The American presidential election draws closer, with only a little more than two months until the big day in November. With all this drama and media hubbub perhaps you’ve decided that it might be better for your sanity if you watch a fictional presidential drama to escape the details of the real one. Luckily for you, there are a number of great movies concerning presidential elections.
Every election is always a roller coaster affair, the perfect topic for an intense movie about scandal and political intrigue. It’s no surprise then that are so many different kinds of movies that center around this specific topic.
We’ve compiled a list of the best movies featuring presidential elections, so you can take a break with some fictional scandals and superb actors. Included in the list are some of the most interesting presidential election dramas and comedies out there, with an added bonus at the end for those looking for a wide variety of genres when it comes to movies to watch.
- Primary Colors (1998)
In this election movie, John Travolta plays a Bill Clinton-esque charismatic Southern governor with a trail of scandals and womanizing plaguing his campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, emulating Clinton’s own success in the 1992 American presidential primary. The film was released in 1998, only two months after the Monica Lewinsky scandal hit the American news cycle, and audiences could not resist the blockbuster cast and sensational story.
The cast of this film is truly impressive overall: Travolta is perfect in the role of a warm and charming Bill Clinton type governor and the beautiful Emma Thompson plays his wife, receiving an Oscar nomination for her role. Kathy Bates plays a veteran campaign advisor and Billy Bob Thornton stars as a redneck political strategist also. Although the film plays out closely with the events surrounding Bill Clinton back in the early 90s, Thompson has stated that her role was not based off current presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. However, it would certainly be interesting to watch a drama that so closely resembles the rise to power of the Clintons in the 1990s.
- Wag the Dog (1997)
A year before Primary Colors was released, there was Wag the Dog, a dark and cynical political comedy about a spin doctor from Washington played by Robert De Niro, and Dustin Hoffman as a Hollywood producer whom he hires to start a fake war. The fabricated business of war is meant to distract the American public from a brewing scandal getting in the way of a presidential candidate’s run for office and even includes fake footage, swaying the public away from the affair and into the drama of a fabricated war.
With all the complexities and theatrics of this current election cycle, this movie offers an interesting inside look of how business operates behind a presidential campaign to influence public opinion and drive the outcome of elections. Also, it strongly implies that much of the news cycle is theater for those trying to win votes. If that isn’t appropriate in these next couple months, I don’t know what is.
It really makes you wonder how much of these sort of antics are currently at play. With such a star packed cast, this film is a critical and entertaining must see to help ease ourselves through this election cycle.
- The American President (1995)
If you’re a fan of Aaron Sorkin’s television dramas West Wing and Newsroom, then you really need to check out this election movie, directed by Rob Reiner and written by Aaron Sorkin. Also, who can resist Michael Douglas as a president running for re-election? In this film, the widowed Douglas pursues a relationship with an environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening. Other notable actors in this movie include Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox and Richard Dreyfuss — a truly star studded cast.
The Oval Office in this movie has also seen its share of movies and television shows — it’s the same setting for the Oval Office in the West Wing series, and also used in the films Nixonand Independence Day. Overall, this is a refreshing romantic drama, a nice alternative to the more cutting satires included on this list.
- The Manchurian Candidate (1962 & 2004)
The 1959 novel The Manchurian Candidate has produced two different movies of the same name, so this entry essentially gives you two election movies to watch and compare. The original 1962 version is often considered by many to be one of the best films ever made, and stars the Frank Sinatra as a Korean War veteran who learns of a scandalous backstory involving American politics. The modernized and updated 2004 movie has amazing casting as well, starring Denzel Washington as a Gulf War veteran, as well as Jon Voight and Meryl Streep.
The movie itself is a suspense thriller that involves the veteran growing suspicious of a former member of their unit who is now an American politician running to be Vice President. At the same time, there is also the brainwashing of soldiers and other cryptic, conspiratorial Cold War era intrigues that are sure to keep you entertained. If you have an awful lot of time on your hands, why not watch both?
- The War Room (1993)
If you’re looking for a documentary involving presidential elections but still want that sort of political intrigue you get with Primary Colors, try The War Room. This documentary tracks Bill Clinton’s 1992 run for presidency, from the New Hampshire Primary to election day. Filmmakers Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker asked Clinton’s campaign at the beginning of the Democratic primaries if they could film the progression of events, and the Clinton campaign granted them access to the Communications Director and Lead Strategist. It’s hard to imagine something like this happening today, making this quite a unique film.
This movie includes behind-the-scenes footage of several key events from the 1992 presidential election, including the Gennifer Flowers scandal and the New Hampshire primary upset. The story doesn’t so much narrow in on Clinton himself, but the strategists surrounding him during the campaign.
Honorable Mention: The Purge: Election Year (2016)
Okay, so this is a gory horror movie, but let’s face it: after all the insane endless election coverage and daily political gaffes saturating the news, it might be nice to watch the chaos and anarchy this movie promises.
This movie is the recent third installment to James DeMonaco’s popular Purge movie series, following the idea of a distant future where the government allows rampant crime to be legal for 12 hours one night a year. So how does an election exactly play into the third movie?
Well, Purge: Election Year involves a female senator (a character in the previous movies) running for president the platform of ending the Purge, thus making her a target from opponent’s during the Purge. What follows then is an action-packed chaotic horror film that is sure to entertain.
As one can assume by the title and the plot, there is some political commentary on violence and drastic tactics in American politics. At the same time however, this is also a fun movie that offers a different sort of election movie plot.