Paul Whitington: The Front Runner reminds us of Hollywood’s enduring love affair with those who govern
The next 18 months or so will be an interesting time in US politics, as the Democrats try to find a candidate charismatic (and tough) enough to take on the scatter-gun populism of Donald Trump. The party will be hoping their candidate can create the kind of surge of liberal optimism that carried Barack Obama to the White House in 2009.
But the Democrat bigwigs will be well aware that great candidates have emerged before, only to crash and burn in the heat of a presidential campaign, and none more spectacularly than Gary Hart. Young, handsome and blessed with terrific hair, Hart narrowly lost the Democratic Presidential nomination to Walter Mondale in 1984, won it in 1988 and seemed destined to go all the way against a Republican candidate (the late George Bush) few were keen on.
Clever, attractive and a good public speaker with a formidable grasp of both domestic and foreign issues, Hart forged ahead in the polls and seemed a shoo-in. But there was one small problem: old Gary couldn't keep his pants on, and when proof emerged of a mid-campaign sexual affair, he was forced to withdraw from the race.
Hart's story is well told in Jason Reitman's entertaining new drama The Front Runner, which opens here next week. Hugh Jackman is Gary, Vera Farmiga his sainted wife, in a film that explores the spin and cynicism of election politics and has pleasing echoes of Washington's present travails. It's a good political movie, though maybe not one of the very best. The films below, however, all found compelling ways of dramatising the flaws and strengths of those who govern us.
The Great McGinty (1940)
In the first of his great screwball satires, Preston Sturges took a hilarious cut at the graft inherent in American political life. Irish-American actor Brian Donlevy starred as Dan McGinty, a homeless man hired by a political boss to vote early and often under assumed names, and eventually mounts the greasy pole to become first mayor, then governor. But then he grows a conscience.
All the King's Men (1949)
Based on the life of Louisiana governor Huey Long, Robert Rossen's classic stars Broderick Crawford as Willie Stark, a charismatic southern politician who starts out with high hopes of fighting corruption and representing the working man. But on his way to the top, he becomes every bit as corrupt as those he criticised.
I'm All Right Jack (1959)
This seminal film from the Boulting brothers portrayed post-war Britain as a morally bankrupt state in which management and organised labour were locked in a race to the ethical bottom. In one of his finest performances, Peter Sellers plays Fred Kite, a communist union official who calls a strike on spurious motives to protect his lazy, coddled workers.
Advise and Consent (1962)
Criticised by contemporary critics for its depiction of Washington as a place rife with venality, Otto Preminger's film was a little too close to the bone for a 1960s audience. When an ailing US president (Franchot Tone) nominates a like-minded politician called Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) for the post of Secretary of State, dark secrets emerge about the candidate's past. A very grown-up political drama.
The Candidate (1972)
Robert Redford was the reluctant candidate at the centre of Michael Ritchie's 1970s comedy. When Bill McKay enters the California governor's race as a long-shot Democratic candidate, he does so on condition that he can speak his mind and espouse radical liberal values. But when a series of unforeseen events place him in real contention, the spin-doctors take over.
All the President's Men (1976)
Redford again, who did not direct this classic but was most definitely the driving force behind it. It was he who bought the rights to Woodward and Bernstein's 1974 book and made sure Alan J Pakula's film stuck as closely to the real Watergate investigation as possible. Redford is Bob Woodward and Dustin Hoffman is Bernstein, the two junior reporters whose doggedness will change the course of American history.
Hidden Agenda (1990)
Ken Loach's thriller was inspired by the RUC shoot-to-kill controversy and starred Brian Cox and Frances McDormand as investigators who come to Northern Ireland to look into the killing of an American civil rights lawyer and his Republican guide. When they're given a tape proving the murders were state-sponsored, the British establishment tries to smother the investigation.
The Last Mitterrand (2005)
Robert Guédiguian's film features a brilliant performance from Michel Bouquet as 'Le President', a sick and ageing leader who looks back on his long and eventful life in the company of a journalist who's writing a book on him. Though his name is never mentioned, the president is François Mitterrand, whose place in history is threatened by scandals in his past.
In 1977, Richard Nixon agreed to do a series of in-depth TV interviews with David Frost. The former president was keen to rehabilitate his reputation, and thought Frost was a showbiz lightweight who could easily be manipulated. But he got that wrong, as this excellent Ron Howard dramatisation proves.
Steven Spielberg's superb historical drama is based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals and tells the story of how Abraham Lincoln worked behind the scenes to outlaw slavery in America while simultaneously overseeing the endgame of the American Civil War. Daniel Day-Lewis played the great man superbly.