditional American press and the heroic role played by journalists, editors and publishers at key moments in American history, others have focused on abuses and distortion. Absence of Malice, Shattered Glass, and Ace in the Hole add perspective when the power of the press is misused.
The fundamental 6th Amendment constitutional rights of the individual to trial by jury are at the core of Inherit the Wind and 12 Angry Men, and in Amistad the pivotal role played by the federal courts as the arbiters of liberty is at issue.
For perspectives on both the Lincoln assassination conspiracy and l'affaire Dreyfus, we include director John Ford's largely forgotten Prisoner of Shark Island and The Life of Emile Zola, Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1938.
Lawyers and judges who facilitate state-sponsored murder, terror and genocide in a corrupted judicial and political system are the themes of the historical drama Judgment at Nuremberg.
The vicious reality of the Nazi policy of genocide as implemented by the so-called "Final Solution", founded upon the rise of Adolph Hitler and German National Socialism, is represented by Schindler's List, The Diary of Anne Frank, and Life is Beautiful, winner of the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival in 1998.
Injustice, Freedom & Civil Rights
In this category our focus is on films that examine the turbulent history of freedom in the United States and the reality and legacy of slavery.
Our films represent a blend based on historical facts and events - Glory, Lincoln and 12 Years a Slave - and others connected to the same history but adapted from works of fiction, Gone With the Wind.
For Gone With the Wind, Hattie McDaniel received the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress - the first African American to receive Oscar recognition in any category. Both of her parents had been slaves, and her father was a Union veteran of the Civil War, having enlisted in the Twelfth United States Colored Infantry shortly after the Emancipation Proclamation of President Abraham Lincoln (Proclamation issued January 1, 1863).
The most well known early American film to deal with matters of race in an epic telling was Birth of a Nation. This film promoted a glorification of the Ku Klux Klan that was fiercely opposed by the NAACP, and yet, despite its obvious racism, mesmerized white audiences and influenced other film-makers because of its innovations in film technique. It was shown to President Woodrow Wilson at the White House, an event which has prompted a number of scholars to investigate whether the President actually approved of the film and was fully aware of its message prior to its screening and, more importantly, after he had seen it.
The classic American film about small town Southern culture and the struggle for racial justice, To Kill a Mockingbird, was followed later by films that explore changing cultural mores as African Americans demand respect, not only in law but in the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans. Represented on our lists by In the Heat of the Night, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, Loving and 2018's Best Picture winner, Green Book.
A more Afro-centric perspective is presented in films like Malcolm X, Selma, and director Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman.
Traditional values in conflict with changing attitudes about sexuality and legal rights are represented by Moonlight, Milk, Philadelphia, and Boy Erased.
Campaigns, Elections & Populism
These films provide insight into the conduct of politics, campaigns and elections in the United States as well as some of the great films representing the strong historical tradition of American populism. Iconic films like The Grapes of Wrath, Meet John Doe, and Citizen Kane, still listed as the greatest American film of all time by the American Film Institute.
In Citizen Kane, Orson Welles as newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane represents the fusion of capitalism, yellow journalism and the demagogue. In his campaign for Governor of New York, Kane promotes himself as the champion of "the working man".
How citizens choose their representatives and leaders, for better or worse, is the subject of films such as Chez Nous, The Ides of March, Primary Colors, All the King's Men and The Candidate.
No list of films about American politics is complete without director Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This conflict between idealism and corruption as played out in the fictional United States Senate of 1939 was only a few years removed from the Teapot Dome Scandal that sent the first sitting member of a President's Cabinet to prison in American history. According to press reports, the movie was screened for 4,000 guests at the DAR's Constitution Hall.
Attendees included 45 United States Senators and 250 Members of the United States House of Representatives. Senator Alben Barkley had this to say: "it showed the Senate as the biggest aggregation of nincompoops on record!" (Barkley, of Kentucky, had been elected Majority Leader of the Senate 3 months prior to the screening. He was later Vice President of the United States in the Truman Administration, 1949-1953).
Georges Melies in 1938
Comedy, Romance & Satire
Some of the most insightful political commentaries are represented in this category, among them the satire of Dr. Strangelove and the terrifying threat of nuclear war. The brilliant actor Peter Sellers is again represented in Being There and The Mouse That Roared.
Although many political films focus upon dark themes of death, destruction and mayhem, there is a lighter side and some of America's greatest film-makers have used comedy and satire - as well as romance - to shine a softer light into those spaces with films like Dave and The American President.
The Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator did this with their own, biting takes on Hitler and fascism.
Broadcast News and Network take us behind the scenes of broadcast network television. In Wag the Dog consultants and practitioners of the dark political arts manipulate both policy and medium to influence elections in ways the Founding Fathers could never have imagined.
And finally, there is A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès.
Director Martin Scorsese's homage, the 2011 film Hugo, based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabret, brought new attention to Méliès.
One of France's earliest and most prominent film-makers, Méliès contributed political cartoons to the Parisian weekly La Griffe under the pseudonym of "Geo. Smile" in addition to his main interest in film-making. A Trip to the Moon may not be, strictly speaking, political, but the observation has been made that the film "...can easily be read as a parable of colonial conflict."
from Georges Méliès (French Film Directors Series) by Elizabeth Ezra.
However he may be remembered, ultimately Méliès is represented on our list because of his historical contributions to film and film-making. His films are also fun and whimsical, and helped lay the foundation for generations of film-makers up to the present day.
It is reported that Méliès' last words were:
"Laugh, my friends. Laugh with me, laugh for me ... because I dream your dreams." - Henri Langlois, First Citizen of Cinema, p. 41