I can think of no better way to retreat from the constant barrage of negative ads from the presidential campaign than by watching a classic movie about someone trying to affect the outcome of — what else? — a presidential campaign. I have a few suggestions here, and by no means are they all on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movies. They are, however, some of my favorites.
With the party conventions coming up, it seems appropriate to begin with “The Best Man,” a 1964 film written by Gore Vidal and based on his play of the same name. The plot is simple: Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson play two strong-willed candidates vying for their party’s presidential nomination. One is willing to stop at nothing to get the nod, while the other discovers he really doesn’t have the stomach for dirty politics. After being presented with information suggesting his opponent might have had a homosexual affair years before, Fonda’s character decides to take another course. I won’t spoil the ending here except to say no politician in this day and age would do such a thing.
For me, there’s never been a better movie than “Primary Colors” when it comes to depicting the ups and downs of a hard-fought campaign for a party’s presidential nomination. That’s not surprising since journalist Joe Klein wrote the book that the 1998 film is based on under the pseudonym Anonymous after covering Bill Clinton’s campaign for president in 1992.
There’s some drama and plenty of belly laughs in the movie’s plot. Perhaps the most poignant scene of the film, given the hyperbole on today’s political campaigns, is a speech delivered by former Florida Gov. Fred Picker (Larry Hagman) to a rally of shouting supporters.
“I wish everyone would just calm down a little,” he cautions. Picker also tells the crowd that “if we don’t watch out and calm down, it all may spin out of control.” The candidate asks supporters to take their seats, adding “ ... what I want to do is quiet things down and start having a conversation.”
As I noted in a column in 2010, one of my all-time favorite political movies is “Meet John Doe.” This 1941 classic from director Frank Capra stars Barbara Stanwyck as Ann Mitchell — an ambitious journalist who takes out her bitterness at being fired by the new owner of her newspaper by writing a column about a fake letter she says was penned by an unemployed man calling himself John Doe. The fictitious letter writer promises to call attention to the evils of society by jumping off the roof of City Hall on Christmas Eve.
When John Doe’s letter becomes a hit (and the newspaper’s competitors charge fraud), the editor is forced to rehire Mitchell and she is charged with finding someone to stand in for the non-existent John Doe. Gary Cooper is “Long” John Willoughby, a down-on-his-luck former baseball player who is hired to play the role of John Doe.
Like all good political morality tales, greed and power play a central role in the plot of this movie. So do the schemes of unscrupulous journalists and evil corporate moguls (the latter in this case is played by Capra’s go-to-villian Edward Arnold, who plans to hijack a grass-roots movement that springs up from the so-called John Doe Clubs for his own presidential aspirations).
When a crowd of John Doe supporters mob City Hall to get a glimpse of Willoughby, the mayor utters one of my favorite lines of the movie.
“OK folks, but remember your manners. No stampeding. Walk slow, like you do when you come to pay your taxes.”
Another one of my favorite movies illustrates what can happen when celebrities of our pop culture begin to dabble in political king-making. “A Face in the Crowd,” a 1957 film directed by Elia Kazan, is a telling commentary on how TV can be misused to push a particular political agenda. Patricia Neal plays Marcia Jeffries — a small town radio producer who discovers Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (portrayed chillingly by Andy Griffith, who died earlier this month) in a local jail and helps him land national TV stardom as a folk singer.
A wealthy political pawnbroker hopes to use Rhodes’ popular TV show as a vehicle to place a crony in the White House. His plans, however, soon collide with Lonesome’s self-destructive nature and Marcia’s conscience.
“They don’t know it yet, but they’re all gonna be ‘Fighters for Fuller,’ ” Lonesome tells Marcia in a crucial scene. “They’re mine! I own ’em! They think like I do. Only they’re even more stupid than I am, so I gotta think for ’em. Marcia, you just wait and see. I’m gonna be the power behind the president — and you’ll be the power behind me.”
Thankfully, as is possible in the movies, Lonesome eventually gets his just deserts.