10 films to change how you think about politics (and they’re all true)

26th March, 2014 7:00 am

1)    Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story

2)    Please Vote for Me

3)    The Lady

4)    Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

5)    Milk

6)    Amazing Grace

7)    Page One: Inside the New York Times

8)    No

9)    Game Change

10) The War Room

We’ll return in a future blog to the representation of politics and politicians in films which are entirely fictional: for now we’re focussing on those which either use real footage or are based on true events.

Let’s get the bad news out the way first. The political strategists on the right are really really good at what they do. If you want proof, look no further than Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story. Take everything you think you know about dirty, divisive, dishonest politics and make it 100 times worse, and then watch it win time after time after time. While Boogie Man offers no lessons in what the left should be prepared to do, it offers plenty of insight into what we can be up against.

Equally terrifying is Please Vote for Me, a documentary following three Chinese eight year olds invited to participate in a democratic election for class monitor for the first time. Within hours they are double dealing, planning smear campaigns and bribing classmates with presents and offers of promotion.


If you need to cheer yourself up after those, both The Lady and Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom are about people whose world-shaking activism has been combined with a very deep pride in being politicians, while Milk covers the savvy mix of pavement politics and coalition building which lay behind the success of one of the first out gay elected officials in America. There are similar insights in to the role of unexpected alliances to be found in Amazing Grace, but the main lesson of that film is that individual politicians really can change things if they set their minds to it. If you need more evidence of that, look no further than Jenny Marra’s recent success in a mission Wilberforce himself would back.

I’ve written before about the importance of understanding the media for politicos, but four films should be added to that list for everybody interested in the role of comms in campaigning. Page One: Inside the New York Times will let you see for yourself how distinguished journalists are processing government spin, online disruption and the crisis of trust in their industry. No charts the tensions between the practitioners of advertising and of activism in the successful campaign to rid Chile of General Pinochet. Game Change reveals the danger of accruing a long term liability for the sake of a short term headline.  And The War Room covers one of the most successful campaign frames ever in a way profoundly relevant to next year’s general election when “it’ll still be the economy, stupid”.

Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and a strategy consultant for campaigning organisations. She tweets @kirstyjmcneill.

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  • swatnan

    I’m proud to say that I’ve seen none of the above.If I did then they’d be disappointing, even Mandela.
    The 2 that are missing from that list, which are the best are
    1. Gandhi which deals with revolution and change
    2. The Candidate where Robert Redford fights a ferocious campaign, and wins, and then asks ‘So what do we do now?’ Instance Harold Wilson Tony Blair and Ed Milliband(2015).
    And that is the truth of most political films: they never know what to do when they get power; and they always waste their opportunities.

  • JoeDM

    All the President’s Men – Deep Throat: “…. Look,
    forget the myths the media’s created about the White House–the truth
    is, these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

    Just replace ‘White House” with No 10 or Élysée Palace, or any other political residence.

    Real leadership is a very rare commodity.

  • Doug Smith

    Films that changed the way I think about politics:

    Spartacus (Kubrick 1960 version with Kirk Douglas)

    Schindler’s LIst (Spielberg 1993)

    Downfall (Hirschbiegel 2004)

    Lincoln (Spielberg 2012)

    Stalingrad (Bondarchuk 2014)

  • CllrGeorge

    Great list but one huge omission Kirsty. ‘Street Fight’-about the first Newark mayoral campaign of Cory Booker. It is really about a local political scene which is thoroughly rotten and with a huge clash of campaign styles between old machine politics and proto-obama style ‘new politics’. The dirty tactics on show are very scary indeed.

  • Kirsty McNeill

    Great suggestions all, thanks. Somebody has just sent me Street Fight link on facebook, sharing here for others like me who’ll now need to track it down: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R8jtAASYdLw

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