The 2016 campaign season has had all the ingredients of a blockbuster thriller: feuding foes, endless plot twists, and a killer cliffhanger. Who will take the oath as president of the United States on Jan. 20? Maybe some future Oliver Stone will find a way to capture it all onscreen years from now.
In the meantime, the daily grind of a contentious 24-hour political news cycle can wear anyone down. Is cynicism the big winner in 2016? That’s where the movies come in.
We’ve found nine that will keep you entertained while giving you serious election-night jitters. Some are broad satires about the political machine, and others are conspiracy-minded thrillers. But all will shake your faith in the American experiment.
(And, for balance, we’re also serving up nine movies that will make you feel great about American politics — rediscover your idealism here.)
Long before Susan Sarandon endorsed Jill Stein for president, her then-partner Tim Robbins wrote, directed, and starred as the title character in this 1992 political satire. Filmed in the style of a mockumentary, it’s about a right-wing millionaire and moonlighting folk singer who enters a race to unseat a progressive U.S. Senator (played by Gore Vidal) with mudslinging tactics and talk of traditional family values. Rated R, but L for liberal would be more apt. (Available on Netflix.)
Warren Beatty wrote, directed and starred in this 1998 dramedy about a U.S. senator who, disillusioned and despondent, makes himself the target of a contract killing so his family can collect millions in insurance money. With death on the horizon, Bulworth drops the political platitudes and starts mouthing off on key issues, sounding at times “insane in the membrane.” (Available on Netflix, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, and Google Play.)
Watch the Bulworth trailer:
Robert Redford stars as Bill McKay, a liberal legal-aid activist from California with no political experience who runs against an established Republican senator — and gradually gets seduced by power. The more popular he becomes in the polls, the more he lets go of his long-held values, and the more molded and muddled he becomes. “One of the few good, truly funny American political comedies ever made,” New York Times critic Vincent Canby wrote about the film in 1972. A dark comedy, to be sure. (Available on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, and Amazon Video.)
Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
As many voters contemplate what it would mean to have Donald Trump’s finger on the nuclear button, consider revisiting Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy. It stars Peter Sellers as a psychotic American general who wants to launch an attack on the Soviet Union, without consulting the president. When the film came out in 1964, Bosley Crowther of the New York Times called it “the most shattering sick joke I’ve ever come across.” (Available on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon, Vudu, and Google Play.)
In Alexander Payne’s back-biting black comedy, Reese Witherspoon plays Tracy Flick, an ambitious straight-A, type-A student who is hell-bent on becoming her high school’s student-body president. Matthew Broderick and Chris Klein co-star, respectively, as a meddling teacher and an opposing candidate. Fun fact: The film was released in 1999, back when former first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had her eye on the Senate. (Available on Amazon, iTunes, Hulu, Google Play, and Vudu.)
The Ides of March
“The Ides of March tells me something I already knew: that the experience of running an American political campaign is crushing for body and soul,” Roger Ebert wrote about 2011’s dramatic thriller, directed by George Clooney, who also stars. He plays the liberal Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris, but it’s Ryan Gosling who takes center stage as a young hotshot on the governor’s campaign staff who is torn between his idealism and the reality that when the stakes are high, some swing low. (Available on Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, and Google Play.)
Hopefully, Beavis and Butt-Head creator Mike Judge didn’t predict our future with his dystopian comedy about an average slacker (Luke Wilson) who wakes up in the year 2505, after a government experiment gone awry, only to discover that society has become massively moronic — and he is now the smartest man on earth. Maya Rudolph co-stars in this ultimate feel-bad movie that envisions a future when “the #1 movie in America was called Ass. And that’s all it was for 90 minutes. It won eight Oscars that year, including Best Screenplay.” (Available on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, and Google Play.)
Watch the Idiocracy trailer:
The Manchurian Candidate
The political stakes couldn’t be higher in director Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of the original 1962 thriller. This time around, the brainwashing bad guys are corporations, not Communists. Meryl Streep stars as a senator with ties to the sinister Manchurian Global Corp; Liev Schreiber plays her son and pawn, the vice president and supposed Gulf War hero who has a behavior-controlling chip in his skull. Denzel Washington is a fellow war veteran trying to save the day — and the democracy. (Available on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, and Google Play.)
Wag the Dog
When the president of the United States finds himself in the middle of a sex scandal at a pivotal political moment, a spin doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) step in to distract the attention of the American public — by creating a fake war. As De Niro’s character puts it in this 1997 satire co-written by David Mamet and directed by Barry Levinson, “War is show business.” (Available on YouTube, iTunes, Amazon Video, Vudu, and Google Play.)
Watch the Wag the Dog trailer: