At the Movies

Votes on controversial legislation often are split along partylines. Expect a similar reaction to W., Oliver Stone’s new movie chronicling the life and times of George W. Bush.

Conservatives are likely to protest that the film presents an unfair and inaccurate picture of our 43rd President and is yet another example of the liberal media and Hollywood elite. Meanwhile, we can expect those on the left to cite it as one more piece of evidence that the Bush presidency has been a disaster for America.

But for people of all political persuasions, W. offers the opportunity for a welcome diversion from the intense and serious business of politics and elections that has dominated the national agenda during the longest presidential campaign in U.S. history. If you’re inclined to take advantage of this opportunity and opt for the celluloid version of politics over the real thing, here are some other political films to satisfy your appetite between now and Election Day:

The Manchurian Candidate (1962)

More than four decades after its release, the original Manchurian Candidate remains one of the most powerful and suspenseful films involving the world of politics. With a plot that features a presidential campaign driven by ambition, a decorated war hero who becomes an assassin, and tales of brainwashing during the Cold War, followers of New Jersey politics will be right at home.

The movie actually does have connections with New Jersey. One of the characters has a recurring dream that he is in Spring Lake listening to a lecture from the Spring Lake Garden Club. The surname of a key presidential aspirant is Iselin, which also is the name of a section of Woodbridge Township. And one of the stars of the film is Hoboken’s own Frank Sinatra.

All the Presidents Men (1976)

This story of Watergate and Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward reminds us that there once was a time when people considered journalists the good guys in the white hats. It also reminds us of what it was like to be an investigative reporter before the Internet put research at our fingertips. In one scene, we see Woodward and Bernstein looking through every phone book in the Washington Post newsroom to track down a lead. In another, Bernstein spends the better part of a day waiting for his one chance to question a reluctant official who holds a key to unraveling the Watergate story.

A slight New Jersey connection here too: Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy is a New Jersey native who grew up in West Caldwell and graduated from Saint Benedict’s Prep in Newark.

Wag the Dog (1997)

A chief executive involved in a sex scandal also has a familiar ring for New Jerseyans. In this film, however, a political consultant creates a fake war to divert attention elsewhere. The story is farfetched (hopefully), but the plotting, the bumps in the road, the charges and counter-charges and the need to act quickly to counter them should be familiar processes for anyone who has been involved in a political campaign at any level.

An even more tenuous New Jersey connection: The movie features scenes of many popular Washington landmarks, including one in which a limousine departs from the historic Hay Adams Hotel. The hotel was the site of former Governor McGreevey’s wedding to Dina Matos.

Street Fight (2005)

Why settle for fiction when you can get the real thing? This documentary on the 2002 mayoral campaign in Newark captures the essence of politicking in New Jersey — the powerbrokers, the threats, the paybacks and more. If you’ve spent anytime in government or politics in the state, you’re sure to spot a familiar face, location or event, maybe even yourself.

Recount (2008)

In the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election, so many things occurred so quickly that it is valuable to have a film preserving these historic weeks in American history. Just how accurate the film is, however, has been the subject of much debate and discussion.

But on a broader scale, Recount does provide an accurate picture of 21st Century American politics. We see partisanship, polarization and two parties so obsessed with winning that they forget that government, as Lincoln said, should be of the people, by the people, and for the people.

Bonus:
Running on Empty (1988)

On the surface, this may have more to do with New Jersey than politics. Most of the plot takes place in New Jersey, parts of it were filmed in Tenafly, and there is a scene that features a closeup of the front page of The Star-Ledger.

As for the politics, the movie is about Arthur and Annie Pope, two Vietnam era radicals who have been living underground since they blew up a napalm lab to protest the war. The fictional Popes were modeled after Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn of the Weather Underground. Ayers, as anyone who follows presidential politics should know, now is a college professor who has become a campaign issue because of his association with Barack Obama.

As you can see, the line between fiction and real life often is a thin one. When it comes to politics, it may not matter whether you’re on the campaign trail or at the movies.

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