24 Great Political Movies About Government and Civics
If you’re a political junky like me, then there’s probably nothing you enjoy more than good movies about government and American politics.
It doesn’t matter if it’s based on a true story or fictional. The machinations of government, the thrill of a campaign, and the personalities of politics just make for great movies. Some of these are great for teaching about politics and government, while others might have less value in the classroom – but that doesn’t mean they’re not worth spending a few hours on the couch with some popcorn.
So let’s get down to it and take a look at 24 great movies about politics and American government. Let me know down in the comments which movie is your favorite – and what other movies you would put on this (non-exhaustive) list. These are in no particular order of importance or greatness.
Dr. Strangelove – A Satirical Masterpiece
Dr. Strangelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb is a classic film. It’s a bit bizarre, but this satirical film does an excellent job of exploring themes related to the Cold War, the nuclear arms race, and the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD). It stars some great actors, like George C. Scott and Peter Sellers, and it was directed by Stanley Kubrick.
Looking back, the premise may seem somewhat ridiculous, but I wish I could put myself in the shoes of someone who saw this for the first time in 1964. The movie is loosely based on an earlier novel, Red Alert by Peter George.
The film opened to great acclaim and it was nominated for a number of awards – including the Oscars it won for Best Actor (Sean Penn) and Best Original Screenplay (Dustin Lance Black).
Milk is the story of Harvey Milk – a gay rights activist and the first openly gay person to be elected in California. It is set in the 1970’s, and it follows Milk through his move to San Francisco and his ultimate election to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It culminates with a campaign against Proposition 6 – a California ballot initiative which would have banned people who identify as LGBTQ from teaching in public schools.
There aren’t a lot of government movies that feature characters who identify as LGBTQ, so that makes this one even more important.
Malcolm X – The Great American Biopic
Malcolm X is a Spike Lee’s epic biopic of activist Malcolm X, starring Denzel Washington. The film is based in large part on the Autobiography of Malcom X, by Alex Haley, and it follows him from his youth through his rise as an activist and his eventual assassination.
Denzel Washington’s portrayal of Malcolm X was iconic and amazing, and he was nominated for an Academy Award for his effort. He lost out to Al Pacino, and if you’ve seen the movie, you’ll appreciate why there’s some controversy over that decision.
Frost / Nixon – The Interviews
Frost / Nixon is the story of journalist David Frost interviewing President Richard Nixon several years after his resignation. The core of the story is the interviews themselves, although there is some fictionalization and liberties taken with the story outside of the interviews.
There’s just something compelling about the Nixon era, and movies about his tragic rise and fall are fascinating. That’s why there are several others on this list – including All the President’s Men and The Post. Frank Langella also does a great job in this of portraying Richard Nixon.
American President – The Bachelor President
The American President is one of the first movies I remember watching about politics. It must have come on TV a lot in the ’90’s. It’s a romantic comedy about a fictional president, Andrew Shepherd, who has to struggle with how a single person pursues a romantic relationship while simultaneously being President.
But this isn’t just a silly romantic comedy. It’s written by Aaron Sorkin, who would go on to create The West Wing, so he’s got some real political writing chops. And it’s an interesting theme to explore, given the fact that the United States hasn’t had an unmarried President in quite some time.
It’s also available to stream for free from Amazon, if you subscribe to HBO. If you don’t, there’s a free trial available.
All the King’s Men – The Great American Tragedy
All the King’s Men is an old classic – from 1949 – based on Robert Penn Warren’s book by the same name. It follows the rise and fall of a rural politician by the name of Willie Stark, who eventually becomes Governor. It’s also the story of a man who gains power by railing against corruption and then becomes corrupt himself as he climbs the rungs of power. In some ways it’s an interesting foil to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
There’s also a newer version, starring Sean Penn, that was released in 2006. Better yet, it’s available to stream for free on Amazon. While this is by no means a historical film, the original story is very much influenced by the life of Huey Long – the Governor of Louisiana in the 1930’s.
Miss Sloane – When the Lobbyist is the Hero
Miss Sloane is the story of a high profile lobbyist trying to take on the gun lobby. It’s a political thriller, and at times the plot seems a bit contrived and unrealistic – kind of like House of Cards but not quite. The movie is definitely an interesting ride, and well worth a watch. It’s nice for a change to see a government movie where the lobbyist is a heroine instead of a villain.
Lincoln – An Epic Story
Lincoln is a historical drama about the last few months of Lincoln’s life and his efforts to pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Daniel Day-Lewis is in rare form, and he plays an amazing Lincoln in this Spielberg film.
If you’re a civil war historian, you might quibble over some details – and there were certainly some historians who did – but the film does a good job of telling the story in a fairly accurate way. The screenwriter, Tony Kushner, did plenty of research and relied heavily on Dorris Kearns Goodwin’s biography of Lincoln – Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.
Don’t confuse this with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – which was an entertaining movie, but one with far less historical and political merit.
Wag the Dog – A Great Satire
Wag the Dog is truly one of the great movies about government. The premise is that the President is caught up in a scandal during a re-election campaign and he needs a distraction – so he hires a Hollywood producer to invent a war. Hijinks ensue, and they get in a little over their heads, but ultimately it works.
Some of the themes in this movie – the role of the media in politics, and whether or not the tail is wagging the dog – are particularly poignant today. I’ve used it in my AP Government and Politics class before, and you can read here about how to teach civics with Wag the Dog.
The movie is based on a novel of the same name by Larry Beinhart. It’s well worth a read; I thoroughly enjoyed it. In some ways it’s even better, because it weaves a more realistic tale – full of real characters – than the movie.
JFK – The Great American Conspiracy
JFK is the story of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the investigation and/or cover-up of that assassination. The director, Oliver Stone, sourced a bunch of material from research, but the film was subject to some controversy. At the end of the day, it’s the kind of story that people have different opinions about, and I don’t think the conspiracy theories behind JFK’s death are going away any time soon.
Whether it’s accurate or not, it’s an interesting story and the performances are great. It was nominated for many awards, and it remains one of the greatest movies about government.
The Manchurian Candidate is another classic movie from the 1960’s. It was made at the height of the Cold War, so naturally the Soviets were the bad guy. In this case, they brainwashed a Korean War vet who comes from a politically connected family. The brainwashed man becomes a pawn in other peoples’ plans, and his stepfather is rising in the ranks to be elected Vice President.
The story is based on an earlier novel by the same name. There’s also a newer version, starring Denzel Washington, that was released in 2004. Even better, this version is available to stream for free on Amazon Prime.
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – The Quintessential Movie About Government
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is probably the quintessential movie about American politics. When a corrupt Senator dies, he’s replaced by an honest, naive scout leader, Jefferson Smith. Jeff travels to Washington, D.C., is mesmerized by the sights, and eventually gets caught up in some corrupt drama.
It’s an old film – from 1939 – but 80 years later it’s still a relevant story. The climactic filibuster scene is high political drama, the film both builds up and breaks down America’s idealistic view of its government.
This is a fixture in government classes, and you can read here about how to civics and government with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Dave – A Lighthearted Movie About Government
Dave is a comedy, and unlike many of the movies on this list it does not purport to be historical in any way. The crazy premise of the movie is that Dave looks exactly like the President, the President has a stroke, and Dave is then asked to fill in for him and pretend to be the President for a little while.
It’s a crazy scheme, and it leads to some hilarious hijinks. Compared to some other political thrillers and historical dramas, it’s more lighthearted. But it does show some of the behind the scenes functioning of a Presidential administration, and there is some value in that if you’re asking students to watch it. Not all movies about government and politics have to be serious – sometimes it’s nice to just watch something fun.
This is another movie that’s available to stream for free on Amazon if you’re an HBO subscriber.
All the President’s Men – A Movie About Government Corruption
All the President’s Men is a classic movie about how reporters at the Washington Post broke the story about Watergate and eventually brought down Richard Nixon. The movie can be a bit slow to develop at times, but it’s a great story and it is incredibly relevant today.
When the FBI began to investigate President Trump and FBI Director James Comey was fired, I remember listening to interviews with reporters from the New York Times and thinking – this is straight out of All the President’s Men.
This is a movie that I remember watching when I was in high school, and it’s still relevant twenty years later. Here are some ideas about how to teach All the President’s Men in your civics or social studies class.
The Post is, in many ways, reminiscent of All the President’s Men. It is set in the years leading up to the Watergate scandal, and it revolves around the paper’s decision to print parts of the Pentagon Papers. It’s an important historical moment – one that set up the possibility of the investigations into Watergate – and there are some interesting internal political dynamics at the newspaper.
I also find the acting and action to be a bit more up-tempo in The Post, when compared to All the President’s Men, and so it may appeal to a wider audience. If I were choosing one of the two movies to show to my students, I’d probably go with The Post.
The Post is also available to stream for free on Amazon if you’re an HBO subscriber.
12 Angry Men – The Courtroom Drama
12 Angry Men may not be about politics per se, but it’s certainly political. This behind the scenes courtroom drama is centered around the trial of a young man accused of murdering his father. It doesn’t take place in the courtroom, though; it takes place in the jury room. More or less the entire film is about the jury – the twelve men in the title – deliberating and about their struggle to come to agreement.
It’s an intriguing look behind the scenes of the American justice system, and the various characters make you think about a lot about issues of truth and justice.
A new version of the movie was released in 1997. It had a star-studded cast – including Jack Lemon, George C. Scott, James Gandholfini, Tony Danza, and more.
The original 12 Angry Men is available to stream for free from Amazon if you’re a Prime subscriber.
Selma – The Civil Rights Struggle
Selma is the story of the late Civil Rights movement and the Selma campaign for the Voting Rights Act of 1965. It’s centers on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and it tells the story from his perspective. There’s the internal politics of the Civil Rights movement, as well as the Congressional politics of getting the actual legislation passed.
Some critics thought the film was unfair to President Lyndon Johnson, but it does do a great job of showing how a movement can’t just move an individual leader – it has to move the needle on public opinion and general political support. There are some other minor historical issues with the movie, but as a piece of cinematic drama it’s definitely great – and it won the accolades and awards to prove it.
All the Way – A Movie About the Master of the Senate
All the Way is an HBO original movie based on a play by the same name. It’s also set in the 1960’s Civil Rights movement, but the story is told from the perspective of President Lyndon Johnson. The movie begins with the assassination of President Kennedy, and Johnson’s inauguration as President, and it carries through to Johnson’s re-election.
In All the Way, Johnson is very much the active hero instead of the reluctant one that he’s portrayed as in Selma. It’d be an interesting exercise in a class to watch the two movies, compare the two versions of LBJ, and try to suss out which one is more true to history.
But if nothing else, the movie is worth watching to see Bryan Cranston as LBJ. He does an amazing job.
Suffragette isn’t actually about American government and politics – it takes place in England. But it is a great story about the women’s suffrage movement – and the battle for women’s rights more generally. The movie follows the story of several women who become increasingly radical in their fight for equal rights, and it shows a different, often untold story of the women’s movement.
And as a random piece of trivia, it is apparently the first feature film that was actually shot inside the halls of Parliament in London. So that’s cool.
Iron Jawed Angels
Iron Jawed Angels is another film about the women’s rights and suffrage movement. This one is set in the United States, although the main characters (and historical figures) traveled to England and were influenced by the events there.
I’m sure you know how the movie ends – the 19th Amendment passes, and women in the United States gain the right to vote – but the drama of getting to that point is riveting.
Argo is the story of the Iran Hostage Crisis. When Iranian authorities storm the American embassy and take hostages, a handful of staff members escape. The movie follows them as they find refuge and as the CIA plans a daring caper – in which they pretend to film a fake sci-fi movie – to rescue them.
The film has been criticized for taking some liberties with history, but at its core it’s about a true story – and it’s an interesting ride to take through a fictionalized version of the crazy Canadian Caper.
Vice is the story of Vice President Dick Cheney. It’s part serious and part comedic, and it follows the rise of Cheney through the Nixon administration and eventually into the White House with President Bush.
The scope of the film is amazing, covering decades of his life, and it does a great job of tying together threads from across different time periods. You walk away with an impression that this was simply the unfolding of an evil conspiracy over the course of fifty years, and while that may be a bit of a stretch it’s not beyond the pale. The acting is terrific, and if you’re a political history buff its interesting to see all of these personalities play on screen.
Charlie Wilson’s War
Charlie Wilson’s War is another comedy and drama in the vein of Vice. It’s set in the Reagan era, and Congressman Charlie Wilson works with a CIA operative to supply and support Afghani dissidents (the mujahideen) in the Soviet-Afghan War. It’s such an important part of recent world history, and one that’s often neglected in schools, so it’s nice to have some light shed on it. There is an obvious connection from this conflict to the ascension of Osama Bin Laden, the Taliban, and Al Qaeda.
This is also another Aaron Sorkin screenplay, for fans of The American President and The West Wing.
Detroit takes place during the 1967 12th street riot in Detroit. Like many cities in the 1960’s, an incidence of police brutality led to unrest in the city and an armed response from the police and national guard. The movie focuses in on a single, disturbing incident from this time period.
It’s an important story to be told in our current national climate. Teaching in New Jersey, we often talk about the 1967 Newark Riots – aka the Newark Rebellion – and watch a documentary about it. If there isn’t a film or documentary about a story that’s close to where you are, then I imagine watching a film like Detroit would help you explore some of the same topics.
What Are Your Favorite Movies About Government and Politics?
This list of government movies is far reaching – with black and white classics and modern hits; comedies, dramas, and thrillers; movies that I’ve taught in class and others that I just enjoyed watching on the couch. It would be tough to come up with a definitive list or to rank them in order of greatness.
But I’m curious to know – what’s your favorite movie about government and politics? Drop a comment below and let me know – whether it’s something on this list or something I missed.