Playing politics

Finding U.S. election coverage unbelievable? Turn to less dramatic, but no less entertaining, movie options


Advertise with us

Maybe you’re suffering from 2016 American election night PTSD. Maybe you cannot bear to hear the phrase “the road to 270” one more time. Maybe you have no heart for watching an electoral battle that might be inconclusive and unbearably prolonged.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe with this special offer:

All-Access Digital Subscription

$1.50 for 150 days*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Pay $1.50 for the first 22 weeks of your subscription. After 22 weeks, price increases to the regular rate of $19.00 per month. GST will be added to each payment. Subscription can be cancelled after the first 22 weeks.


Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 31/10/2020 (756 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Maybe you’re suffering from 2016 American election night PTSD. Maybe you cannot bear to hear the phrase “the road to 270” one more time. Maybe you have no heart for watching an electoral battle that might be inconclusive and unbearably prolonged.

If you aren’t able to face the upcoming United States election straight on, here are a few election-themed movies to view instead. They’re entertaining, they’re enlightening and best of all, they end within two hours.

HBO Films Ed Harris, left, plays John McCain with Julianne Moore as his running mate Sarah Palin in Game Change.

THE BEST MAN (1964): Adapted by Gore Vidal from his own stage play, this look at a viciously contested presidential primary is full of cynicism, snark and spark.

Henry Fonda is William Russell, the patrician intellectual — his slogan is “Bill Russell: A Thinking Man,” which does not sound focus group-tested — and Cliff Robertson is his rival, commie-hating populist huckster Joe Cantwell. Lee Tracy is outgoing president Art Hockstader, a wily pragmatist who’s deciding who will get his endorsement.

Expect lots of horse-trading, backstabbing and backroom deals, as well as some political blackmail involving accusations of “degenerate acts.” (The Best Man is reportedly the first American film to feature the word “homosexual.”)

As President Hockstader says, “There is nothing like a good, dirty, low-down political fight to put the roses in your cheeks.” (Criterion Channel)

Supplied Henry Fonda plays a candidate in the U.S. presidential primary in The Best Man.

THE CANDIDATE (1972): This low-key satire stars the 1970s tan-corduroy-jacket version of Robert Redford, which is possibly the best of all the Robert Redfords.

Titular character Bill McKay is making a reluctant run for the California senate, having been pressured into it by a canny campaign strategist (Peter Boyle) who’s banking on Bill’s progressive ideals, his pedigree (his father was once state governor) and his golden-boy good looks.

There’s an episodic, Altmanesque, everyone-talks-at-once ‘70s vibe here, as director Michael Ritchie uses his camera to comment on the (relatively recent) role of television in politics.

At first, Bill is able to say whatever he wants — including frank takes on policing, abortion and the environment — because he expects to lose. As he gets closer to the possibility of real power, we watch Bill change, and the film’s tone also shifts, from wryly funny to ruefully sad. (Rent on YouTube, Google Play)

History Television An idealistic young man (Robert Redford) is chosen to run for the Senate against a seasoned politician in The Candidate.

THE WAR ROOM (1993): In this landmark of direct-cinema documentary, filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker got unprecedented access to the workings of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign.

Clinton himself is barely seen, though we get a whiff of his desperate need to charm. Instead, the film centres on political strategist James Carville and media guy George Stephanopoulos, as they dodge scandals and try to get the message out. (This is where the phrase, “It’s the economy, stupid,” comes from.)

Wonks will like the tactical talk and strategic spin, but mostly The War Room is about the day-to-day grunt work of politicking, in rooms filled with fluorescent lighting and bad coffee and ragged adrenaline energy. (Criterion Channel)

Cyclone Films James Carville, left, and George Stephanopoulos in The War Room, a 1993 doc that follows the Clinton campaign.

ELECTION (1999): The stakes are low but the drama is high (ballot tampering! protest votes! contested results!) in this wildly uncomfortable satire, which centres on a student election in the American Midwest.

The young Reese Witherspoon leads with her determined chin as single-minded go-getter Tracy Flick, who’s running for school president, while Matthew Broderick is the hapless Jim McAllister, the civics teacher who sets out to sabotage her campaign.

Tracy might come off as an easy satirical target, but post-Hillary Clinton, we can see that much of the anti-Tracy animus relies on those tired tropes still used against female politicians: she’s too ambitious, she’s too uptight, she’s too confident, she’s over-prepared (what does that even mean?!). (Amazon Prime)

GAME CHANGE (2012): Adapted from the 2010 book by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, this lightly dramatized cautionary tale follows the McCain campaign’s attempt to shake up the 2008 presidential race by bringing in Sarah Palin as running mate.

Ed Harris is John McCain — plain-spoken, gruff, much given to using the word “maverick.” Julianne Moore plays Palin, with a sharp eye for the Alaska governor’s folksy mannerisms but also some sympathy for her out-of-her-depth plight.

More fascinating is a campaign aide who is current right now: Woody Harrelson plays campaign strategist Steve Schmidt, now a prominent Never Trumper with the Lincoln Project.

There are fascinating levels of fact and fiction in this TV movie — at one point Moore as Palin is watching Tina Fey as Palin on Saturday Night Live — but the script struggles between docudrama relevance and the sense that some of the survivors are pushing their own narratives. (HBO, Crave)

If you value coverage of Manitoba’s arts scene, help us do more.
Your contribution of $10, $25 or more will allow the Free Press to deepen our reporting on theatre, dance, music and galleries while also ensuring the broadest possible audience can access our arts journalism.
BECOME AN ARTS JOURNALISM SUPPORTER Click here to learn more about the project.

Paramount Pictures Reese Witherspoon is teenage go-getter and wannabe school president Tracy Flick in Election.
Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us