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Wrapping up just two and a half weeks before the U.S. presidential election, the Rome Film Fest has put American politics front and center this year, with a retrospective on the theme, as well as conversing with its many guests, from Tom Hanks to Meryl Streep, in public forums on their political perspectives.
“I’m hoping that through these films people can see what is new and what is not so new about American politics,” says festival director Antonio Monda, who curated the 16-film retrospective “American Politics” with Mario Sesti.
If you’re looking to decompress after the third debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton on Wednesday, or just wanting to prepare for Nov. 8, here’s the list of films to follow along with from home. The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Monda on why he picked each one, and his recommendations for the candidates.
All the King’s Men: Recommended for Donald Trump
Robert Rossen’s 1949 film is based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book about the rise and fall of a corrupt politician. Starring Broderick Crawford, John Ireland and Joanne Dru, it took home three Oscars including best picture. “All The Kings Men says a lot about populism, demagoguery, and Trump,” said Monda. “It’s a film that speaks a lot to the Trump phenomenon today.”
“I think it is Oliver Stone’s best film,” said Monda of the 1994 biographical film starring Anthony Hopkins as the disgraced president. “I was always surprised by the empathetic approach, almost sympathetic approach. He seemed to if not admire him, understand the complexity of the man. Nixon was an intelligent man who made many big mistakes, but definitely was a man with a brain.” In terms of its relevancy today, Monda said, “Lies and politics often go together. I think Julius Caesar lied a lot.”
Lincoln: Recommended for Hillary Clinton
“Lincoln is a masterpiece, a flat-out masterpiece by one of the greatest directors of all time,” said Monda. “The important thing is if you have noble ideals, you have to win no matter what. And it shows that sometimes to achieve a noble goal, you do need to use means that are not exactly totally clean.” Daniel Day-Lewis took home the best actor Oscar for his starring role in the Steven Spielberg film.
Indeed, Clinton brought up the film during the second debate, as an answer to whether or not politicians should be two-faced to be effective. “It was a master class watching President Lincoln get the Congress to approve the 13th Amendment,” she said. “I was making the point that it is hard sometimes to get the Congress to do what you want to do.”
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film remains one of the most groundbreaking and also controversial films of all time. “The Birth of a Nation, in terms of filmmaking is a brilliant film, a revolutionary film. In terms of content it’s quite disgusting. But we cannot skip it, we cannot avoid it,” said Monda.
The Great McGinty
Preston Sturges won an Oscar for best original screenplay for his 1940 film about a crooked politician who ruins his career in a moment of honesty. “I think it’s an underrated, beautiful American film that says a lot about, again, the human approach toward politics,” said Monda. “It tells us that, first of all, nothing can be controlled at the very end.”
Meet John Doe
Frank Capra’s 1941 comedy stars Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwyck and tells the story of the accidental birth of a political movement after a homeless man agrees to impersonate a fake “John Doe” and threaten suicide over society’s ills. “Frank Capra, come on. Frank Capra, I stand up in front of Frank Capra,” said Monda. “He’s a giant, Frank Capra. And the idea of dealing with the average man, the idea of not being afraid of feeling, passions. I love Capra.”
Peter Sellers and Shirley MacLaine star in Hal Ashby’s 1979 classic about a loner gardener who becomes a Washington political insider by accident. Melvyn Douglas won an Oscar for best supporting actor. “Oh yes, Being There is the story of a simple-minded man, almost an idiot, an idiot in the Dostoyevskian sense, of course, that, you know, becomes the president and walks on water,” said Monda. “It’s the mystery of politics.”
Milk: Recommended for Trump’s running mate, Mike Pence
Sean Penn won an Oscar for his role as Harvey Milk, the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in America. Dustin Lance Black also won an Oscar for best original screenplay. “Milk is a beautiful film by Gus Van Sant,” said Monda. “One of the themes I have in this festival is diversity, and that’s a perfect film for diversity. It’s also because I like the film.”
Robert Drew’s cinema verite 1960 documentary follows John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey during the Wisconsin primary as they fight to claim the Democratic presidential nomination. Albert Maysles and Richard Leacock were the cinematographers. Primary is part of the National Film Registry at the Library of Congress. Monda chose the film because it’s almost unknown in Italy. The lesson of the film for Monda is a familiar one: “The complexity about politics. … It’s never so simple.”
Advise & Consent
Based on Allen Drury’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, the film centers on the debate around a controversial candidate (Henry Fonda) when he is nominated as secretary of state. “Oh, it’s one of the greatest films on American politics ever made,” said Monda. “It’s interesting because Otto Preminger was not American, so it’s a European look, German in this case, look at politics. The lesson is that human beings never change.”
Philip Baker Hall stars in this one-man show, a fictionalized Richard Nixon introspective. “It’s one of the most unknown among the [Robert] Altman films, but it shows as usual the idea of understanding, while capturing the soul of each shot,” said Monda. “Especially dealing with politics, he wants to go inside, not showing only corruption, or demagoguery, or intelligence or vision, but inside to the soul.”
The Last Hurrah
John Ford’s 1958 film stars Spencer Tracy as an old political boss running for office for the last time. “That’s to be honest, my favorite,” said Monda. “It’s about an aging mayor, Spencer Tracy, who has to deal with the new Young Turks of politics, the new generation. This says a lot. What is the moment where an old politician should step back? Because in this film we see that it is much better to be the young competitor. In terms of image, the youth wins, a recurrent theme.”
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington: Recommended for Clinton’s running mate, Tim Kaine
In another classic from Frank Capra, James Stewart, in one his most famous roles, stars as a man who must defend his ideas against the political corruption of Washington. “It’s idealism against corruption, the obtusity versus purity,” said Monda. The film was nominated for eleven Oscars; Lewis R. Foster won for best writing. The festival director picked this one for Kaine, “because we need never to lose our integrity, our ideals, our dreams.”
The War Room
D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus directed this Oscar-nominated documentary showing a behind-the-scenes look at Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign. As with Primary, Monda wanted to introduce the documentary to Italy. “It’s basically unknown here,” said Monda. “We show it because it’s beautiful, of course, because of its quality, but also because if you ask the audience I think maybe 5 percent of people would know it.” The film, for Monda, also highlights the complexity of politics through its central characters, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos.
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