10 political movies that will actually inspire you

Yeah, the Trump era is a straight-up drag, but here are a few films that may restore your faith in democracy

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 29, 2017 8:30AM (EDT)

Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, and David Costabile in "Lincoln" (DreamWorks II Distribution Co./David James)
Daniel Day-Lewis, David Strathairn, and David Costabile in "Lincoln" (DreamWorks II Distribution Co./David James)
As Americans prepare to celebrate Memorial Day Weekend, they face an unusual challenge. Even though we're supposed to spend this day honoring not only the soldiers who died for our country, but the political leaders who preside over the democratic society for which they fought, it's difficult to escape the sense that our current leadership leaves us with very little to be inspired about.
Donald Trump, after all, is a president whose rise to power was made possible by the alleged interference of a brutal dictator, Vladimir Putin, with whom his campaign may have actually colluded. The president has himself shown enormous disrespect toward veterans, from insulting a POW by saying by saying, "I like people who weren't captured," to attacking the family of a Muslim soldier who died serving America.
For those of you who need a pick-me-up — a reminder that there have been great and inspiring leaders as well as miserable ones — here are 10 films that you should stream as soon as possible.

"1776" (1972)

"1776" may not win any awards for historical accuracy, but for anyone who wants to bask in the glow of America's founding moment, it can't be beat. Brimming with catchy show-stopping numbers and headlined by William Daniels' unforgettable performance as future president John Adams, it captures the spirit of those blisteringly hot summer days in which the Continental Congress met in Philadelphia to create a new nation. The dialogue is smart (and quite often hilarious) and, despite containing no literal action scenes, one nevertheless feels like they're on the edge of their seat the entire time as these politicians duke it out with their sharp tongues. For me, "1776" is a staple of Fourth of July celebrations, but it works just as well for Memorial Day. Plus it has this immortal line, which explains so much about the appeal of conservatism: "Don't forget that most men with nothing would rather protect the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor."

"Dick" (1999)
As you will notice from the other entries on this list, many of them celebrate not only great leaders, but also people who took down bad ones. Hence the inclusion of "Dick," a 1999 comedy that satirizes the Watergate scandal by envisioning an alternate universe in which two ditzy teenage girls served as Deep Throat, the anonymous source who helped Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein take down the corrupt President Richard Nixon. Released six years before Mark Felt was revealed to have been the actual Deep Throat, "Dick" is strangely inspiring because, while it presents an obviously fictionalized version of the real-life events of Watergate, it manages to demonstrate how even the most depressing chapters of American history can, when filtered through the right perspective, contain a comical spin. If you can't laugh at tragedies, all that's left is the ability to cry.

"Thirteen Days" (2000) 
This is another entry that may seem odd, as it details the Cuban Missile Crisis (that moment in 1962 when the entire world was nearly destroyed in a nuclear war), but this film shows how intelligent, cool-headed leadership can indeed save the day. It is so easy to imagine how, under a president who wasn't John F. Kennedy, America could have responded to the Soviet Union's provocation (deploying ballistic missiles in Cuba) in a way that would have triggered World War III. Luckily, America had a president who not only understood the horrors of war, but had an intuitive grasp of how to navigate treacherous geopolitical minefields. Considering that we live in an era in which our president seems to be one blunder away from causing international catastrophe, it's comforting to remind ourselves that our nation has been through worse — and has had leaders capable of saving the world.

"Chisholm '72: Unbought and Unbossed" (2004)
This is the first of two documentaries included here about the 1972 presidential election, and with good reason. At face value this would seem like an odd contest for a progressive website to celebrate — after all, it saw President Richard Nixon win reelection by one of the largest popular and electoral college landslides in American history (an actual landslide, not the imaginary one that Trump has foisted on us).Yet there were two presidential candidates on the Democratic side who were true trailblazers in that campaign. While neither of them ever served as president, both had a far-reaching positive impact that is still felt today. One was George McGovern. The other was Rep. Shirley Chisholm of New York, who that year became the first African-American to seek a major party's presidential nomination as well as the first woman to do so for the Democratic Party. Although her candidacy never took off, it's impossible to imagine either President Barack Obama or the near-presidency of Hillary Clinton without Chisholm paving the way for both of them. It helps a lot that Chisholm herself is endlessly fascinating, making it all the more heartbreaking that she could only be a trailblazer instead of an actual president.

"One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern" (2005)
Although derided as a crazy leftist in his own time, the progressive domestic and international policies espoused by Senator George McGovern of South Dakota have become common wisdom within the Democratic Party today. Not that this was much comfort for McGovern himself, who despite winning the Democratic nomination on his controversial platform wound up suffering a resounding defeat at the hands of President Richard Nixon in the general election. Yet, for those who feel despair at Donald Trump's ability to defeat Hillary Clinton, this documentary offers a piece of wisdom that can't be beat: While Nixon may have defeated McGovern in the election itself, Nixon was subsequently disgraced and many of the people who worked for him went to jail. By contrast, no one on the McGovern campaign ever went to jail and McGovern's stances have been vindicated in the eyes of history. The parallels between the lessons offered in this documentary and the ones of the 2016 contest, which we're still seeing play out with Trump's ongoing Russia-related scandals, are too obvious to ignore.

"Good Night, and Good Luck" (2005)
While many conservatives like to claim that Democrats who draw attention to President Donald Trump's connections with Russia are being McCarthyist, there are two problems with that argument. First, there actually are links between Team Trump and the Russian government, whereas most of Wisconsin Sen. Joseph McCarthy's victims were innocent. Secondly, Trump was mentored by Roy Cohn, who had once served as McCarthy's right-hand man, and the bullying tactics they used to ruin anyone and everyone who stood in his way are almost perfectly employed by Trump today. That's why "Good Night, and Good Luck" is such an inspiring film at this particular historical moment. It reminds us how intelligence and basic human decency destroyed one of the most dangerous right-wing demagogues of the 1950s, and by implication how men and women of good will could do the same thing with the right-wing demagogue in the White House in the 2010s. Indeed, much the same thing can be said for the next film on this list.

"Frost/Nixon" (2008)
Much like "Good Night, and Good Luck," this movie tells the story of a journalist who managed to take down a powerful and corrupt right-wing leader. Unlike "Good Night, and Good Luck," however, "Frost/Nixon" focuses on one of America's most infamously corrupt presidents, Richard Nixon, and how an intrepid journalist finally managed to get him to admit that his Watergate shenanigans had let down the American people he had pledged to serve. Considering that Nixon's infamous line from that interview — "When the president does it, that means it's not illegal" — is eerily reminiscent of what Trump says over and over again to excuse his own bad behavior, it's downright comforting to remind ourselves that other bad leaders who tried to use that reasoning were ultimately undone by it. Things may seem dark right now, but the cause of justice has a funny way of catching up on those who try to elude its grasp, and this movie implies that politicians who emulate Nixon's actions will eventually suffer something akin to his fate.

"Lincoln" (2012)
What makes this movie so fantastic — apart from Daniel Day-Lewis' performance as President Abraham Lincoln, which being Day-Lewis was obviously brilliant — is that it manages to tie one of the most inspiring moments of Lincoln's presidency to the grubby day-to-day politicking that makes the American government actually work. People remember that Lincoln freed the slaves, of course, but they usually don't think about how he had to go about it. It wasn't the Emancipation Proclamation, after all, which had left the post-Civil War status of the freed slaves uncertain, but the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. While Lincoln's determination to free the slaves was unwavering, he was also a practical politician who realized that wheeling and dealing would be necessary to achieve a goal as momentous as this one. As such, "Lincoln" is the tale of how even the more unseemly aspects of American politics serve an important function. Like "Thirteen Days" (described above), "Lincoln" is inspiring because it's a true story of a great leader who used his power to do great things.

"Selma" (2015)
While Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wasn't a political leader, his impact on American history surpasses that of many of the politicians who came and went during his own lifetime. What's more, his legacy lives on in the countless Resistance movements that have sprung up to oppose the racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia and other forms of bigotry that are being propagated by Trump and his followers in the late 2010s. It's easy to describe how "Selma" is inspiring as a chronicle of a key moment in the American civil rights movement, but it is also inspiring because it demonstrates how countless ordinary citizens can — by simple virtue of choosing to resist an unjust status quo perpetrated by the powers that be — create major, lasting changes. While most of the other entries on this list discuss how political leaders wrought political change, "Selma" is at its heart the story of how one of America's greatest citizens managed to act with great courage to transform America forever. The film's only major flaw is its inaccurate portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson, which brings us to the final film on this list.

"All the Way" (2016)
If you haven't seen "Breaking Bad" or read about America's 36th president, you may not realize the degree to which that was masterful casting, but trust that "Bryan Cranston as President Lyndon Johnson" should be words that send shivers down your spine. "All the Way" is something of a companion piece to "Lincoln," from the pitch-perfect casting of the lead role to the underlying themes of the story it tells. Just as "Lincoln" describes the political machinations that led to the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, "All the Way" goes into how one of the most brilliant politicians to ever occupy the White House used all of his gifts to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national background. We may take for granted today that these things are illegal, but it was damnably difficult to make them a reality in the 1960s and it's doubtful that a president without Johnson's legendary skills as a politician could have pushed through this bill. For anyone who wants to understand the politics behind the success of the civil rights movement, "All the Way" is must-see television.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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