Just in time for Tuesday's U.S. General Election, we decided to shine the spotlight on a few of our favorite election-themed documentaries. Executive Director Erica Ginsberg and one of our favorite Documentary Appreciation Salon Facilitators Joshua Glick both offer up their votes.
Josh's Picks: Documenting Presidential Campaigns
Presidential candidates have lived in the glow and glare of cinema’s spotlight since the dawn of the medium, yet particular elections boast unique instances of documentary artistry. I've chosen three seminal films that each captured moments of change and transformation for American campaigning. At the same time, these films essentially ushered in new and exciting ways for people to emotionally experience politics; they demonstrated the power of carefully crafted nonfiction to humanize a candidate, reveal the passion of the party machine supporting him, or mythologize the collective memory of a deceased president through giving him a cinematic afterlife. It is worth viewing or re-viewing these films both for the joy of seeing some aesthetic landmarks in the history of political media and to better understand how past precedents have shaped contemporary election-related documentaries.
McKinley at Home—Canton, O (1896)
The American Mutoscope and Biograph Company’s one-minute portrait of William McKinley was the first instance of a presidential candidate on film. The film effectively captures the visual iconography of McKinley’s “front porch” campaign that contrasted the Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan’s whistle-stop speech tour. McKinley appears congenial and confident on his lawn in Canton, Ohio. With the porch in the background, McKinley moves casually toward the camera and stops to read news of his party’s nomination, delivered by his secretary. McKinley at Home was used to premiere the new Biograph motion-picture apparatus in New York, as well as to advertise the character of the Republican candidate to the American people. The yoking of nostalgic homestead with new age technology allowed McKinley to engage viewers on a mass scale and in a personal way.
The Making of the President: 1960 (1963)
While Drew Associates’ Primary (1960) is often considered to be the John F. Kennedy campaign film, The Making of the President: 1960 captivated audiences and critics when it first aired on ABC on December 29, 1963. The documentary went on to win four Emmys, including “Program of the Year.” Los Angeles-based Wolper Productions and the late director Mel Stuart sought not only to register Kennedy’s magnetic personality, but romantically represent American politics as a democratic, participatory process that involved the sharing and passing of power.
The project brought together Hollywood insiders and the liberal elite of Washington. Additionally, producer David Wolper used footage from a wide variety of broadcast news sources and institutional archives. Particularly interesting are the scenes in the film of the first televised Kennedy-Nixon debate. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Theodore H. White’s voice-over commentary about the critical importance of Kennedy’s ability to thrive on the mass-mediated stages of contemporary televisual politics resonates with our current political climate, in which candidates strive to project their image, aura, and ideology to viewers through a multiplicity of audiovisual platforms.
How Can You See It? Watch it on Netflix or purchase the DVD through Acorn Media Group.
The War Room (1993)
American cinéma vérité documentarians D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus have made their careers finding the story behind the story: observing the private meetings, practice sessions, workshops, and rehearsals that influence and shape peoples’ public political or cultural performances. In tracking Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential race in The War Room, the Pennebaker-Hegedus team focus more on the masterminds behind Clinton’s campaign—James Carville and George Stephanopoulos—who inject planning and strategizing with a high degree of rhetorical flare and poetry.
The suave, determined demeanor and calculated moves of Stephanopoulos complement the pyrotechnic quips and verbal parries and thrusts of Carville. The emotional climax of the film comes on the eve of the election, when Carville delivers a teary-eyed speech to eager staffers about the power and joy of merging one’s love and labor for the cause of public service.
How Can You See It? Watch it on Netflix or purchase the DVD through The Criterion Collection.
Erica's Picks: Getting Inside the Election Process
Perhaps it is because I grew up inside the Beltway Bubble where we eat, sleep, and breathe politics in the way that other towns do with sports teams. Every four years, it can look to outsiders like things change here, but really all that changes is the cast of characters and some of their pet issues. The basic way things get done (or don't get done) never really changes. That is perhaps why the three films which I have chosen are not so much about the presidential elections specifically, but are more about elections themselves.
Please Vote for Me (2007)
In 2007, a group of international funding institutions and broadcasters came together to support a project called Why Democracy? which sought to fund 10 documentary film projects from around the world which looked at the meaning of democracy in the post-Cold War, post-9/11 era. One of the films which came out of this was Weijun Chen's Please Vote for Me. Chen spent six months filming a third-grade classroom in his home city of Wuhan, China where three eight-year olds are competing in an election to select a class monitor.
The verite-style film is interesting for what it reveals about China's experimentation with democracy and the impact the one-child-policy and the growth of its middle class with parents as involved in the success of their children as they are in the United States. However, what it also reveals is the universality of the human need for influence and power. The three candidates quickly form campaign strategies with help from other students (and overzealous parents) and work to influence, spin, and manipulate the outcome of the elections. While the film keeps us laughing at what comes out of the mouths and minds of these kids, it also quite accurately documents the human nature which is at the heart of the election process.
How Can You See It? Watch it on Netflix or purchase the DVD through Amazon
American Blackout (2006)
Ian Inaba's American Blackout looks at how African-American voters have been marginalized in the contemporary American electoral system. Inaba's film came out of the Guerilla News Network, known until then for its short music-video-style web documentaries reflecting politically progressive viewpoints. The film follows a frenzied style as a feature-length piece, effectively divided into three sections. The two bookends focus respectively on the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections and irregularities (particularly in Florida and Ohio) which disenfranchised thousands of African-American voters.
However, these bigger issue stories are centered by the character-focused story of Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney which provides the most damning arguments about how those who question the a corrupt status quo can themselves be targeted by its proponents. Released at the height of the resurgence of political documentaries (not only Moore, but Robert Greenwald, Alex Gibney, and others), American Blackout in many ways represents a new era for political documentaries which are both unapologetically polemical and built in the quick-cuts era of the Sesame Street/MTV generation.
How Can You See It? Watch it on Netflix or purchase the DVD through The ConneXtion
Street Fight (2005)
In the post-Clinton era of politics, most candidates for office exercise tight control over their media image. Marshall Curry's Street Fight probably does the best job of both showcasing this and also in showing one candidate who is willing to allow pretty extensive access to the behind the scenes of a tight race. The election in question was a local one - for the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey and the candidate was Cory Booker. Booker was running against four-term incumbent Sharpe James in an election which reflected the changing of the guard in African-American urban politics from the civil rights pioneers to their children who have lived in a much different kind of racially-polarized society.
While the film touches on this issues, its main focus is on a David-vs-Goliath tale where the young upstart candidate must fight a well-established political machine. Even the filmmaker becomes involved in this battle, as he is regularly accused by the Sharpe campaign of siding with Booker. These exchanges between Curry and the Sharpe team are reminiscent of the earlier works of Michael Moore, where the filmmaker becomes the hero being thrown out by the establishment, and, like Moore, Curry finds a crack in the establishment - in this case through his regular exchanges with Sharpe's exasperated press officer. While the film's ending was hardly the end of the story for Booker, it provides a good slice of life of street-level local politicking.
Think we got it wrong? Why don't you tell us your favorite election-themed films in the comments?
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