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Reel Streaming: Don't Look to the Movies for Smooth Elections!

One film journalist’s stream-of-consciousness cinematic journey through the pandemic, Part 107

By Laurence Lerman / New York City

The Candidate (1972)
The Candidate (1972)

While a Reel Streaming column tied in to this year’s midterm election shouldn’t come as a surprise, we figured that a fresh angle would be one focusing on elections gone wrong.

That’s been a large part of the conversation over the past 20 years, hasn’t it? That so many Americans currently think the electoral process isn’t kosher is a truly depressing thought. The idea that something is going very wrong between the ballot box and the announcement of election results—that there are formidable, dishonest forces at work affecting the democratic process that defines our nation—is almost too much to absorb.

It's no surprise, then, that wrongfully conducted or deceptive elections and campaign have been a subject in a sizable number of movies over the years.

Here are 10 movies spanning eight decades that include a Hollywood classic, a snarky new millennium favorite, a numbingly violent future-shock thriller, a Warner Bros. Merrie Melodies cartoon and a half-dozen others that fit the theme. And like this year’s electoral contests, the majority of them concern state and local politics.

While none of them could be considered an actual comedy (save for the Merrie Melodies installment), all employ a satirical view of the political world they’re tackling, a kind of gallows humor that generally holds them back from being too funny.

And when it comes right down to it, this is really nothing to laugh about.

Bulworth (1998)

Directed by Warren Beatty

Who’s Up for Election? Jay Bulworth (Warren Beatty), a Democratic senator from California and one-time liberal who has conceded to more conservative politics over the years, faces a primary challenge from an up-and-coming young populist.

What Goes Wrong: Weary of politics, drinking excessively and planning to commit suicide, Bulworth decides to speak out in a brutally honest manner, lambasting the right wing and embracing his near-socialist values in the form of rapping and hip-hop culture.

The Best Man (1964)

Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner

Who’s Up for Election? Former Secretary of State William Russell (Henry Fonda), an intellectual with a rumored past of sexual indiscretions, and Senator Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson), a self-described “Man of the People” and ruthless opportunist, lead the race for the presidential nomination for their unnamed political party.

What Goes Wrong: Neither candidate can stand the other, leading to scenarios involving blackmail, extortion and accusations of infidelity. When the smoke clears, the two men appear to have knocked each other out of the running and virtually handed the nomination to a minor contender.

Election (1999)

Directed by Alexander Payne

Who’s Up for Election? Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon), an overachieving Omaha high school student, runs unopposed for student government president, but still goes to extremes to guarantee she will win.

What Goes Wrong: Tracy’s civics teacher, Jim McAllister (Matthew Broderick), frustrated that nobody else is running in the election and unhappy with the exasperating Tracy in general, recruits several other students to run and then gets perilously involved in the counting of the ballots.

The Candidate (1972)

Directed by Michael Ritchie

Who’s Up for Election? Bill McKay (Robert Redford), the idealistic and charismatic son of a former California governor (Melvyn Douglas), is corralled by a political election specialist (Peter Boyle) to run against a three-term California Republican, Senator Crocker Jarmon (Don Porter).

What Goes Wrong: Since it appears clear that Jarmon cannot lose and that the race is already decided, McKay is free to campaign by saying whatever he wants and to spread his own values. Hitting the trail across the state, McKay unbelievably goes the distance and wins the election. Before meeting the press and his public at a victory party, McKay asks his campaign manager, “What do we do now?,” a query for which the manager has no answer.

Bob Roberts (1992)

Directed by Tim Robbins

Who’s Up for Election? Conservative folk singer Bob Roberts (Tim Robbins) runs for the U.S. Senate and manages to cunningly craft a series of smear campaigns and dirty tricks to gain an advantage over his opponent, the incumbent Democrat Brickley Paiste (Gore Vidal).

What Goes Wrong: A failed assassination attempt of Roberts works politically in his favor and he wins the election with 52% of the vote. Although the Senator-elect claims his wounds have left him paralyzed from the waist down, a close look reveals him to be tapping his feet at a celebration party.

Irresistible (2020)

Directed by Jon Stewart

Who’s Up for Election? A veteran Democratic Party campaign consultant Gary Zimmer (Steve Carell) travels to Deerlaken, Wis. to get behind the campaign of a retired Marine Colonel Jack Hastings in his run to become the town’s Democratic mayor. Zimmer’s theory is that if Hastings is elected, it will convince the American people of the heartland to vote Democrat in the next presidential election.

What Goes Wrong: The Republican National Committee sends Zimmer’s nemesis and former girlfriend, campaign operative Faith Brewster (Rose Byrne), to get behind the town’s Republican incumbent, Mayor Braun (Brent Sexton). By election day, it becomes clear that the citizens of Deerlaken have had their own agenda and carefully worked-out plan for who was going to become their new leader.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Directed by Orson Welles

Who’s Up for Election? Powerful media baron Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) runs for governor of New York.

What Goes Wrong: In the midst of his campaign, Kane begins an affair with an amateur singer (Dorothy Comingore), which is discovered by both Kane’s wife (Ruth Warwick) and his political opponent Jim Gettys (Ray Collins). The ensuing scandal ends both Kane’s political career and his marriage.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004)

Directed by Jonathan Demme

Who’s Up for Election? Ruthless Virginia Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep) uses her influence to secure her Gulf War hero son, Congressman Raymond Shaw (Live Schreiber), a nomination to become the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate in the next election.

What Goes Wrong: Secretly captured and brainwashed during the war by scientists affiliated with a mysterious political faction, Shaw turns out to be a tool of a private equity firm connected to his mother. Eleanor later manipulates Captain Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), a similarly brainwashed member of Raymond’s former platoon, to get him to assassinate the president-elect so that Raymond will become the new leader.

Ballot Box Bunny (1951)

Directed by Friz Freleng

Who’s Up for Election? Yosemite Sam runs for mayor on the campaign promise that he will get rid of all rabbits, prompting Bug Bunny to oppose him in the race as the “pro-bunny” candidate.

What Goes Wrong: Bugs and Sam’s campaigns take on an incendiary tone as the candidates unleash an exploding cigar, piano and canon at each other, with Sam generally being the recipient of the fiery results. In the end, Bugs and Sam are both defeated by a literal “dark horse” candidate who also happens to be a “mare” (so it stands to reason he would be elected “mayor.”) (EDITED CLIP OF BALLOT BOX BUNNY)

The Purge: Election Year (2016)

Directed by James DeMonaco

Who’s Up for Election? In 2040, 18 years after being forced to watch her family killed on Purge night (when all crime, including murder, is decriminalized for 12 hours), Charlene Roan (Elizabeth Roan) is a Senator running for President who promises to end the annual Purge.

What Goes Wrong: Two months following the Purge, a TV announcement declares that Roan has won the election in a landslide victory. That’s followed by a news report stating that violent uprisings are spreading across the nation, instigated by Purge supporters in response to the election results.


Laurence Lerman is a film journalist, former editor of Video Business--Variety's DVD trade publication--and husband to The Insider's own Gwen Cooper. Over the course of his career he has conducted one-on-one interviews with just about every major director working today, including Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino, Clint Eastwood, Kathryn Bigelow, Ridley Scott, Walter Hill, Spike Lee, and Werner Herzog, among numerous others. Once James Cameron specifically requested an interview with Laurence by name, which his wife still likes to brag about. Most recently, he is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the online review site



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