Well, what is a political film? A film about politicians? Or a film about issues–sexism, racism, the environment, nuclear policy? I decided on the broader definition. If I’d limited myself to films about politicians, it would have been a short list: How many characters in any mainstream American movie seem aware of the political process, or belong to a party?
A caveat: One film per director, which means I couldn’t include Lee’s Malcolm X, Stone’s JFK or Nixon, or Altman’s Nashville. Listed chronologically:
The War at Home (1979, Barry Brown and Glenn Silber) A “found” documentary: The filmmakers had access to all of the television news footage shot in Madison, Wis., in the years of the Vietnam War, and employed it to create a film about how the war, and the protests against it, affected one American city. Far more than a cut-and-paste, talking-heads job, it records social, as well as political, history as the shape of the 1960s gradually reveals itself.
Mephisto (1981, Istvan Szabo) Klaus Maria Brandauer, in one of the best performances I’ve ever seen, plays a German actor who is, at first, a socialist and the proud lover of a black woman–but by the end has found that his beliefs were a pose, and happily discards them to gain success under Hitler. As he climbs to the top of the Nazi propaganda structure and the bottom of his own soul, the movie is both merciless and understanding. This is a weak and shameful man, the film seems to say–but then it cautions us against throwing the first stone.
El Norte (1983, Gregory Nava and Anna Thomas) A simple story, directly but poetically told: A brother and sister leave Guatemala and trek the length of Mexico, slipping across the U.S. border in search of employment and better lives in “el norte.” Pat Buchanan may rail against “immigrants” as a faceless horde, but this movie gives a face to two of the many.
Testament (1983, Lynne Littman) Many films have portrayed life after a nuclear war, but none were so shattering as this. Jane Alexander stars as a suburban mother trying to hold her family together in the aftermath of the Bomb. We never see a mushroom cloud or know who started the war. What we see is even more affecting: A speculation about how communities of survivors might organize after the devastation.
Secret Honor (1984, Robert Altman) Those who thought Oliver Stone’s Nixon went too far should see this film. Philip Baker Hall delivers a virtuoso monologue as Nixon in the dark hours after his resignation, pacing his office and addressing ghosts, memories, and the pictures on the walls. Both in this film and in Nixon, the man himself becomes more human, understandable, and–dare it be said?–sympathetic.
Shoah (1985, Claude Lanzmann) This nine-hour film is one of the most remarkable documents imaginable about the Holocaust. Without using documentary footage from the war, Lanzmann relies on eyewitnesses, narration, and the eerie remains of the death camps to investigate a chapter of human horror. His film is patient: He listens to his subjects as they run through their rehearsed feelings about events that occurred 40 years earlier, and we watch them reveal the lessons they’ve absorbed into their very beings.
Dear America: Letters Home From Vietnam (1987, Bill Couturie) Couturie takes a simple idea–matching letters from sol-diers in Vietnam with images of the war–and creates a powerful yet surprisingly subtle film. Couturie screened the entire archive of NBC News war footage, and in many cases matches letter writers with TV, film, home movies, and photographs of them at play, in action, wounded, and dead.
Running on Empty (1988, Sidney Lumet) Judd Hirsch and Christine Lahti play married 1960s radicals living on the run. They blew up a building, accidentally killing a janitor, and it left their life a shell: While they appear ordinary to their neighbors, they have trained their two boys to keep secrets, and be ready to leave town in an instant. Now their older, teenage son (River Phoenix) needs a “real” identity to pursue education and a career. Politics, ironically, have been left far behind; that kind of involvement would blow the family’s cover.
Born on the Fourth of July (1989, Oliver Stone) Like many Vietnam-era youths, Ron Kovic enlisted out of patriotism and became disillusioned by the war. Disabled by wounds in Vietnam, Kovic gets further radicalized stateside–in mounting fury at the way the nation seems content to shelve and forget him. This is the most powerful of Stone’s Vietnam trilogy (released between Platoon and Heaven and Earth), and centers on Tom Cruise’s career-best performance as Kovic.
Do the Right Thing (1989, Spike Lee) This record of one hot summer day in Bedford-Stuyvesant is the most important and moving film about race in America. What empowers the film is its fairness; watching it, you can identify with most of the characters, black and white. As a series of trivial incidents and misunderstandings escalate into the death of a man at the hands of police, and then the destruction of a pizzeria, Lee shows that the divide of racism, more than any particular event, has led to the film’s disturbing conclusion.
Roger & Me (1989, Michael Moore) This surprisingly successful film was a populist thumb in the eye of General Motors. Wearing a baseball cap and dingy windbreaker, Moore elbowed his way into GM offices and stockholder meetings, and documented what he considered the company’s rape of his hometown of Flint, Mich. Yes, the film took cheap shots–but it took them openly and gleefully, and that was part of the fun.
American Dream (1990, Barbara Kopple) Kopple’s earlier 1976 documentary about striking Kentucky coal miners, Harlan County, U.S.A., might seem a more obvious choice. But American Dream speaks directly to the era of downsizing, and the waning power and focus of labor unions. During the long, painful strike at the Hormel meatpacking plant in Austin, Minn., we realize the union members are fighting each other while the employers hold all the cards.
Hidden Agenda (1990, Ken Loach) Loach’s films are always, in one way or another, political. This one is based on the Stalker Affair, a scandal involving a senior British police official (Brian Cox) who is investigating a shooting by security forces and gets reassigned after he discovers the killing was unjustified. Set in Northern Ireland, Hidden Agenda argues that a right-wing cabal successfully plotted a “dirty tricks” campaign against Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
Boyz N the Hood (1991, John Singleton) A first film of astonishing power and insight, showing how the fates of inner-city black youths can be decided by the social environment. As the hero’s father (Larry Fishburne) tries to focus his son (Cuba Gooding Jr.) on the future, the danger of guns and gangs is always present. The best of an extraordinary group of debut films, including Menace II Society, Straight Out of Brooklyn, and Fresh.
City of Hope (1991, John Sayles) Sayles weaves together many strands–there are some 36 meaningful speaking roles–in a story of how life, work, race, and politics connect in a modern New Jersey city. Joe Morton is poignant as a black alderman who tries to effect change but is efficiently pushed toward the system, and Vincent Spano is lost and touching as a man whose father supplies him with a job, but not with an occupation.
Grand Canyon (1991, Lawrence Kasdan) Danny Glover plays a tow truck operator who saves an attorney (Kevin Kline) from certain mugging in an unsafe neighborhood. Kline seeks him out to thank him, and a tentative friendship begins. The film explores how every day involves countless possibilities, some hopeful, some deadly. It is about practicing free will in a jungle.
The Blue Kite (1993, Tian Zhuang- zhuang) A boy, born in Beijing in 1954, grows up amid the political upheaval and zealotry of the Cultural Revolution. One day his father’s library co-workers meet to practice “self-criticism” and to identify reactionaries in their midst. When the boy’s father returns from the toilet, all eyes are on him: He has been selected as the reactionary, and that is his death sentence. The mother remarries twice seeking stability, unsuccessfully. It’s a remarkable portrait of a society victimized by ideology.
Schindler’s List (1993, Steven Spielberg) The story of a flawed and complex man who decides, while working for the Nazi war machine, to shelter some 1,000 Jews. Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) begins by sucking up to the Nazis, but some deep chord in his soul is struck, and he begins to cheat them of money, work, and lives. It’s a rare blending of superb Hollywood artistry and deeply felt emotional and political content.
Hoop Dreams (1994, Steve James) Not really about basketball at all, but the most powerful American documentary of modern times. It’s a story, told over five years, of two inner-city Chicago boys who dream that their basketball skills will provide them a college education, and perhaps a ticket to the NBA. How could the filmmakers have guessed, as they filmed their subjects in eighth grade, that their stories would encompass so many aspects of big-city African-American life?
Dead Man Walking (1995, Tim Robbins) Robbins’ film plays the death penalty issue down the middle, giving equal weight to the convicted murderer (Sean Penn) and the anguish of his victims’ families. Susan Sarandon, as the nun who grows to know him, is torn by the struggle to see both sides. The buried subject is the society that deprives Penn’s character of the insight to understand what he has done, and what he feels about it.