A Sequel: The Best Film Ever Made About Politics

By James M. Wall

The 2020 presidential election is rapidly approaching. With the national day of mourning for George Herbert Walker Bush on Wednesday, closure arrives for our 41st President.

At the same time, candidates are lining up for the presidential election of 2020.

Ten years ago, as the 2008 party conventions loomed, I wrote a Wall Writings posting that identified outstanding political films, ending with my choice as to the best film ever made about politics.

This feels like the right time to revisit the Wall Writings archives to see if my 2008 analysis still stands. After a close look, I find that the films have not changed, but what has changed is the national culture within which the films are evaluated.

What follows is a revised version of that 2008 posting, a sequel written ten years later. Of course, “best” is a personal choice. Readers will have their own list, and will conclude for themselves what is “best”. What follows is one critic’s opinions.

Looking at the options for the best film about politics, Citizen Kane is often viewed as the best film of any genre, a legitimate claim. It is, indeed, about the political rise and fall of an ambitious man who moves from journalism to politics, assumed to be based on William Randolph Hearst.  

Orson Welles directed, wrote and starred in a story about lust for power.  I don’t view it as a political film because politics is the stage on which Charles Foster Kane’s career rises and falls. The dynamics of politics itself, is not the film’s focus.

The best ever political film list has to include the 1949 film, All the King’s Men, a fictionalized version of Louisiana’s Governor Huey Long. In the original novel by Robert Penn Warren and in the film, Long is Willy Stark. He is played by Broderick Crawford in Crawford’s finest performance over a long film and television career.  

Crawford serves as a (uncredited) narrator in another good, though not great, 1972 political satire, The Candidate, which starred a boyish-looking Senate candidate, Robert Redford.

Closer to the top of my list is John Ford’s 1958 film, The Last Hurrah, the story of big city Irish American mayor Frank Skeffington (Spencer Tracy) who seems to float above the ugliness of his final campaign for his reelection. It is clear that Ford sees him as the quintessential political boss, part rogue, part tough guy, and always pragmatically oriented to every important wake in the city.

The film is based on Edwin O’Connor’s 1956 novel “The Last Hurrah”, a fictionalized version of former Boston Mayor M. Curley.

Tracy invites a nephew who is also a journalist, to travel with him through the campaign, and we are meant to see the campaign through the nephew’s eyes.

The close runner up as the best film ever made on politics is The Best Man (1964), written by Gore Vidal from his own original stage play. Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner, the film centers on backstage dramas that unfold during one party’s nominating convention. 

The leading candidates hold smear cards against the other, ready to be played. The cards are familiar to us today: homosexuality (rarely mentioned this overtly in films in the early 60s), a pending divorce, and mental episodes from the past.  Will they be used and who will use them?

Vidal’s writing is sharp and perceptive. In a key scene, Henry Fonda, as William Russell, a former Secretary of State, confronts Cliff Robertson as Joe Cantwell, a sitting U.S. senator. Both want to be their party’s nominee for president.

Cliff Robertson: “I don’t understand you”. 

Henry Fonda: “I know you don’t. Because you have no sense of responsibility toward anybody or anything. And that is a tragedy in a man, and it is a disaster in a president.”

This exchange captures a division in American political dynamics which has become greatly solidified in the decade from 2008 and 2018.

The New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow, offers his analysis as to what has helped lead this nation to its current solidification of right versus left, a division far more severe than it was when the film appeared in 1964.

Comparing the Nixon and Trump eras as evidence mounted against each, in his Monday column, Charles M. Blow writes:

When the evidence of wrongdoing was clear and incontrovertible [against Nixon], people began to peel away, tails tucked and full of shame.

But that was a different time, one in which media wasn’t so fractured and partisan, before the advent of social media and our current dissociable mentalities.

Nixon had no propaganda arm. Trump has one. It’s called Fox News. There is little daylight between the network’s programming and the White House’s priorities. If Trump goes down, so too does Fox, in some measure.

So the network has a vested interest in defending Trump until the bitter end, and that narrative-crafting could impede an otherwise natural and normal disaffection with Trump.

Movies are created to relate to viewers. Film-makers reflect the culture they wish to reach. Audiences are shaped by their culture. Currently, our culture is divided between right and left to such a degree that each side protects its turf to a degree rarely seen in our history.

Major news outlets and social media have divided us and enhanced that turf loyalty.

This current harsh reality only enhances my 2008 choice for what is for me the best film about American politics ever made, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.

A word about the plot and the film’s setting, told briefly:

The two stars of that 1962 release are John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart. At the center of the film is the conflict between the traditional story of the early American west, where the white invaders often confronted one another in gun fights in places like the OK Corral.

 Liberty Valance (in an over-the-top performance by Lee Marvin) is the embodiment of absolute evil, a killer who uses fear as an instrument of control.  

The film is told in a flashback: A US senator named Ransom Stoddard (Stewart) returns to the town of Shinbone to attend a funeral of an old friend, Tom Doniphon (Wayne). The local newspaper reporter and his editor insist that the senator explain why this funeral is so important to him.

He does so frankly, which goes so much against the prevailing cultural narrative that the journalists refuse to report Stoddard’s version, giving rise to the famous quote from the film: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

This is a rich film, an old fashioned western, a love story and a story of a lost love, a favorite Ford theme. But it is also a story of politics and how sometimes goodness finds its ambiguous way into the future, there to find creative ways to address the truth.

The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance demands that viewers remember it as a work of political art.  

It remains for me the best film ever made about the realities this democracy has to confront, especially in a culture locked in conflicting realities. 

The Shinbone editor was wrong in Ford’s 1964 film, and he would be wrong today when he asserts, When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”.


About wallwritings

From 1972 through 1999, James M. Wall was editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine, based in Chicago, lllinois. He was a Contributing Editor of the Century from 1999 until July, 2017. He has written this blog, wall writings.me, since it was launched April 27, 2008. If you would like to receive Wall Writings alerts when new postings are added to this site, send a note, saying, Please Add Me, to jameswall8@gmail.com Biography: Journalism was Jim's undergraduate college major at Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. He has earned two MA degrees, one from Emory, and one from the University of Chicago, both in religion. He is an ordained United Methodist clergy person. He served for two years in the US Air Force, and three additional years in the USAF reserve. While serving on active duty with the Alaskan Command, he reached the rank of first lieutenant. He has worked as a sports writer for both the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, was editor of the United Methodist magazine, Christian Advocate for ten years, and editor and publisher of the Christian Century magazine for 27 years. James M Wall died March 22, 2021 at age 92. His family appreciates all of his readers, even those who may have disagreed with his well-informed writings.
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2 Responses to A Sequel: The Best Film Ever Made About Politics

  1. Profoundly presented, Jim. Never a movie-goer in any category (romance, suspense, horror, comedy…), I admire your cogent synopses here. Seems to me that we as a society have regressed from fictional films depicting “extreme” personas and scenarios to a real life of “extreme” characters taken from the ranks of B-movie actors and TV impresarios who kill fellow human beings in the millions, all in favor of the MIC and full-spectrum dominance. We have met the enemy….

  2. Samia Khoury says:

    This is such an interesting article although I do not remember some of the films you mention. But I loved the following conversation which truly captures a division in American political dynamics.

    Cliff Robertson: “I don’t understand you”.
    Henry Fonda: “I know you don’t. Because you have no sense of responsibility toward anybody or anything. And that is a tragedy in a man, and it is a disaster in a president.”

    I watched the funeral of George H. W. Bush this evening and I was amazed at the no-reaction on the face of President Trump neither during the humorous comments which brought quite a bit of laughter during this solemn occasion or when there were sad words that brought tears to family and friends.
    With appreciation for your writings Jim

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