25 Underrated Political Dramas

As America gets its new President, we look at some excellent political drama films that may have slipped under your radar...

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

Political dramas can be entertaining, informative and even educational, opening up debates and offering new points of view. (When experiencing a year of tumultuous change like the one we’ve just had, they can also be a comforting reminder that, no matter what your situation, it could always be worse…) With the full whack of corruption, war, and conspiracy, here are 25 political dramas which deserve to be better known.

25. The Marchers/La Marche (2013)

When teenager Mohamed (Tewfik Jallab) is shot by police, his friends want revenge, but he has a better idea: peaceful protest. Marching from Marseille to Paris, they band together with quite an assortment of characters along the way.

Inspired by true events, the March for Equality and Against Racism took place in France in 1983, but only the retro wallpaper and TVs remind us that it’s not present-day. The generally-good-hearted-yet-rather-violent film is honest about communal life: the most bitter disagreements take place not with the bigots they meet, but within the group.

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(Not to be confused with the BBC’s The March (1990), a haunting drama with a resemblance to today’s news reports which make its futuristic setting positively prophetic. When climate change makes warmer countries uninhabitable, a mass migration is spearheaded by Malick Bowens, to the consternation of EU commissioner Juliet Stevenson.)

24. The Company You Keep (2012)

Director Robert Redford plays a widowed single father whose past in a militant left-wing protest group comes back to haunt him. Their activism included bank robberies and one resulted in a death; justice has finally caught up with a former pal (Susan Sarandon) which puts the spotlight back on everyone involved. Now a fugitive, he desperately needs to clear his name and elude both the FBI and Shia LaBeouf, one of those pesky reporters who’ll do anything for a scoop.

The subject matter could spark a moral debate; characters argue that it’s violent NOT to act when your government is killing innocent people by sending them to war, and what’s one unfortunate bank guard compared to thousands of soldiers drafted to Vietnam? Hmm, not sure that would fly with Gandhi, but it’s a thoughtful movie with some thrilling sequences and a stellar cast including Julie Christie, Stanley Tucci, and Anna Kendrick.

23. Le Secret (1974)

We first meet David (Jean-Louis Trintignant) as he escapes from a mysterious secure facility; after hitch-hiking away, he encounters Thomas, who invites him in from the cold. He and his wife Julia (Marlène Jobert) are intrigued by David’s skittishness and seem remarkably unperturbed that he’s clearly on the run; he eventually reveals that he stumbled across a secret he shouldn’t have.

The trio decide to skip town, but during their road trip they hear reports of an escaped lunatic, and doubts start creeping in. Is David mad, or the victim of a conspiracy to catch and silence him? As Julia says, “If he’s crazy, he’ll kill us. If he isn’t, they’ll kill him.”

Le Secret is very French: all cosy chateaus, roaring fires, red wine and love triangles. Leisurely rather than slow, it has some great shock moments and a rather chilling conclusion. Trintignant fans might also enjoy Bertolucci’s political classic The Conformist (1970).

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22. Fifty Dead Men Walking (2008)

Martin McGartland’s autobiography is the story of a Belfast lad working undercover for the British police, resulting in a life on the run from the IRA and the need to change his identity as often as his socks. Although he objected to the film’s loose interpretation of the facts, McGartland’s story is a compelling one, with Ben Kingsley as the kindly mentor with all the best lines (“If he’s useless I’ll give him to MI5”). He’s the only person Martin (Jim Sturgess) can talk to – even his closest loved ones don’t know about his double life. (Which is further complicated by Rose McGowan as a seductive IRA superior.)

Alongside all the family drama and relationship development there are some truly terrifying moments, including the most audacious escape imaginable and a white-knuckle ambulance ride.

21. The Lost Honor Of Katharina Blum (1975)

Divorcée Katharina Blum (Angela Winkler) meets charmer Ludwig (Jürgen Prochnow) and takes him home with her that night. In the morning she’s shocked by the arrival of cops; it turns out that Ludwig is a wanted criminal. A young woman apparently aiding a terrorist piques the media’s interest, and unable to uncover any newsworthy facts, they spin stories out of thin air, scrutinizing everything from her books to her sex life.

Terrorist-paranoia and intrusive officials struck a chord in 1970s Germany; source novelist Heinrich Böll was actually inspired by events in his own life. (He criticised a newspaper for making unproven accusations and was immediately vilified for his troubles.) The movie was remade in 1984 with Kris Kristofferson, but it’s surely due a 21st century update; the themes of government surveillance, media witch hunts and the fast spread of inaccurate information have never been more timely.

20. The Reluctant Fundamentalist (2012)

When an American professor in Pakistan is kidnapped, undercover CIA agent Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) interviews the hostage’s colleague Changez (Riz Ahmed). As an ambitious young whippersnapper relocated to the USA, Changez rapidly moved up the corporate ladder, to the delight of his boss Kiefer Sutherland. 9/11 changes his world; suddenly travel means humiliating strip searches, he’s criticized for growing a beard because “it’s freaking people out,” and things go pear-shaped when his girlfriend (Kate Hudson) exploits their relationship for her artwork and Changez realises that dating a Pakistani man does wonders for her hipster reputation.

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Contrasting American skyscapes with stunning Eastern sunrises and mosques, the film is handsomely shot and offers an empathetic view of what it must be like when world events force you into a corner. Lincoln is unconvinced that Changez is completely innocent; will his distrust help or hinder his search for the truth?

19. All The King’s Men (1949)

The classic tale of an idealistic man corrupted by power: Broderick Crawford gives a dynamic (and according to Hollywood memoirs, drunk) performance as Willie Stark, a politician who promises he’ll always represent the ‘hicks’.

The film is of its time, full of hysterical drink-flinging (and possibly the only melodramatic slap that actually results in someone saying “Ow!”) Getting a woman’s attention means grabbing her by the shoulders and shaking her like a rag doll, and you may also giggle childishly at a crowd chanting “WE WANT WILLIE”. But timeless issues emerge: who can hold Stark to account when he owns the police and the press?

Although huge at its release, it lacks the current fame of, say, Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. The 2006 remake featured Sean Penn, Jude Law, Anthony Hopkins and Kate Winslet, but the “Southern” accents may mean it’s best avoided if you’re a dialect coach of a sensitive disposition.

18. Reds (1981)

A multi-Oscar-winning movie so critically acclaimed that it made the top ten of ‘Epics’ according to the American Film Institute: underrated? Perhaps not. But it is a somewhat forgotten classic which deserves to be enjoyed by a whole new generation, particularly for the genuine interview footage peppered throughout.

Warren Beatty stars (and co-writes, directs and produces) in this tale of journalist-turned-communist-activist John Reed. He makes an instant impact on socialite Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton), who leaves her husband to join Reed and the ragtag bunch of bohemians and activists in Greenwich Village. Their politics become more radical; Reed becomes involved with the Communist movement in America, and later writes the first-hand account of the Russian revolution which became Ten Days that Shook the World. Jack Nicholson plays Bryant’s other lover, Eugene O’Neill (allegedly cast because Beatty considered him the only guy who could possibly “take his girl”).

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17. The War Is Over/La Guerre Est Finie (1966)

World-weary communist Diego (Yves Montand) is a Spaniard who has been living in Paris, working on propaganda newspapers and facilitating the flow of information (and people) in and out of Spain. But after years of this, he’s SO OVER fighting against the Franco regime and disagrees with his colleague’s methods. When he meets a fresh-faced young revolutionary, Nadine (Geneviève Bujold), he’s drawn into the next generation of activists; those who are planning violent attacks and general anarchy. This doesn’t feel right to him either but he’s caught between the two worlds, and possibly in danger.

It’s not just a political film; there are moments of surrealism, and scenes which may only take place in a character’s imagination. Director Alain Resnais played with New Wave camera tricks, adding a little visual elegance as well as creating a taut, gripping drama with a memorable score.

16. Nothing But The Truth (2008)

Inspired by a real-life journalist, this movie features blistering performances from Kate Beckinsale, Matt Dillon and Vera Farmiga. Rachel Armstrong (Beckinsale) is a reporter with the scoop of a lifetime – fellow soccer mom Erica Van Doren (Farmiga) is a covert CIA operative. But unleashing this information causes a world of trouble and a court case for Armstrong as she refuses to reveal her ‘treasonous’ source.

The rights and wrongs of the story are debatable – what’s so heroic about outing a CIA operative for the sake of getting a Pulitzer, anyway? Did Armstrong really do such an admirable thing in keeping her source’s confidentiality, or was she in fact protecting herself from accusations of exploitation? Ultimately, the most compelling point the movie makes is that when the government can force journalists to either censor their reporting or give up their sources, you no longer live in a free country.

15. Interview With The Assassin (2002)

Imagine, if you will, an episode of Louis Theroux’s Weird Weekends in which the intrepid reporter hangs out with an old guy who claims to have assassinated JFK. That is essentially the format of this movie, and as mock documentaries go it’s much more convincing and entertaining than 2006’s Death Of A President, which imagined the aftermath of the death of George W. Bush (and for me didn’t quite gel).

Struggling cameraman Ron (Dylan Haggerty) is intrigued when his neighbour Walter (Raymond J. Barry) confesses that he shot Kennedy. But as the pair attempt to track down proof, the ex-marine shows off a volatile, unpredictable side and odd events suggest that a major conspiracy may not be so impossible; what has Ron got himself into? It’s a clever docudrama which feels totally authentic and reminds us you don’t need a big budget to make a masterful movie.

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14. Under Fire (1983)

Starring Gene Hackman, Nick Nolte and Joanna Cassidy as reporters covering the Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979, this has intelligence and a gritty realism often missing in Hollywood blockbusters. War correspondents move in a herd to chase stories, but the human interest begins when emotions creep in; how can you maintain journalistic integrity when you’re not only choosing sides but actually affecting the news you’re supposed to be recording objectively?

As always, the stars are white, although the script attempts to address this with a refugee commenting “Fifty thousand Nicaraguans have died and now a Yankee. Perhaps now America will be outraged at what has happened here.” Similarly, 1995’s Beyond Rangoon (starring Patricia Arquette as a tourist caught in a political uprising) was pilloried in a Rolling Stone review for defining “Third World political unrest through its effect on a white liberal.” (Still an exciting adventure of a film.)

13. The Silent War (2012)

In 1950s China, a secret unit codenamed 701 sends beautiful, ruthless Zhang Xue Ning (Zhou Xun) to recruit a womanising piano tuner for espionage work; she comes back with his blind assistant. He Bing (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) compensates for his lack of sight with extraordinary hearing, which makes him the perfect secret weapon for tracking down enemies, pinpointing their communications within the white noise of numerous radio channels.

He Bing’s interest in Xue Ning provides a romantic sub-plot which starts out cute and quirky before developing a haunting quality; will her dedication to the job prevent a happy ending? It’s a visually sumptuous film with memorable characters, gripping moments, and actors at the very top of their game.

12. Secret Honor (1984)

“That’s when the goddamn L.A. Times started calling me ‘Tricky Dick’. And then the cartoons with the stubble and the jowls. Look, I had feelings too. My wife, my children, my family, they had to stomach all that crap! I mean, can you imagine?”

If you’re trying to find a bright side to recent political events, just think what a dream it will be for movie-makers in a few years. Director Robert Altman apparently despised Richard Nixon, which makes it all the more surprising that he fictionalises him sympathetically in ‘an attempt to understand’ with this one-man play, shot in one week. Philip Baker Hall gives the performance of a lifetime, spitting rage at former presidents (“What the hell are you looking at, ****ing Kissinger?”) and rambling imaginary speeches; he rails against the world with raw emotion and a big, sweary finish. Simply extraordinary.

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11. Panther (1995)

When one kid too many gets hit by a car, the black community of 1960s Oakland decide to protest the lack of a crucial stop sign. Their peaceful demonstration is met with police brutality, and they begin to doubt the nonviolent-resistance style of Martin Luther King. A new, proactive movement is born; they study the law until they know it better than the police do, publish a newspaper which gets the FBI nervous, and even let women join in.

Director Mario Van Peebles based the film on his father’s novel, and it crackles with energy, featuring several actors who have since become much bigger stars, such as Chris Rock and Angela Bassett (fresh from playing Betty Shabazz in Spike Lee’s 1992 Malcolm X). Great soundtrack, too.

James Earl Jones’ TV movie The Vernon Johns Story (1994), is also worth checking out, portraying the civil rights campaign prior to MLK.

10. The Contender (2000)

President Jeff Bridges surprises everyone when he rejects a heroic governor for the role of VP, instead nominating senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen). Unfortunately Republican Gary Oldman throws a spanner into the works by digging up sordid stories about Hanson’s past.

Made shortly after the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the gender politics here are unsubtle; Hanson’s sex life is scrutinized in a way that a man’s would never be, but she’s also quizzed on her baby plans, and in a moment of satire more prescient than ever, her first TV appearance is judged mostly on her outfit.

Confusingly, the film’s feminist credentials fall short as the president admits he wants to hire a woman VP as his “legacy”, so he’s essentially just choosing a token female. However, the dirty tricks of a smear campaign and ruthless political assassinations perfectly capture the frantic nature of the business.

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9. State Of Siege (1972)

Director Costa-Gavras was fascinated by the 1970 news story of a US Embassy official who was kidnapped in Uruguay, especially as there was no outward reason why guerrillas would target a pen pusher. The tangled story of what the victim’s job actually involved was the inspiration for Santore (Yves Montand) whose role as an American Aid worker may be a cover for a more sinister career.

We know Santore’s fate from the first scene, but gradually the facts are revealed concerning the US government’s influence over South American countries (unsurprisingly, the real US government was apparently rather displeased with this portrayal).

Yves Montand also joined Costa-Gavras for chilling 1970 film The Confession; based on a real life trial of Czechoslovakian communists, it probably helps if you have extensive knowledge of the politics at the time, but the rest of us might consider it a crash course.

8. Fair Game (2010)

For a film which has ‘Oscar bait’ written all over it, this received surprisingly little fuss. Naomi Watts stars as Valerie Plame, a CIA operative who combines a life of delicate covert operations abroad with the persona of an ordinary suburban mom. Her husband Joseph (Sean Penn) is sent to investigate claims that Iraq is building nuclear weapons, and reports that they’re not. So imagine his surprise when George Bush justifies military action on the basis of these hypothetical weapons of mass destruction.

When he pens an educational newspaper article on the subject, his wife’s name is leaked apparently as an act of revenge; her career is over, her marriage looks to be going the same way, and the hate mail is just beginning. It’s a true story with a valuable take-home message: genuine freedom means being able to stand up to your government, no matter what.

7. I Am Cuba/Soy Cuba (1964)

A visual feast, this is worth seeing for the dazzling camerawork alone. It’s a travesty that it’s in black and white, but the sky is so big, the sea so sparkling and the characters so vivid that I imagine in years to come we’ll all have false memories of seeing it in glorious technicolor.

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Drifting between different stories (often in incredible continuous takes down alleyways, up staircases and dipping in and out of swimming pools), we experience nightlife in 1960s Cuba; prostitutes who leave their shanty town shacks to entertain Americans, women being harassed in the street, and Havana University students plotting revolution. Protestors clash with police, and farmers are in turn bombed/left without jobs when landlords sell out to giant corporations.

Financed by the Soviet government, this evocative movie was given a new lease of life when Martin Scorsese lent his name to a re-release in 1995.

6. The Russia House (1990)

Sean Connery is Barley, a likeably grumpy publisher hauled in for questioning by British intelligence when he’s sent a manuscript by the mysterious Katya (Michelle Pfieffer, with a decent Russian accent). It turns out the Russian he met on a very jolly writer’s retreat, ‘Dante’ (Klaus Maeria Brandauer), has written a document about the Soviet Union’s nuclear capabilities. MI6 and the CIA both want Barley to investigate the truth behind the claims, and why Katya apparently risked her life to reach him.

Based on John Le Carré’s novel, the delightfully wry screenplay is by Tom Stoppard; Martin Clunes features as a very young stenographer and Ken Russell is the most flamboyant British agent ever. The pleasure of this film is that it’s just charming, and lovingly shot (Lisbon and Moscow have never looked better, and Russia’s insanely photogenic tube stations look like art galleries).

5. Thirteen Days (2000)

Playing secretary Kenny O’Donnell, Kevin Costner was criticised for shoehorning himself into every vital conversation about the Cuban missile crisis, but as a story-telling device rather than accurate depiction of history, it works. Just. We see over the shoulders of the Kennedy brothers (played to perfection by Bruce Greenwood and Steven Culp) as the October 1962 nightmare unfolds. When Soviets place nuclear weapons in Cuba, the president has to decide whether to go for the pre-emptive strike or the wait-and-see approach: JFK is a stubborn pacifist, but the pressure to react mounts up.

Despite knowing how it turns out, the film (a box office bomb) is a nail-biter. There are moments of humour (“If anybody’s got any great ideas, now’s the time”) but the horrifying reality of citizens preparing themselves for the worst is a chilling reminder of how razor-close the world came to nuclear war.

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4. Missing (1982)

Charlie (John Shea) and Beth (Sissy Spacek) live happily in Chile until they’re caught up in a right-wing military coup. When he disappears in the chaos, she desperately tries to track him down, helped by her newly arrived father-in-law, Ed (Jack Lemmon).

Life during a violent revolution is terrifying, with bodies in the street, embassies shut down and soldiers shooting randomly. (Brexit seems quite tame in comparison.) However, this is a movie about the nature of parent-child relationships as much as political unrest. Ed is dismissive of the younger generation, accusing Beth of anti-establishment paranoia, and “sloppy idealism”. Yet he gains new insight into Charlie’s character in his absence, incredulous that his son put in hours of unpaid work for a newspaper, and impressed in spite of himself when he reads his stories. Based on real accounts, (and banned in Chile during Pinochet’s dictatorship) Missing is moving and brilliant.

3. Titanic Town (1998)

Mary Costello’s semi-autobiographical novel about her mother’s political activism in 1970s Belfast is given the star treatment with Julie Walters as Bernie McPhelimy, the housewife who crusades for peace. The family live in an area where British soldiers regularly raid houses, and criticising the IRA would make you a social outcast. But when children are witnessing fatal shootings on the way home from school, Bernie decides to get involved.

There are some moments of irresistible humour as she recognises her Irish dancing partner at the IRA meeting table and later grapples in her handbag for their list of demands to present to the Brits. But Bernie’s activism causes stress for her family and the threats to her safety are getting more real and more vicious every day. It’s a sobering observation of the reality of life for one Belfast family.

2. Executive Action (1973)

Shortly after its release, Executive Action was pulled from theatres in a blaze of bad publicity, while many TV stations refused to show the trailer. Panned by critics, it disappeared until the late 1980s. Apparently the public just wasn’t ready for a film that so vividly contradicted received wisdom on JFKs death.

Watching from a cynical 21st century viewpoint, the story (told entirely from the bad guys’ point of view) is eerily plausible. Conspirators (FBI? CIA? It’s all kept deliberately vague) identify a suitable patsy, and organise snipers to practise with moving targets. Occasional TV clips of Kennedy make it obvious why those with opposing policies would despise him so much; this film may have you reaching for your tin foil hat, but it’s gripping and creepy in equal measure.

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For a more conventional view, 2013’s Parkland offers an interesting picture of the ordinary people swept into assassination drama.

1. Balibo (2009)

Decades of research went into Jill Jolliffe’s book Cover-Up, which provides the backbone of Balibo, but Indonesia was not happy with the depiction of their soldiers deliberately executing ‘The Balibo Five’ during their 1975 invasion of East Timor. (The official line is that the five foreign journalists were unfortunately caught in crossfire.)

Secretary of foreign affairs José Ramos-Horta (Oscar Isaac) convinces reluctant journalist Roger East (Anthony LaPaglia) to travel from Australia to investigate the disappearance of the young reporters; his adventures are woven seamlessly between flashbacks of the five men willing to risk danger to get the story.

Resolutely un-Hollywood, this Australian movie has a slightly rough-around-the-edges look and convincingly 1970s-esque styles – sometimes it’s easy to forget you’re not watching genuine documentary footage. Stark and terrifying death scenes along with an original and haunting soundtrack make for unforgettable viewing.

Honorable Mentions

1. The Believer (2001): Although critically acclaimed, Ryan Gosling’s explosive performance as a Jewish Neo-Nazi has long been overshadowed by his heart-throb status. This missed being a list entry only because it’s less about politics and more about one man’s struggle to reconcile his self-loathing with his childhood faith.

2. The Human Factor (1979): If you can get past the dated race relations, the terribly posh and stilted conversations, and Iman’s acting, this has a great plot, of the net closing around a double agent.

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3. Mother Night (1966): Although I’ve avoided the huge area of World War Two politics, this is too good to miss: Nick Nolte is the American spy whose war crimes forever blur the line between duty and real life.

4. Power (1986): Richard Gere is perfectly cast as a slick, mercenary media consultant who advises politicians in their campaigns, while Gene Hackman provides the tragi-comic relief in this slightly rambly drama.

5. Serving In Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (1995): Glenn Close stars in this TV movie, portraying the Colonel who fights the retirement forced upon her when it’s revealed that she’s gay.