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15 Best Political Movies of All Time

September 15, 2017
14 min read

Politics is a very clever game and wreaks havoc if not played carefully. It is our misfortune that we spend our lives in the labyrinth of lies and manipulations. However it is fun sometimes to see the players play this game with their best efforts. And to capture it all are our brilliant directors, who never fail to spurn an opportunity to document the events going on around the globe, however obscure they might seem. We, at the Cinemaholic, present to you the list of top political movies of all time. You can watch some of these best political movies on Netflix or Hulu or Amazon Prime. The list includes some really good political drama movies and political thriller movies.

15. American History X (1999)

The reason why ‘American History X’ is ranked so low on the list is because it gets extremely preachy towards the end, which is a shame considering the film is, for the most part, well-written and directed. Nevertheless, it’s still a very good film that is made with noble intentions, which is why I thought it deserves a place on the list. The movie tells the story of Derek Vinyard, who serves three years in prison for a hate crime. Derek was part of a Neo-Nazi movement before being imprisoned and now, years later, he returns from prison as a changed man, but he must stop his brother from following the same path.

‘American History X’ is best remembered for Edward Norton‘s stunning performance in the lead role. He carries the film on his own and his transition from a cold-blooded white supremacist to a much more mature man with changed beliefs and ideals is unbelievably brilliant. It is, in my opinion, one of the greatest screen performances of all time.

14. In the Name of the Father (1993)

Starring the great Daniel Day-Lewis in the lead role, ‘In the Name of the Father’ tells the devastating story of an innocent man who spent 15 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Day-Lewis portrays Gerry Conlon, who was accused and later convicted of being a provisional IRA bomber. The film depicts his struggle to prove his innocence for the next 15 years as he along with his father are imprisoned, after Gerry was forced to sign a confession. The film is well directed by Jim Sheridan who respects the viewers’ intelligence and delivers a neatly crafted drama without choosing the path of sentimentality. The film attempts to provide a complete picture of the case and it achieves what it set out to do.

Day-Lewis is expectedly brilliant in the lead role, delivering a performance of such heartbreaking honesty that tears you apart. The scene where his character is threatened by one of the cops to kill his father if he doesn’t sign the confession is without a doubt the most intense scene in the film. Day-Lewis understands the raw emotional intensity of the scene and he elevates it to a whole new level onscreen. It is a truly outstanding performance by an actor who would later go on to be regarded as one of the greats of his time.

13. Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

‘Zero Dark Thirty’ is easily one of the best movies of this decade. Directed by Kathryn Bigelow, the film chronicles the efforts of the CIA and the US government to track down and murder one of the most feared names in history, Osama Bin Laden. The CIA team is led by a young woman named Maya, who is determined to go to any lengths to capture the dreaded terrorist. Mark Boal’s tight screenplay is one of the highlights of the film — it’s incredibly nuanced and never loses focus at any point. It’s hard to comprehend the numerous political intricacies surrounding the mission and the film does a fantastic job at covering all aspects of it.

Bigelow’s distinctive style and command as a director is evident right from the first scene. There is authority and conviction in her approach, and each and every scene is crafted in a very realistic manner. Jessica Chastain provides complete justice to her role as she delivers the performance of a lifetime. She is enthralling in every single scene and brilliantly compliments Bigelow’s impeccable style and Boal’s nuanced script.

12. Election (1999)

Alexander Payne went creative with his political satire and chose a suburban high school student election to showcase the manipulations and the dirty game that is in play. Humorously written, it not only shows an obnoxious student with her head full of ambition, but also portrays a teacher who is manipulative and shrewd and never surrenders his ego. It is a classic play on the real life politics and the seemingly innocent backdrop of the plot robs it of the grisliness. Instead the audience gets to see cleverly disguised metaphor on the banalities of the real world politics. Resse Witherspoon’s performance earned plaudits and earned the right to be taken seriously by the critics.

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11. Milk (2009)

Widely remembered for Sean Penn’s endearing performance as the California politician and gay rights activist Harvey Milk, Gus Van Sant’s epic film was brutally honest about the prevalent social stigma and its vile encroachment in the straight politics. Beautifully made, ‘Milk’ takes the audience on an emotional journey, exploring the avenues of injustice and hypocrisy in the modern, open-minded society. The death of Harvey Milk in the final scene is a piece of art, both cinematically and performance-wise. ‘Milk’ is honest and remains true throughout the length of the reel. Hope and hope, he says.

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10. Downfall (2004)

‘Downfall’ is best known for the famous Hitler Rants that still remains popular on the Internet. And it’s kind of sad that it has kind of overshadowed the greatness of the film. ‘Downfall’ is, in my opinion, one of the greatest war/political dramas of the century. Featuring an unforgettable performance by the great Bruno Ganz in the lead role of Adolf Hitler, the film offers humane insights into the mind of the most evil man to have born on the planet. Ganz effortlessly gets into the skin of his character in a performance that is physically and mentally draining. It must have been extremely difficult to feel compassion and empathy for someone like Hitler, but Ganz manages to do so for the role, which is what makes it one of the great acting performances of all time.

‘Downfall’ is brilliantly directed by Oliver Hirschbiegel, whose attention to detail is one of the highlights of the film. His command over the medium is astonishing and never does he lose track of the story. The attention to detail here is commendable and the film attempts to provide an objective look at the events that unfolded days before Hitler’s death. ‘Downfall’ is a film that must be seen for its vision, honest approach and the performances, which further elevate the film to a different level altogether. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest films of that decade.

9. The Battle of Algiers (1966)

Every event has two sides of the story to it. Man concocts a version of this truth according to his own philosophies and narrates his story to his subsequent generations. The truth becomes divided and so does history. So we cannot really blame the films for taking sides while narrating its story. In 1966 came a film on the Algerian Revolution against the French Colonialism, called ‘The Battle of Algiers’ and directed by Gillo Pontecorvo and it set a benchmark on how history has to be told.

Apart from being well-directed and well filmed, the essence of this black and white masterpiece lay in its unique storytelling, never giving impetus to one part and never admitting the moral superiority of either one. It shows their reasons and flaws in the same note, telling history like it should be told. The audience sympathizes with the revolutionaries as they fight for their freedom but that sympathy is divided when the Algerians openly bombard public French spots, killing dozens of innocent bystanders. The French act of counter-terrorism thus had its reasons but the way they followed raised several questions on ethics. This duality conundrum was ever prevalent in this biopic making the film realistic. ‘The Battle of Algiers’ is one of the best war dramas and most certainly one of the the best movies based on politics ever made.

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8. Malcolm X (1992)

Spike Lee’s 1992 political biography chronicles the life of Afro-American criminal turned social activist Malcolm X who was brutally assassinated for his work against the prejudices of Islam, his adoptive religion. ‘Malcolm X’ tells us the horrible consequences when one attempts to break the stigma prevalent in society. The cruel retaliation to protect certain individual interests is shown clearly in this film. This is certainly one of the most powerful films in recent history, hitting the nail right on the head. Crisp, accurate and spot on, ‘Malcom X’ is also responsible for giving us a wonderful actor in Denzel Washington who was astonishingly believable as the enigmatic leader.

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7. Z (1969)

Costa-Garvas in his third film, brought to the screen a satire on the military dictatorship in Greece and the assassination of democratic politician Grigoris Lambrakis. In his patented style, he spoke about the eternal political struggle and how a seemingly moral victory may also be corrupted in a style fit for a thriller. He delivered his opinion on the political hypocrisy without making the film seem like a propaganda. He struck a sensitive chord among many of the morally corrupted hypocrites who live in the illusion that their acts are actually right. ‘Z’ is a maze of alibis, facts and official corruption and is one of the most honest political movies ever made.

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6. Munich (2005)

One of Steven Spielberg‘s greatest works, ‘Munich’ is a film that to this day remains hugely underrated. The film chronicles the efforts of five men who are assigned the task of finding and killing members of the terrorist organization that was responsible for the devastating Munich massacre. The team of five men is headed by Avner Kaufman (played brilliantly by Eric Bana). Their mission, however, involves serious risks and Avner, a Mossad agent, is asked to resign in order to provide plausible deniability to the Israeli government. These men begin their mission but they soon realize that things are far more complicated and struggle to deal with the moral dilemma the mission often poses. They set off for the mission as naive, idealistic men who are hell bent on doing the ”right” thing, but they eventually realize that a world filled with secrets, lies and conspiracies is beyond comprehension.

I never thought Spielberg could make a film that would keep me awake at nights. ‘Munich’ was just that kind of a film. There are several disturbing moments in that film that will haunt you for the rest of you life. The one that shook me the most was the lovemaking scene between Avner and his wife. While they have sex, Avner is haunted by visions of the Munich massacre, leading to a mental breakdown. ‘Munich’ is a film that must be seen for its unflinching honesty and for its sheer craft.

5. The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

One of the best political thrillers ever made, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ revolves around the brainwashing of a right-wing party candidate into becoming an unwitting assassin for a communist conspiracy. Aptly released during the Cuban Missile Crisis, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ became a cult classic over the years for the ingenuity of the plot and the uniqueness of execution. Political play was shown tensely as the heroes attempt to thwart the conspiracy. It was a silent nod to the actual brainwashing done to the innocents by the top players in order to fulfill their cause. Frank Sinatra and Laurence Harvey gave stellar performances in the lead in this evergreen movie. The godfather of neo-noir movies, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’ is a gem in the history of Hollywood.

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4. Citizen Kane (1941)

Arguably, the greatest film ever made needs no introduction. Orson Welles’ debut feature broke barriers and revolutionized filmmaking in many ways. Amongst others, it gave the insight of the life of a newspaper magnet who began his journey as an idealist but became consumed by the power in his pursuit of greatness. Sheer political play proved to be the boon and the bane for the protagonist as he was reduced to a mental wreck in the end. Powerfully narrated with flashbacks, ‘Citizen Kane’ trod on the lines of a Shakespearean tragedy whilst staying true to its own origin story. It was visually enhancing and took the audience to a whole new level of realization through the life of the protagonist. Rosebud?

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3. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

Frank Capra was much, much ahead of his time, evident by his 1939 political comedy-drama about a common man who enters the complex maze of national politics and immediately becomes a pawn of a much bigger game. This film showed the common man’s gullibility when it came to the nuances of the political game and his urge to clean up the vat of selfishness for society’s benefit. Unsurprisingly, it touched quite a few sore spots with the higher officials who dictate the wheels of the society and generated a fair amount of controversy upon its release. The audience were never deterred though and turned up in throngs to make the film a box office success. James Stewart stepped into the spotlight after this film’s release and the rest is history. ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington’ is perhaps Capra’s best work till date and one of the best political-comedies in history.

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2. Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Trust Stanley Kubrick to come up with something so ingenious. Loosely based on Peter George’s thriller, Red Alert, Stanley’s satire on cold war fears about a nuclear holocaust is one of the best comedies ever made. The sheer genius of his screenplay coupled by his magical touch of direction set ‘Dr. Strangelove’ apart from other comedies. It touched man’s selfishness and vulnerability through its funny narrative. It showed clearly how man, blinded by political superiority, can make choices which would make the entire world suffer. This film brought down the power players to their knees and showed them what the world looked like from the ground itself. ‘Dr. Strangelove’ gave a powerful message to the world through a comic verse and shook the very foundations of foul politics at play.

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1. All the President’s Men (1976)

It takes great courage to dip your hand in the political dirt and Alan J. Paluka showed great courage when he decided to adapt the 1974 book by journalists Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward for the big screen. The effect was magnanimous, becoming an audience and a critical hit overnight. Alan’s narration of the infamous Watergate Scandal of the U.S. Senate in an investigative journalism pattern stewed the heat away from the mainstream politics, yet never failed to capture the dark side of the manipulations and coercions in the national level politics. Solid performances by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford aided in the success of the movie, making the story believable to the audience and exposing the horror behind the political games at play. Political Movies don’t come in better form or shape than this.

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