Today, the American people go to the polls—at least, those who haven't already taken advantage of early voting—to vote for president and a host of other national, state and local leaders. This year's election cycle, which has been going on approximately forever, has been particularly contentious, as Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have attacked each other in what has sometimes been reminiscent of The Batley Townswomens' Guild re-enacting the Battle of Pearl Harbor.
To take our minds off the horrific and caustic nature of this year's political environment, we're looking today at the trailers for a number of fictional presentations of American electioneering. Some of these are straight-up satire, some are upbeat comedies, some are more dramatic. But considering not a single one involves discussion of email servers or the word "bigly," they're all, by default, more enjoyable than what we've been going through.
Wag the Dog
Barry Levinson's 1997 satire envisions what depths will be plunged when a scandal envelops the incumbent president just two weeks out from the next election. After the revelation of a sex scandal in the Oval Office, a political spin doctor (Robert De Niro) enlists the help of a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) to distract the press with a made-up international crisis. That not only gets the public's attention but allows the president to appear strong and offer decisive leadership, changing the headlines in the lead-up to the election. The trailer sells the movie clearly as a comedy and a timely one at that, considering we weren't all that far removed from the Bill Clinton impeachment hearings.
The American President
The country was in the middle of the Clinton administration when Rob Reiner released this story of a liberal president (Michael Douglas plays the proto-Jed Bartlet from The West Wing) who's also a widower and decides to start dating an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening). That situation becomes fodder for the election cycle, offering ammunition to the conservative opponent (played by Richard Dreyfuss). The trailer plays up the romantic elements of the story more than the political, meaning we're missing Douglas' rousing press conference and the speech where he decides to use the bully pulpit to his benefit and engage in a rhetorical smackdown.
The Manchurian Candidate
What's shocking about this trailer is that it tells the audience almost nothing about the story. While we know it now as one of the finest political thrillers of American cinema, the trailer keeps most everything under wraps. What we get instead is a lot of atonal music set over scenes of Frank Sinatra running through hallways and karate-chopping a dining room table. The most prominent element on display here is the warning for the audience not to miss the first five minutes or they won't know what it's all about. Then they're promised that at the end they'll swear they've "never seen anything like it." That's a bold promise, and the entire approach is very different with the 2004 remake, which used all the elements of mind control and coup attempts to sell that version.
"Vote first, ask questions later," we're told at the end of the trailer for this political satire, which rings a little too close to home in light of this year's media circus. Tim Robbins plays the title character, a charismatic young politician whose star has risen because of a repudiation of the freewheeling '60s, a career as a music recording artist and success in the business world. His platform of "the American Dream has been stolen from working people" sounds very familiar, along with his attacks on the media elites around him and other character traits. And the debate between Roberts and his opponent is especially prescient. This pseudo-documentary is a must-watch.
This comedy, written and directed by and starring Warren Beatty, tells the story of a California congressman who decides to cut through all the bull and speak plainly, exposing the farcical lies behind what politicians tell their constituents. In a year where one candidate is heralded for dropping the usual pretense of the campaign and speaking from his gut, this shows just how unfiltered and kind of dangerous such behavior can be. The scenes in the trailer are still funny because I swear we just heard them like two weeks ago in real life.
It's interesting as the trailer opens with two credits dropped in short order: First, Kevin Kline is referred to as the star of A Fish Called Wanda, showing the lasting power of the classic comedy. Second, Ivan Reitman is referred to by name as the director of Ghostbusters. So while it explains the basic plot—that the president has had a stroke and a look-alike is recruited to take his place—the main point of the trailer is to sell the movie's comedy credentials. One of the movie's best lines is also a good one for anyone truly seeking office to remember—that it's just a temp job, and you report to the American people.