- Sony Pictures
Here we are, in that fragile liminal space between the end of Halloween season and the end of election season. You've watched every possible horror movie on your list, and you've reached the end of your rope waiting for the end of the chaos when the votes are finally all counted. Maybe what you really need is a sense of optimism—movies not about how scarily broken American politics can be, but what it looks like when decent people have a chance to turn the wheels of power. Here's a list of options you can program for your own home film festival about politicians doing a little bit of good in the world.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: It's almost a cliché, even for those who have never seen it, to talk about Frank Capra's 1939 tale of idealistic Senate appointee Jefferson Smith (Jimmy Stewart) as a sentimental fantasy. But like many other Capra films, it's got more of an edge than its reputation suggests, up to and including the famous filibuster scene in which Smith seems on the verge of working himself to death to do the right thing. Additionally, it ends on a note that we'd all like to see: a corrupt Senator finally realizing the terrible things he's been doing, and having enough shame and decency to admit that he's been doing wrong.
Dave: The premise of this light-hearted 1993 comedy—about a professional celebrity impersonator of the U.S. president (Kevin Kline) standing in for the real president after he suffers a stroke—was all over the place when Trump was hospitalized for COVID-19. Much like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, it's a story about someone placed in a position of consequence because others, specifically in this case the White House chief of staff (a wonderfully villainous Frank Langella), think he's a patsy who can be manipulated easily to do the bidding of power brokers. Instead, we get a look at what it looks like when someone pretending to be the president behaves like the kind of President we all wish we had.
The American President: Before he created The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin took his first visit to a principle-driven administration with this Rob Reiner-directed romantic comedy, with Michael Douglas as a widowed Commander-in-Chief whose relationship with a lobbyist (Annette Bening). Not surprisingly, since this is a script by Aaron Sorkin, there are plenty of speeches espousing the Way Things Ought to Be, as Douglas's president discovers a backbone it seems he had lost. Fortunately, the satisfying romantic chemistry at the center of the story gives it a sparkle beyond the writer's didactic tendencies.
The Contender: It might not seem at first that this one belongs with the others, but bear with me. Sure, on some level there's a slimy politics-as-usual film over this fictional narrative about a female U.S. Senator named Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) nominated to replace a deceased Vice-President, who then has to deal with a scandal connected to possible activities when she was in college. Anchored by great performances—particularly Jeff Bridges as the President—it's ultimately built around Sen. Hanson's refusal to even answer the allegations against her, since they're built around sexual Puritanism. Wishful thinking though it may be, it's wonderful to see a female politician whose response to pearl-clutching moralism by the opposition party is essentially, "Go fuck yourselves."
Knock Down the House: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez publicly tried to deflect the idea that this 2019 documentary was all about her, but let's be real here: It kind of is. Nominally, Rachel Lears follows four progressive women presenting primary challenges to establishment Democrats in Congress during the 2018 election cycle. All three of the others get time to explain why they're mounting seemingly quixotic campaigns, but the lion's share of the screen time is devoted to AOC. And it's easy to understand why, given her natural charisma and the fact that we all know she ultimately won her race. The film could have spent more time on what went right for Ocasio-Cortez that didn't go right for the others, but it's still a reminder that, even in the 21st century, idealism isn't always doomed to lose in American politics.