The best political films of the decade
politics.co.uk looks at the best political films to emerge since the new millennium.
By Ian Dunt
The ten years since the new millennium have seen the world change in ways we could never have predicted when the clock struck midnight a decade ago. September 11th changed the political landscape completely, and will be remembered by most of us as the day the politics of the 21st century truly began. Hollywood was slow to catch-up with this change, following several years of desperate subservience to the government by movie-makers, journalists and opposition politicians. Even when it did begin to tackle the ‘war on terror’, its efforts were generally weak and forgettable. Only one of our political films of the decade concentrates on this topic, and it’s a British product. Instead, we see films based on a huge range of issues, from immigration to healthcare to Islam, which pushed the intellectual envelope and provided entertainment and food for thought for political fanatics everywhere.
Warning: this article contains spoilers.
It was the first movie to really push the superhero genre onto an altogether more adult and sophisticated level, but it failed to find the audience it needed. For those people who did enjoy it, Watchmen provided a brutal, intelligent and outrageously over-the-top portrait of an alternative America where superheroes existed, but with all the flaws of your average bloke in the street. Actually, they were often a little more flawed than that. Faithfully adapted from British comic writer Alan Moore’s extraordinarily successful comic series of the same name, the story imagines an America where superheroes won the Vietnam war for the US but were eventually outlawed following public riots. Moore imagined what superheroes would be like if they really existed, and clearly decided they would be paranoid right-wing psychotics with a delusional complex about male power. In one scene a government-sponsored vigilante called the Comedian fires at protestors on the street while his sidekick, the Owl, asks him what happened to the American dream. “You’re looking at it,” he replies. A film which deserves multiple viewings, one of the aspects which stands out is the mad combination of seriously expensive and impressive special effects with a message so radical it’s a surprise Hollywood allowed the film to be produced in the first place.
9: Children of Men
A curious choice for number 9. Alfonso Cuarón’s thriller, set in a future Britain, sees Clive Owen struggle to protect the first child born for 18 years. Based on a novel by P. D. James, the film is considerably more radical than the source material. Cuaron, who also co-wrote the screenplay, presents an utterly believable version of a future British fascism, based around a fear of immigration. The odd peripheral items on screen – leaflets for the 2003 Stop the War demo, or the main protagonist’s faded London 2012 sweater – contribute to making this one of the most innately credible depiction of Britain under totalitarianism ever seen on screen. It’s long, arching camera shots and brilliantly choreographed action sequences make it arguably the most exciting.
8: Bread and Roses
For a list of political movies to only have one film by Ken Loach is surprising, but it’s probably even more surprising that we didn’t pick The Wind That Shakes the Barley, his Palme d’Or winning film on the Troubles. But it is Bread and Roses, his little-known work set among Latino office cleaners in LA, which is the more impressive – and more political – work. Loach presents the hardships and camaraderie of the cleaners in starkly realistic and accurate terms. They joke to themselves that the people who work in the offices they clean are barely aware of their existence. Loach has an artist’s eye for the irony of people living so close together and yet so utterly far apart from each other. One scene, in which a woman admits she has been involved in prostitution to get money back to her family in Mexico, is particularly hard-hitting. It haunts the memory, in a way that any truly important film should. The pro-union message may deter some viewers, but this film offers probably the best dramatisation of the condition of the Latin American sub-class in the US available today.
A sports film for political obsessives, Ron Howard’s Oscar-winning movie sets up its antagonists with a structure that owes a lot to Rocky. Michael Sheen continues to prove himself the master of something more impressive than caricature, while Frank Langella took home the golden statuette for his portrayal of Nixon. Those with an interest in Nixon will love the movie, but its central premise isn’t so much with the personalities involved. Instead the role of television in politics takes centre-stage. Nixon famously turned down make-up when he was gearing up to debate JFK, saying it was homosexual. The studio audience thought he won the debate, but at home Nixon looked sweaty and untrustworthy. On that day, politicians realised the power of television. Frost/Nixon drives that point home while remaining commendably entertaining and amusing.
There’s something rather disarming about the fact three of our top ten political films of the decade are based on comics. But Persepolis, based on the graphic novel by Marjane Satrapi, manages what no other film has managed: to present Western audiences with a must-see tale of growing up in Iran, combined with an entertaining and accurate potted history of the country since the fall of the Shah. Funny, sad and even, dare we say it, inspiring, Satrapi’s autobiographical story sees her rebel against conservativism, love her free-thinking and tolerant family, and eventually come to terms with her identity. This is a tale with traditional points about the immigrant experience which still manages to come over as fresh, expertly-crafted and important. Anyone who has ever expressed an opinion on Iran should be legally required to watch it.
Despite securing the Cannes Palme d’Or and breaking all sorts of records with his anti-Bush tract Fahrenheit 9/11, Michael Moore appears on our list in honour of a smaller, altogether more subtle piece: Sicko. This polemic against the American healthcare system benefited from a far more focused approach than his previous films, which covered so much ground they sometimes lost any sense of narrative or coherence. Instead, Sicko presents an argument, based on logic and compassion, for reform of the American healthcare system – an undertaking Barack Obama is now halfway through securing. Moore concentrates not on those without healthcare insurance, but on those with insurance who were let down when the time came. The stories are heartbreaking, and Moore’s central skill – finding and deftly editing stunningly effective footage – becomes the engine behind a moving and accomplished piece of film making. A section shot in Britain even managed to make British filmgoers feel a swell of pride about the NHS, which is no small feat.
4: Goodnight and good luck
George Clooney’s baby is a black and white period piece, set during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witchhunt of Communists in the 50s, which still managed to be considerably more gripping than its colourful and effects-drive competitors at the box office. A sophisticated and beautiful meditation on the power of the media and the role of disobedience in civil society, the film garnered several award nominations and confirmed Clooney’s role as Hollywood’s burgeoning political voice. You could almost see Warren Beatty pass him the baton. Featuring a gripping performance by David Strathairn as campaigning journalist Edward R. Murrow, the film ends with a stunning monologue on the role of television in the world, which is worth the price of admission alone. It’s simply impossible to forgive the Academy for giving Crash the best picture award instead.
3: In The Loop
Predictable? Certainly. But In The Loop deserves a place in the top three not just because its relentless focus on Westminster life is squarely in politics.co.uk’s interests. It reaches such lofty status on the back of its pathos, as much as its comedy. Making an audience laugh in the aisles while smuggling in deep political points is not as easy as it seems, and In The Loop’s outrage at the events which led to the Iraq war shine through every minute of the film’s running time. An exceptional script, full of violent witticisms and some of the most imaginative and wonderful instances of swearing ever put on celluloid, closes the deal. The scene in which James Gandolfini’s general works out how many troops they would have left after the conflict on a toy calculator is particularly inspired. “At the end of a war you kind of need to have some troops left, or else it looks like you’ve lost.” Classic.
2: The Queen
There are a great many criticisms you can make of The Queen. Generally, one wonders if there’s much point to a film which imagines private scenes between high-profile figures, the veracity of which we’ll never know. More specifically, it treats Tony Blair with kid gloves, and approaches the issue with a harmless, almost naïve, set of assumptions about the power players of the time. But The Queen gets our vote for two reasons. Firstly, it brought British politics to Oscar-winning status in the shape of national treasure (?) Helen Mirren. But far more importantly, it shaped our perception of the period in a rather remarkable post-modern manner. Everyone understands that the movie is not an accurate portrayal of the days following Princess Diana’s death. But on some sub-conscious level, we have allowed the movie to inform our memory of the time. It’s rare that a movie shapes perception of history, and The Queen, for all its light-hearted tendencies, does precisely that. The monarch herself comes out of it very well, as does Mr Blair. Alistair Campbell, who receives a bollocking of the sort his fictional alter-ego Malcom Tucker dishes out in In The Loop, comes out of it rather less well.
1: V for Vendetta
You might not expect a serious political website to cite a blood-bathed action film written by the directors of the Matrix at the top of its list of political movie of the decade, but V for Vendetta had a serious effect on the look and feel of British politics that it would be unwise to dismiss. Based, like Watchmen, on the comics of Alan Moore, the movie portrays a future Britain, ruled by a totalitarian government. At it’s head stands John Hurt, who, ironically, played Winston Smith in 1984. He is opposed by an enigmatic rebel leader, V, who fights a bloody terrorist campaign against the dictatorship. The film had too much action for high-browed reviewers to appreciate it, and not enough action to appeal to a fanboy demographic. It consequently failed to make it at the box office. But it has since become something of a cult movie, passionately loved by many of those who watch it. It is very radical indeed and enjoys beautiful cinematography, with a firm appreciation of the source material’s aesthetic and philosophical sensibilities. Since it came out, the expenses scandal has destroyed the legitimacy of the British political establishment. V for Vendetta tied into the overarching feelings of the British public in the wake of the scandal and its imagery now pervades the political world. Popular libertarian blog Old Holborn and the anti-Scientologist movement, among others, have both adopted V’s mask, which was itself based on Guy Fawkes. With that in mind, V for Vendetta traces a line in British politics which stretches back over 400 years, in glamourising the lone rebel and the idea of standing up against the establishment. Those who celebrate Guy Fawkes or V for Vendetta often do so with a far more right-wing perspective than the film offered (Moore himself is an anarchist). But the overwhelming sentiment of the film fits perfectly with the state of British politics at the close of the decade. Its closing scenes, which feature the destruction of parliament with rousing music in the background, fits public sentiment better than any other film made since the millennium. “There is something terribly wrong with this country, isn’t there?” V suggests at one point. For good or bad, V for Vendetta is the film of our times.
Milk, Thank You For Smoking, The Last King Of Scotland, Changeling, Waltz With Bashir, The Quiet American, The Barbarian Invasions, The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Traffic, Fahrenheit 9/11, Charlie Wilson’s War, Syriana, Vera Drake