The Best Political Movies and TV Shows

As events in Washington DC unfold as a shocking real-life soap opera in real-time, we suggest some of our favorite politically-themed films and TV shows to offer insight and distraction (even if this episode in The White House has been stranger than any fiction).


All the President’s Men (1976)

One for the ages, this 1976 American political biographical drama focuses on the Watergate scandal, which brought an end to the presidency of Richard Nixon. Directed by Alan J. Pakula with a screenplay by William Golding, it’s based on the 1974 non-fiction book of the same name by Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, who in the film are played by Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford respectively. The film is super-smart, gripping from beginning to end, easy on the eye, and an intimate look at a seminal event in American political history. Also interestingly, both these journalist are still very much relevant and active in today’s political arena. If you haven’t seen, a must watch… and if you have, it remains worthy of multiple views.

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

Another must watch with masses of contemporary relevance is John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic, ‘The Manchurian Candidate’. Staring Laurence Harvey, Angela Lansbury and Frank Sinatra, it’s a film noir that walks the delicate line between realism and surrealism. Set amidst the Cold War, it centers on the Chinese capturing an American patrol and implementing brainwashing techniques with the intention of one soldier being programmed to become an assassin and take out a presidential candidate. In the words of the late, great film critic Roger Ebert, “The Manchurian Candidate is inventive and frisky, takes enormous chances with the audience, and plays not like a ‘classic’ but as a work as alive and smart as when it was first released.”

Selma (2014)

Written by Paul Webb and directed by Ava DuVernay, Selma chronicles the campaign of Dr Martin Luther King Jr’s campaign to secure equal voting rights for Black African Americans via an epic 50-mile march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, in 1965. David Oyelowo stars as MLK Jr in a portrayal rich with nuance, self doubt, humor and conviction. It’s a passionate, intimate and raw look at one of the most consequential events of the Civil Rights movement and a must see for those familiar with the history and those curious to know more. One interesting fact: Representative John Lewis, who died last July aged 80, walked arm-in-arm with MLK as a 25-year-old, and was propelled onto a global stage as a leader for voting rights having been photographed getting struck by State trooper’s nightstick and sustaining a fractured skull in the march.

The Campaign (2012)

For those in need of a belly laugh, we can recommend this 2012 gem which sees an incumbent Representative, played by Will Ferrell, who embroiled in personal scandal faces a relentless no-holds-barred challenge from a naive newcomer played by Zach Galifianakis, funded by two unscrupulous billionaire brothers. Directed by Jay Roach, with a stellar cast including Jason Sudeikis, Dylan McDermott and many more, the film underlines the thin line between the sublime and the ridiculous and fact crossing over to fiction. One particular scene, featuring a baby, is side-splittingly funny. Given what we’re all going through at this moment in time, ‘The Campaign’ might be a momentary distraction to offer some necessary comedic release from the absurdity of it all.

Milk (2008)

Sean Penn deservedly received an Academy Award for Best Actor in Gus Van Sant’s 2008 American biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California. In 1972, on turning 40 and seeking purpose in his life, Harvey and his then lover Scott Smith (James Franco) leave New York for San Francisco and open a camera shop in the Castro District, a predominantly working-class neighborhood. Thereafter, having won the hearts and minds of his beloved community with wit, intelligence and great fortitude amid the prejudice of the status quo, Harvey championed a bill banning discrimination in public accommodations, housing, and employment on the basis of sexual orientation which was passes by a vote of 11-1. But then tragedy occurred…Truly a must see for anyone and everyone.


House of Cards – UK (BBC) and US (Netflix)

If the success of Netflix’s House of Cards (set in Washington, starring Robin Wright and Kevin Spacey prior to the revelation of his harassment accusations) didn’t drive you to go back and watch or re-watch the 1990 British version (set in London, starring Ian Richardson) that inspired the reboot, they you’re missing a trick… many political tricks in fact. Both shows are heavily-populated with ruthless antiheroes, despicable characters that are nonetheless completely fascinating in their sophisticated skills of manipulation and scheming. Both series are a must see and an unfortunate mirror to current events.

The Thick of It (BBC) and Veep (HBO)

Another brilliant political double act of a British series that successfully underwent the Washington DC treatment are ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’, both created by Armando Iannucci. The perfect vehicle for the sardonic and witty nuances of actress Julia Louis Dreyfus, ‘Veep’ is the seven-season, award-winning comedy show that follows the career of Selina Meyer, a fictional female Vice President of the United States — soon to be upstaged by the very real-life Kamala Harris. Meanwhile, in the British show that predated it, it was the Prime Minister’s foul-mouthed Director of Communications and chief enforcer Malcolm Tucker, played by Peter Capaldi, who was the undoubted star of the show. Both versions are outlandish, crass, absurd… and a little too close to comfort.

The Newsroom (HBO)

This fast-talking scripted show is typical of the genius of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who had previously penned the ‘The West Wing’ — which set the standard for recent political TV dramas. ‘The Newsroom’ still feels relevant even though the events it covers are now old news. With a stellar cast including Jeff Daniels, Jane Fonda, Sam Waterston, Emily Mortimer and Dev Patel, it is well worth revisiting as a schooling in both acting chops, as well as the methodology of the fictional ‘News Night’ newsroom as they attempt to accurately cover the nations politics in a bipartisan manner.

Yes, Minister (BBC)

Perhaps a lesser-known show in the US, but viewed as iconic by British viewers old enough to understand the machinations of politics in the 1980s. Brilliantly comedic, the tales of a fumbling cabinet minister Jim Hacker (Paul Eddington) and his scuffles with his disdainful opposition Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) culminate in Hacker eventually becoming Prime Minister of the UK. Supposedly the favorite series of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, it’s worth watching for a rare insight into her sense of humor at least.

The Politician (Netflix)

One of Ryan Murphy’s first productions through Netflix, and reunited with his ‘Glee’ producer Brad Falchuk, this is certainly the most kitsch of all our chosen series, and probably the most polarizing (yes, the cast occasionally burst in to song.) But, if you want a little escapism in these dark times, then this could be the show for you. Just the thought of Gwyneth Paltrow’s Gucci-attired character possibly becoming the president is enough to keep you watching. She is joined by a talented cast including youngsters Ben Platt, Zoey Deutch and Lucy Boynton, alongside veteran thespians such as Jessica Lange, Bette Midler and Judith Light. The first season is set in a privileged Santa Barbara, and the second in New York as the protagonist Payton Hobart (Platt) takes his presidential aspirations to the East Coast.

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