I'm not quite sure why but my top 5 election films, all mentioned below, were released between 1995 and 1999. There were some very good movies outside of this narrow window (I should have included All The President's Men) but these 5 films have always resonated with me.
If you haven't seen them before, make sure you check them out!
The American President (1995)
My least favourite genre is the romantic comedy (they're too damn predictable) and whilst this film doesn't quite fit into that category, due to some of its political themes, it's pretty damn close. It centres on a widowed President (Michael Douglas) who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening). You'd like to hope that the public wouldn't have a problem... but the opposing Republican candidate for the upcoming election (Richard Dreyfuss) attacks the President's "family values" and starts gaining the upper hand.
Directed by Rob Reiner, this is one of the first writing credits for Aaron Sorkin who went on to make such films as Charlie Wilson's War, Moneyball and The Social Network (which won him an Academy Award). It features some amazing dialogue highlighted by a passionate speech where Douglas gets on the front foot and finally attacks his adversaries. You can check it out here.
Wag The Dog (1997)
How much of it is true? Could this really happen? Is politics really this crazy, this manipulative? These are questions you'll ask yourself when watching Barry Levinson's comedy, Wag The Dog. When the President is caught hitting on a teenage girl just weeks before the election, his close advisers come up with a way of keeping the story out of the papers. How? By creating a fake war with Albania! A legendary Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) is brought in to pull it off.
The film earned Oscar nominations for best actor (Hoffman) as well as best adapted screenplay. This just gets funnier with each scene and as they get closer and closer to the election date, their plan becomes more convoluted and harder to conceal. The film finishes on a perfect note too (but I'm not spoiling that). A wonderful black comedy!
Primary Colors (1998)
President Jack Stanton (John Travolta) was trying to secure the Democratic Party's nomination for President but in a similar vein to 2011's The Ides Of March (also a good film), Primary Colors is told from the perspective from a young adviser by the name of Henry Burton (Adrian Lester) who joins the campaign and is looking to help out. He quickly learns that politics isn't about lofty ideals and playing nice. You sometimes have to get your hands dirty.
This film also picked up an Oscar nomination for its screenplay - adapted from an anonymous novel which was believed to have been based on Bill Clinton's presidential run in 1992. The author was later unmasked as Joe Klein, a journalist following Clinton during his campaign. This film also features some terrific dialogue and I'm often reminded of the line - "the media giveth, and go f*** yourself." John Travolta gives a smooth, charming performance and Kathy Bates steals many scenes with her Academy Award nominated role.
This film feels as relevant today as it did 15 years ago and its premise will interest anyone who has become tired of "political speak". Disenchanted with life, Senator Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty) decides to kill himself. He takes out a huge life insurance policy so his family will be provided for and then hires a hitman to assassinate him. Knowing that his days are numbered, he decides to go out in style and finally tell the public what he really thinks of them. Amazingly, his approval ratings take off (the public loves his frank honesty) and he's suddenly rethinking his plans to commit suicide.
The film coined the phrase "going Bulworth" and while there are so many highlights, the film's signature scene has Bulworth going on a talk show and delivering a rap song with prophetic lyrics including - "Bank of America at this table over here. Wells Fargo and Citbank you’re really very dear. Loan billions to Mexico and never have to fear. Cause taxpayers, taxpayers take it in the rear."
I've seen thousands of movies but Election is my favourite comedy of all time. It's dark, it's smart, it's witty, it's surprising and it's not afraid to end on a not-so-happy note. It is set in a high school where a young, passionate go-getter (Reese Witherspoon) tries to win the election for student body president but is thwarted by a vengeful school teacher (Matthew Broderick) out to stop her. This film goes in so many unexpected directions!
This was the first time I'd been exposed to the brilliance of writer-director Alexander Payne (who later won Oscars for Sideways and The Descendants). I first saw the film at the 1999 Brisbane International Film Festival (in a double billing with Go) and I'd have seen it at least 20 times since. We all have a different sense of humour and I realise not everyone will love Election... but to me, it's brilliant.