This week, the best of cinematic politics…
- The scene in Godfather II where Michael Corleone refuses to let Senator Whatshisname walk on him. “Senator, my answer is this…Nothing.”
- The scene in Casablanca where Humphrey Bogart meets Major Strasser. “What is your nationality, Monsieur Blaine?” “I’m a drunk.” “That makes him a citizen of the world.”
- The entirety of “Wag the Dog”.
- The entirety of “Good Night and Good Luck”.
- The doctor in “Pan’s Labyrinth” stands up to the Francoist captain moments before being shot. “Following orders is all that men like you ever do.”
- The botched assassination attempt in “The Gods Must Be Crazy”: “You were supposed to assassinate the President! Not the Minister of Education!”
- The Honecker joke scene in “The Lives of Others”. A moment that distills the sort of people who prosper when politics are totalitarian.
- Rip Torn hits Norman Mailer with a hammer in “Maidstone”. Notable mainly because Torn was not aware that he wasn’t supposed to REALLY hit Mailer with a hammer—leading to a wrestling match in which they not only broke character but probably two or three fingers. This is political because the film involves a Cain-and-Abel style assassination attempt on a candidate for the presidency (Mailer). The fact that this is the only sequence of the film worth watching is a testament to Mailer’s limits as a … anything.
- The District Attorney informs Abel Morales that his new refinery will give him “political influence” in “A Most Violent Year”. Not a significant event in itself, but it punctuates the film’s central conflict of integrity versus corruption in a society in which integrity has to be its own reward, because there is nothing else pulling stumps for it.
- President Lincoln gives a lawyerly answer about the absence of Confederate envoys in Washington in “Lincoln”. What saved “Lincoln” from the sentimentality that often plagues Steven Spielberg’s Important Works was its level of relative cynicism about how the political process works. What we need now is a film which will make a case for a moderate level of corruption in politics.
- In the Loop : When Malcolm Tucker dresses down Linton Barwick in a chapel and Linton cuts him off and says:”OK. Firstly, don’t raise your voice. This is a sacred place. Now, you may not believe that and I may not believe that, but, by God, it is a useful hypocrisy.” In the Loop is a crude political farce whose buffoonery is increasingly believable.
- Children of Men : When Theo visits his cousin Nigel in the Ministry of Arts (aka the “Ark of the Arts”). A visually dense scene that layers irony upon irony for those who ponder the artwork that appears in the background.
- Henry V : Tennis Balls. “So get you hence in peace; and tell the Dauphin/ His jest will savour but of shallow wit,/ When thousands weep more than did laugh at it.”
- Being There : Chance’s advice to the president. The solemn aphorisms of a simple gardener, mistaken for a peer, are bestowed with such weight by the movers and shakers of the United States that everyone falls under his sway. Sharp humor that holds up 30+ years later.
- Burn After Reading : When a CIA Officer (played by Linton Barwick’s David Rasche) is updating his CIA Superior (the comedic master J.K. Simmons) on the seemingly significant events of the main characters the Much Ado About Nothing theme is hammered home with the Superior concluding “Report back to me when, I don’t know, when it makes sense.”
Jon Paul Pope:
- Peter Sellers, as the President of United States, calls the Soviet Premier to tell him “the bomb” has been launched in Dr. Strangelove. For my money, Sellers does the best American accent in the history of cinema. This scene is a hilarious mishmash of national foreign policy and childhood playground diplomacy. “I’m sorry, too, Dmitri… I’m very sorry… *All right*, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well… I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are… So we’re both sorry, all right?… All right.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6T2uBeiNXAo ;
- The irascible and awesome Richard Burton trumps the city of man with an appeal to the city of God in Becket. A political maneuver like this may ring pathetic, especially when executed by the likes of Kim Davis in a country such as the USA. But then, “we are all God’s fools.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7p9CiBJfbik
- Miss Saunders, wryly played by Jean Arthur, explains how a bill becomes a law in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. This is the more cynical version of the School House Rock song, and Arthur plays it so well. Though my favorite part of the scene is when Jimmy Stewart asks if for dinner they can just “sorta have stuff brought in on trays, you know, like big executives.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BZFRP67sX8o
- Sir Thomas Moore (Paul Scofield) makes the case for the rule of law in A Man For All Seasons. Contemporary cinema often fetishizes vigilantism. It’s nice to watch as reasonable and measured a performance as Scofield’s of a screenplay with equally sane political philosophy. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PDBiLT3LASk
- Pedro’s campaign speech from Napoleon Dynamite. The entirety of the speech, “If you vote for me, all of your wildest dreams will come true,” is the kernel of all political promises — from “bread and circuses,” to “a chicken in every pot,” to “CHANGE.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_TA42woVsqc
- Ikiru and the bureaucratic struggle of trying to do something cinematic with your life, like building a city park in a slum neighborhood while dying of stomach cancer. https://youtu.be/nr2d6PsRpsc
- The Great Dictator’s final scene as Hynkel (Charlie Chaplin) takes to the mic and addresses the world on the power empathy can have on mankind. https://youtu.be/9-cM5FLTGhU
- 12 Angry Men does a great job at decompartmentalizing the judicial system and discusses what parts of it are subjective or not. Even though the film takes place in mostly one location, it reaches cinematic glory with its sharp and consistent dialogue (a major influence on Aaron Sorkin). https://youtu.be/EqDd06GW76o
- Z (1969), an Algerian film nominated for Best Picture that emphasizes the effects of what a dictatorship has on a European country.
- The Hunt for Red October, when Jack Ryan slams his hands down on the table, interrupting the group discussion at hand, “Ramius might be trying to defect.” https://youtu.be/PUvS_htXD34
- Stealing Campaign Signs, Boyhood: By filming over many years, Linklater gets to document moments in the country’s history with a fictionalized reality. Lil’ Mason and his dad encountering a redneck with some strong feelings on “Barack Hoo-sayn Obama” and proceeding to make off with his lawn signs is one of those (as is their encounter with an Obama supporter in the same scene.)
- All of The Fog of War, but especially discussing the carpet bombing of Japan and Germany: Robert McNamara looks backwards and admits that he regrets the things he and his country did out of expediency.
- “You’ve got to close the beach!” Jaws: Government requires balancing the economic interests of your area with other, less tangible, needs. When the mayor of Amity decides that maintaining business support by keeping the beach open instead of making the politically dangerous decision to close the beach… you might say it comes back to bite him.
- “The strongest castle in these lands,” Monty Python and the Holy Grail: Frustrated by his effete son’s lack of interest in the huge tracts of land possessed by his potential ally’s daughter, a low-level medieval schemer takes an immediate liking to the political capital inherent in considering Lancelot his son (“in a very real and legally binding sense.”)
- Slightly Cheating TV Pick: Ben Wyatt Bakes A Calzone For The Pie-Mary: Parks and Recreation episode ”Pie-Mary”: In a House of Cards culture, Parks and Recreation was refreshing in its belief that sometimes, politics could actually get good things done. But its gloves really came off in its final season, when her husband’s bid for a seat in congress brought Leslie head-to-head with the silly little misogynies of political theater. The way the two of them team up to affirm each other is one of the show’s best moments.
- Sneakers: In the final scene of the film, every member of Redford’s crew gets a single demand from the NSA. Whistler asks for peace on earth and goodwill toward men, to which NSA heavy James Earl Jones said, “We are the US government. We don’t do that kind of thing.”
- Bulworth: Just about any scene out of the middle will do, but these rhymes are especially choice: “Yeah, yeah / You can call it single-payer or Canadian way / Only socialized medicine will ever save the day! Come on now, lemme hear that dirty word – SOCIALISM!”
- The Hunt for Red October: “I’m a politician, which means I’m a liar and a cheat, and when I’m not kissing babies, I’m stealing their lollipops.”
- Brazil: “This is your receipt for your husband… and this is my receipt for your receipt.”
- WarGames: Apologies, but some of the greatest scenes having to do with politics are also the least credible. Like Joshua the Computer’s sentimental, “The only winning move is not to play.”