Let’s face it: this has been a crazy time for American politics. From the nerve-wracking election process that had the world on the edge of their seats, to the developments surrounding a certain respiratory virus, 2020 and early 2021 have tested the human race in almost every way imaginable. This year’s events hit me with a lot of negative emotions: confusion, anger, worry, the list goes on. And I bet I am not the only person for whom politics has been near the top of my list of anxieties.
But now that 2020 is behind us, and the world begins to see small signs of a post-pandemic future, perhaps we can also start looking to humor to help get some perspective and heal from the isolation, as well as the political divisions we have faced. Sometimes it can help to remember that humans have gone through other difficult and contentious periods and come out the other side. So if you’re like me and you’re looking for a punchline, here are four great politically themed movies that will help you cope with 2020 through satire.
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Often referred to as the pinnacle of American comedy, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a classic spin on Cold War-era US democracy. Centered around Air Force General Jack Ripper, the film illustrates the potential danger the world can face with just a little influence from one man. When Jack Ripper goes insane and declares that the USSR is trying to pollute Americans’ “precious bodily fluids,” he sends an array of nuclear warfare to destroy the country. The rest of the cast, consisting mainly of the president and his advisors, must come up with some way to prevent a nuclear holocaust. It may seem cruel that Dr. Strangelove makes light of a situation as catastrophic as nuclear war, but director Stanley Kubrick uses this dire premise effectively to show how removed politicians often are from the consequences of the decisions they make.
Thank You For Smoking (2005)
This movie is based on the book of the same title, written by Christopher Buckley in 1994. Nick Naylor is a successful tobacco lobbyist in the 90s who is trying to rationalize the duties of his career while he also tries to be a good role model to his son. The film often satirizes the occupation that lobbyists have with blatant morbidity; for instance, Nick and his two best friends, an alcohol lobbyist and a firearm lobbyist, meet up once a week, giving their small group a catchy moniker, “The Merchants of Death Squad.” Thank You For Smoking highlights the ethical dissonance lobbyists may face every day, and it does not shrink from the true dangers of tobacco. But like Dr. Strangelove, the serious subject, and Naylor’s difficult internal struggle, are presented through the lens of satire.
Man of the Year (2006)
Man of the Year, the most recent film on this list, stars the late, great Robin Williams as a popular radio personality. After making a joke on the air about how he could run the country better than the sitting president, his fans across the country take him seriously and just like that, he is in the Oval Office. However, he learns that a glitch in the polls led to his election, and that he has therefore become the world’s most powerful man through undemocratic means.
The film highlights his dilemma: whether to tell the truth about the error or keep the job and run the country his way. But much of the humor also plays on the (sometimes absurd) mechanisms of federal governance. Man of the Year is an amusing take on what would happen if a radio celebrity wound up in the Oval Office, but, like Dr. Strangelove and Thank You For Smoking, it also treats with satire a more important topic: what the protagonist does with the power of truth. Photo credit: Man of the Year Promotional Poster. 2016, https://apssbih.wixsite.com/apss/single-post/2016/01/05/Man-of-the-Year%E2%80%9C
The Candidate (1972)
While Dr. Strangelove is considered one of America’s best comedies, The Candidate is often credited as being America’s best political film that combines both satire and realism. It depicts a last-ditch effort by an election specialist to throw a Democrat into the race for Senate, solely for the sake of needing running an opponent to the Republican candidate. Bill McKay is a leftist lawyer, the son of a former senator and the man chosen to run for the Democratic party. Although skeptical, he agrees to run after being told that, because he isn’t expected to win, he can talk without reserve about his progressive values. After winning over a small but enthusiastic crowd, the situation changes as the election is projected to be a landslide loss. To protect the party and save himself from a professional humiliation, the election specialist fundamentally changes the campaign message to appeal to a broad range of voters and close the poll gap. While mostly lighthearted, the film’s commentary on the condition of American democracy is clear in the last scene when a victorious McKay, hiding from press mob, asks, “…What do we do now?” He never gets an answer.
For some, it may be too early to look back on the year with amusement. If that describes you, you can still check out one of these movies from Media Services anyway, if only to appreciate the way they capture their own uncertain times. BC
Brandon Carr is a senior studying Psychology (BA) at IU. In his spare time he likes to play video games, listen to DnD podcasts, and hang out at home with his boyfriend.