Political Films As Comfort Food

Whether you live in the United States or the United Kingdom, politics is a hassle. Watching the nonstop back-and-forth as well as the partisan divides and misinformation along political lines can be stressful. It’s enough to make one feel as though the government cannot ever be successful or helpful. There has been a significant decline in public trust in the government over the last 20-30 years, whether it is trust in the President, Congress, or just government agencies as a whole.

Part of this is due to the ability to see behind the curtain. Journalists offer more in-depth insights into the methods used to make meaningful decisions daily, as do government insiders and bloggers. Events like impeachment and Watergate have also made things just feel worse.

So wouldn’t it be nice to just sit back and watch something where the government doesn’t completely suck? This is the wonder of Hollywood. Film and television have offered users the chance to imagine worlds where things are unreal. The fantasies can be as insane as talking toys or an infested space vessel discovering alien life. But for some, the romance of a successful government is enough to capture their imagination.

This fantasy is what I like to call “political comfort food.’” These are the films and programs that decide to entice us with the premise that a working government is possible and that compromise is viable.

And there is no better example of this than Aaron Sorkin’s award-winning political drama The West Wing. In this simple television show, we watch as a series of staff members and congressmen make compromises and decisions about dire political affairs. They could be international conflicts, or they could be the internal affairs of having a past addict on staff. By the end of the episode, the officials in charge come to a conclusion and declare the problem solved. Or at least satisfied until it comes back next season. It’s a soothing and entertaining process for the wannabe political junkie.

But it is honestly just that: entertainment. In an interview with Vox, West Wing writer Eli Attie stated that the show “stripped away the clutter of what it’s like to work in the White House and the fact that people spend a lot of their day answering emails and sitting in boring meetings and gets to the kind of essence of decision-making. The goal of The West Wing was to entertain people first, second, third, fourth, and fifth.”

Political comfort food is not required to cling to a sense of realism or accuracy. It is designed to draw us in and offer a world where idealistic politics exist, rather than the mixture of self-interest and self-satisfaction that infests most local politics.

In light of that, here are some films to quench your thirst regarding political comfort food.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)

This James Stewart/Frank Capra film reflects a period of history where politics appeared far less complicated. It was a time when media coverage and the notion of political corruption did not sit at the forefront of our memories. The film tells the story of Jefferson Smith, a leader of his local community who is drawn into the corruption of politics in his day and comes out on top. While politicians of the era declared the film concerning and “a grotesque distortion” of how the Senate operates, it still struck a chord with audiences and is remembered well by film viewers today.

Primary (1960)

With each and every election that arises, there are the challenges and complications that occur in its vote. But there is something to be said about watching past elections in their historical relevance and determinism. Directed by Robert Drew, Primary tells the story of John F Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey’s competitive Wisconsin primary race in 1960. Relying on footage of the candidates on the road, Primary captures the unique story on film through a unique lens.

The Darkest Hour (2017)

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour.

The period of World War II is one buried in a million stories. While many films will fixate themselves on the soldiers or in the US, there is much to be said about the politics of the 1940s British Parliament. Watching Winston Churchill as Britain makes motions to fully resist the Nazi regime deserves a miniseries in itself. Gary Oldman’s outing as Churchill is a spectacular performance, capturing the energy of the Prime Minister while the surrounding cast provides an enthralling sense of the setting.

The King’s Speech (2010)

How can a leader lead if he cannot speak well? This is the query behind Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech. The film explores George VI’s stutter and the process it would take to overcome such a limitation. Featuring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, and Helena Bonham Carter, the film offers a hopeful story where the royalty must make strides to overcome the personal limitations of their lives. But in doing so, they end up leading British politics toward something better.

Dave (1993)

What if you looked like the president? Like, really looked like him? And what if you had to stand in for him while that same president was deathly ill? This is the premise of Dave, in which Kevin Kline has to replace the president while he is feeling ill. Kline’s performance is amicable and approachable while being paired off with Sigourney Weaver’s First Lady. For those who want a film about the everyman being pulled into the most important political office in America, this is a great pick.

The American President (1995)

While most of the films featured on this list deal with political plights or shifts, The American President deals with something far more mundane — what if the president dated while in the office? Michael Douglas plays the president in this film as he is paired off with Annette Benning as an environmental activist. While the film certainly explores the politics of personality and party tension in its own ways, there is something to appreciate about watching a politician be human and try to get the girl.

Lincoln (2012)

More often than not, it is easy to find soothing pleasure in the actions of men that history has honoured. And Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is no exception. Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrait of Abraham Lincoln is brilliant in its nature, channelling the calm yet personable energy that defined the Lincoln presidency in such a complicated time of war. The film bends and explores the necessary political decisions required to bring about the end of the Civil War, and features quite a few faces you may recognize, such as Adam Driver.

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