Elections on Film

(image from Primary from bostonglobe.com)

In the politics of the USA, the race for the presidency is often one of the most dramatic and hardest fought. We see clashes of political philosophy and personality across our screens almost daily. While we know how all these past elections ended, seeing what issues animated the campaigns and strategies of the candidates as they struggle towards election is fascinating in retrospect. It's history as it was lived.

While you are preparing to participate in our current primary and general election, here are some great films on the ins and outs of past elections.



from The Kennedy Films of Robert Drew & Associates

Political coverage was transformed by filmmaker Robert Drew and his associates, who happened to include famed documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Albert Maysles. Drew was assigned to cover the Democratic primary in Wisconsin that was being contested by Senators Hubert Humphrey and John F. Kennedy. He pioneered a mainstream television version of observational cinema often referred to as cinema vérité. The film is fascinating in showing the contrasting styles and personalities of the two campaigns and how voters of the time were engaged by them.  

Also included in this set are three other films on Kennedy by Drew's team that are equally interesting looks into the politics of that time period.

Blu-ray version

War Room

Over thirty years after the events of Primary, filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker returned to film the political process again in this Oscar nominated documentary. This time though the focus is not on candidate (Bill Clinton) but the strategists figuring out how to react and use current events for the benefit of their campaign. The film is almost a duel of personalities as lead strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos grapple with conflicting styles and reactions to the changing conditions of the election.  

Journeys With George

The 2000 presidential election was one of the closest in American history. It was also a sharply divided contest between candidates who dealt with the press in completely different ways. In this documentary, filmmakers Alexandra Pelosi and Aaron Lubarsky are given a huge amount of access to the inner workings of the Bush campaign and its press tour as he traveled across the country making the case for his candidacy. The candidate, George W. Bush and his ability to campaign is the center of this documentary.

Barack Obama, People's President

In the 2000's the media landscape dramatically changed as more and more people turned from newspapers and television for information to the internet. This dramatically shifted the ways in which candidates could reach out and engage potential voters. This film shows the strategic choices that Barack Obama and his campaign staff made as he moved from underdog status against both Hillary Clinton and John McCain to successfully win the presidency in 2008.

Tanner '88

Back in 1988 a large slate of potential Democratic candidates converged on the scene to take on vice president George H.W. Bush for the presidency. Alongside these very real candidates, director Robert Altman and writer Garry Trudeau ran a completely fictional candidate. Senator Jack Tanner ended up interacting with many of the real political operatives and candidates of the time. In many ways, this political satire feels like the precursor to films like Borat but instead of regular people, Tanner is satirizing both the candidates and the often circus-like atmosphere of the modern presidential campaign. This isn't a documentary but it does clearly illustrate the process of campagning.

There is much more to check out on this list.

Elections on Film


Pat Oey
This is fascinating--thanks for the list!
5/26/2016 10:41:04 AM

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