Ah, politics! Give us your theme songs and sound bites and tri-color balloons, your men in dark suits sprouting wires behind their ears, your waving flags and applauding faithful, the ladies with lacquered hair: It's party time in Tampa.
Whether you're headed for the floor of the Republican National Convention, protesting in the event zone or steering clear of the crowds, you can get a taste of the action with these classic tales of government gone wild, Hollywood-style.
Warm and Fuzzy, witha Soupcon of Romance:
"Dave" (1993): Kevin Kline shines in the dual role of a comatose president and the happy-go-lucky celebrity impersonator who gets an unexpected cameo in the Oval Office. Sigourney Weaver plays the long-suffering first lady who wonders why her snake of a husband has suddenly become a good guy. Also of note: Ving Rhames in a sweater vest, and Bonnie Hunt's tour guide ("We're walking, we're walking.")
"The American President" (1995): A thinking person's romantic comedy, with sharp turns from Michael Douglas as a widowed president and Annette Bening as the comely lobbyist who catches his eye. A sparkling supporting cast — including Michael J. Fox and Anna Deavere Smith — is left to deal with the fallout from a president who goes on dates. You will never again forget the state flower of Virginia. (Flowering dogwood, of course.)
Conspiracy Theorists Unite
"The Manchurian Candidate" (1962, 2004): Jonathan Demme's 21st-century remake swaps the Korean War for the Gulf; Frank Sinatra for Denzel Washington; and the Communist menace of 1962 for a modern evil: the global super corporation bent on world domination. For sheer creepiness, the original still has the edge, thanks to Angela Lansbury's turn as one of the scariest on-screen moms of all time. For those who like to believe that their dreams are telling them something, this story of brainwashed ex-soldiers is the stuff of nightmares.
When a Name Becomes an Adjective: The Nixonian Oeuvre
"Nixon" (1995): Oliver Stone's other political movie is a sweeping and ambitious biopic starring a Welshman (Anthony Hopkins) as Tricky Dick. In addition to the parade of historical figures, an attempt is made to understand the man behind the malfeasance. (It seems Nixon had intimacy issues with his mother and his wife, Pat, the latter played to Oscar-nominated perfection by Joan Allen.) Sticklers may shudder at the director's dramatic license, but his fast-and-loose approach to history feels strangely appropriate for the subject matter.
"All the President's Men" (1976): As much a newspaper movie as a political drama, the story of the reporters who exposed the Watergate scandal takes a long and detailed look at the process of investigative reporting. It helps that Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford are the ones rounding up sources and checking on leads in the pre-digital era, but this careful, deliberate film may require some serious concentration for those weaned on fast cuts and sloppy storytelling.
"Dick" (1999): For a light, airy palate cleanser, check out this tale of two ditzy teens (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst) with a Forrest Gumpian knack for stumbling upon (and comically altering) crucial moments in history. All the familiar faces are here — Nixon and various henchpersons; Woodward and Bernstein — only sillier.
Talking the Talk
"The West Wing" (1999-2006): Whether the thought of Martin Sheen as Commander in Chief makes your heart flutter or stop, it's hard not to admire the verbal dexterity of Aaron Sorkin's White House drama. The constraints of series television occasionally resulted in storylines more sensational than their real-life counterparts, but the show deserves credit for daring to intersperse real issues with the histrionics.
High School "Crucible"
"Election" (1999): Matthew Broderick plays against type as a teacher struggling with temptation in several forms, including that of pert blonde student Tracy Flick (a perfectly cast Reese Witherspoon). It should be a simple thing for an intelligent adult to outwit a control freak teen seeking not-so-high political office, but moral ambiguity — and frustrated hopes — are the name of the game as Broderick's world crumbles around him.
Because"The Notebook" isn't about politics
"Ides of March" (2011): Director George Clooney plays a presidential hopeful whose campaign staff includes the bedroom-eyed Ryan Gosling. The idea that power corrupts is not exactly new, but Gosling's journey from innocence to experience gains gravitas from an excellent supporting cast, including Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman as dueling spin doctors.
Morality in Black and White
"Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939): This is the classic tale of one man taking on the system, as well as the ultimate gee-shucks role for star Jimmy Stewart as the small-town boy who gets a taste of big-city politics when he is unexpectedly appointed senator. Jean Arthur is the wisecracking love interest who finds her cynicism wilting in the face of Stewart's impassioned earnestness. For those who want to believe, this is the rare political flick in which the good guy stays that way.
Sticking it to the Other Side
"Primary Colors" (1998): Not all political movies put liberals on a pedestal. Witness this juicy adaptation of the eponymous book, a thinly veiled expose of Bill Clinton's rise to power. John Travolta plays the charismatic philanderer on his way to the White House; Emma Thompson is his thin-lipped wife. Although the real-life principals have gone on to relatively dignified second acts, no one comes out smelling like a rose here.
When Elephants Fly
"Game of Thrones" (2011): Incest, beheadings and dire wolves, oh my! Wouldn't it be fun if the political machinations of today involved more sword-fighting and fewer stuffy debates? Our sober, be-suited candidates would be hard-pressed to compete with a sadistic blond boy king whose throne is made of swords, or match the drunken wit of Peter Dinklage. Nor does the average presidential dog (or pony) stand a chance against dragons. The personal hygiene may be dubious, but for sheer audacity this is political scheming at its best.