In 1934 Hamilton MacFadden made a New Deal comedy called Stand Up and Cheer. Quick summary: The president creates a new Department of Amusement because Americans are so depressed, what with the Depression and all. A Broadway producer takes the helm and, in one of the great feats of central planning, organizes a massive entertainment drive. This angers a cabal of evil businessmen, who somehow are profiting from the bad times, so they conspire to bring the new agency down. The noble impresario rebuffs their efforts; and the country, inspired by his not-quite-Keynesian stimulus, emerges happily from the Great Depression. The end.
Hollywood's most popular products are wish fulfillment and nightmares, and its political pictures offer substantial doses of each. The fantasy of a political savior has been a movie mainstay from the birth of the talkies to the modern day: If it's not a Secretary of Amusement then it's a naive congressional freshman (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, 1939), a crusading lady populist (The Farmer's Daughter, 1947), or a Democrat's fantasy of what he really, really wishes Bill Clinton could be (The American President, 1995). It's no surprise that both leading candidates for the White House offer public personas already familiar from the movies. John Kerry is the war hero (his handlers having decided that Sergeant York is a better sell than Born on the Fourth of July), while George W. Bush is the regular Joe, just like you 'n' me, bringing common sense and whatnot to Washington. Kinda like Mr. Smith.
There are certain differences between Mr. Smith and Mr. Bush, of course, among them the odd circumstances under which Bush attained his office. But that's beside the point as far as the movies are concerned. Modern audiences seem to find it unbelievable that a good man could reach a high office in the conventional manner. Instead we get retreads of a formula that goes at least as far back as Gabriel Over the White House (1933), in which a puppet president survives an accident, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be. So there's a disillusioned senator who thinks he's about to die, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be (Bullworth, 1998); a slick crook who cons his way into Congress, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be (The Distinguished Gentleman, 1992); a lowly alderman who runs for president as a sacrificial lamb, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be (Head of State, 2003); and even a lookalike who secretly takes the president's place, sees the light, and starts to stand up for the little guy and fight the powers that be (Dave, 1993). Purists will note that Bush has yet to start standing up for the little guy and fighting the powers that be. But while I'm no fan of the president, I think I'd like him even less if he started channeling the Humphrey-Hawkins Full Employment Act a la Dave, or rapping about the need for socialized health care a la Bullworth.
The only political archetype that's more common than the savior is the cabal. An optimistic political movie has to have a hero and some villains; a pessimistic political movie just needs the villains. Richard Condon's cynical novels have inspired two of the most enjoyably paranoid takes on American political life, The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and the best of the Kennedy assassination movies, the wonderfully dark comedy Winter Kills (1979). But they're just the tip of the genre. If you don't care for Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner's vision of a saintly Democrat fending off Gingrichite grinches in The American President, then turn to the nightmare on the other side of the wish-fulfillment fantasy: You and the specter of Vince Foster can enjoy a radically different vision of the Clinton years in two 1997 films, Murder at 1600 and Clint Eastwood's Absolute Power. More realistic, and arguably more cynical, is my favorite political picture, in which there's no need for a cabal; the protagonist simply has his own weaknesses, and the system simply has its own logic. The Candidate (1972) reverses the Mr. Smith formula: Instead of idealism overcoming corruption, it shows us an idealist getting corrupted.
That said, the greatest charm of The Candidate isn't its moral. It's its flavor. The fly-on-the-wall style, the extra storylines lurking in the background, the savvy take on the media—between them they make this the oldest political movie I can think of that still feels contemporary. (Assuming you can get past the media consultant's primitive technology and the occasional references to such dormant issues as busing.) It feels like it was made by someone who'd actually spent some time on the campaign trail.
That's a rare trait. Most political flicks, even the good ones, suffer from a seriously distorted concept of their subject. The most egregious case—setting aside Stand Up and Cheer—is probably The Contender (2000), another liberal fantasy. Writer-director Rod Lurie is so tone-deaf that he seems to think a popular, moderate, Midwestern politician would call for a draconian form of gun control; worse yet, he thinks that a potential vice-president's youthful sexcapades would be more of a political hot potato than her open atheism. It's at times like these that one hopes the candidates are smart enough not to take all their cues from the movies.
Though on second thought, I kind of like the idea of Bush as a rapping socialist after all. Bring it on!