Lists

The Best Movies To Watch on Election Day

The aptly named former politician Anthony Weiner tried to make a comeback after a sex scandal, with a campaign captured in a 2016 documentary.
The aptly named former politician Anthony Weiner tried to make a comeback after a sex scandal, with a campaign captured in a 2016 documentary. Spencer Platt/Getty
Election day is just around the corner and the act naming our next government representatives may inspire some trepidation and nervous anticipation. Undoubtedly, the local and state officials elected in this cycle will affect the lead-up to the 2024 presidential election. Texas has certainly been under a national spotlight thanks to the high-profile race between incumbent governor Greg Abbott and Beto O’Rourke, who came close to unseating Senator Ted Cruz in 2018.

The national news coverage seems to grow even more sordid and ludicrous with every passing day. It’s easy to remember when fictional political television shows like House of Cards could be viewed as “escapism,” because they were deemed as implausible. But compared to the last six years, the scheming of Frank Underwood seems relatively tame. It’s also just as hard to look back at early seasons of The West Wing and think about how naive Aaron Sorkin’s idealism was.

Comparisons have often been made between current politicians and fictional characters; former President Trump invoked memories of Biff from Back to the Future: Part II, and there a number of villainous antagonists compared to Abbott. Political satire like Veep and The Thick Of It has a place in national political engagement as viewers learn a little bit more about how elections work on television.

Political movies may not offer escapism at this pivotal point in our national history, but they do allow us to understand the lasting impact that elections have on popular culture. You can learn a lot about the ways politics have changed through the way it's been depicted on screen. After you cast your ballots, make sure to check out these essential films about elections.

Election (1999)
While Election takes place in an affluent high school, the position of class president can be just as controversial as any formal political office. In the dark comedy by filmmaker Alexander Payne, Reese Witherspoon gave her breakout performance as Tracy Flick, a pretentious overachiever who goes to exaggerated lengths to earn the title that she thinks she is owed. We’re used to seeing politicians act like children, so Election feels fairly tame by today’s standards.

Weiner (2016)
The Anthony Weiner sex scandal was so completely bonkers that had it been fictitious, it would have been deemed way too implausible. There are a lot of great political documentaries out there, but Weiner gets incredible access to a campaign that is spiraling out of control in real time.

The Candidate (1972)

It may be 50 years old, but The Candidate has a timely message about political sensationalism that couldn’t be any more relevant today. Robert Redford stars as a charismatic yet inexperienced candidate who finds himself compromising his beliefs over the course of a tumultuous campaign.

Blow Out (1981)

Here’s one for any conspiracy theorists out there. Brian De Palma’s political thriller follows the aftermath of a political murder intended to cover up a politician’s affair; the film’s iconic final set piece is centered around an election.

All the President’s Men (1976)
An essential classic about the power of journalism, All the President’s Men stars Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein — the reporters who uncovered details about the Watergate scandal. Despite being released only a few years after the events it was depicting, All the President’s Men found a way to deconstruct electioneering in a way that made sense to political novices.

Primary Colors (1995)
So Primary Colors isn’t technically a Bill Clinton biopic, but John Travolta’s womanizing Southern presidential candidate is a fairly obvious riff on the then-incumbent leader of the free world. Although the film centers around Travolta’s affairs, it was ironically in production before details about the Monica Lewinsky scandal emerged.

The Ides of March
(2011)

Would you vote for George Clooney? You may not want to after watching The Ides of March, in which he plays a seemingly idealistic presidential candidate who is covering up some dark secrets. Ryan Gosling delivers a sensational performance as a junior staffer, but it’s Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as dueling campaign managers who cut to the heart of the film’s cynicism.

Bob Roberts (1992)
Bob Roberts starts off as a satire, and then it gets really, really scary. This mockumentary centers on a conservative country star who runs for office on the promise of returning the U.S. to “traditional values.” Bob, played by writer/director Tim Robbins, may look like a goofball, but his incendiary speeches inspire a rise of fascism among his voters.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Here’s one you’ll definitely want to watch if you’re looking to catch up on the filmography of the late great Angela Lansbury. Lansbury gives a rare villainous performance as Eleanor Iselin, the domineering mother of a candidate who has been brainwashed by communist conspirators. Although the original film centered around Cold War paranoia, the 2004 remake from Silence of the Lambs director Jonathan Demme reimagined the story as a parallel to the Gulf War.

Milk (2008)
The road to equality and representation has come a long way, but it’s a fight that’s not close to being over. This powerful biopic is known for Sean Penn's Oscar-winning performance as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay member elected to office in California.

Long Shot (2019)
It’s a shame Long Shot underperformed, because we need more charming romantic comedies like this one. Seth Rogen stars as a impassioned reporter who reunites with his old flame (Charlize Theron), who just so happens to be running for president. Although there are a lot of physical gags typical of a Rogen film, Long Shot actually does a pretty great job at deconstructing sexism within electoral coverage.

The Front Runner (2018)

Another “ripped from the headlines” story that feels particularly timely, The Front Runner examines the campaign of Gary Hart as the media uncover details of his affairs. The Front Runner became the first film to be released on Election Day, but it sadly underperformed as both a box office event and an awards contender. Perhaps the story felt a little too close to home for some audiences to stomach.

The Dead Zone (1983)
Martin Sheen pops up as a popular candidate in The Dead Zone, but he couldn’t differ any more from Jed Bartlett of The West Wing. Sheen co-stars as Greg Stillson, a nuclear extremist whose conspiracy is uncovered by the psychic Johnny (Christopher Walken).
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Liam Gaughan has been covering film and television since before he had a driver's license, and in addition to the Observer has been published in About.com, Schmoes Know, Taste of Cinema and The Dallas Morning News. He enjoys checking classic films off of his watchlist and working on spec scripts.

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