Tips For Adulthood: Five Political Films Worth Seeing

February 2, 2011

Every Wednesday I offer tips for adulthood.

When I was back in the States over the holidays, I had an interesting dinner conversation with a friend of a friend. I can’t remember how it got started, but suddenly there I was, listing my favorite all-time movies.

And in constructing my list out loud, I realized how many of my favorite films have to do with politics in some way, shape or form.

So since it’s Oscar season — and that always gets me thinking about the kinds of movies I like and why — I thought I’d share with you five political movies worth seeing:

1. Reds. This may be my all-time favorite movie, period. It’s about a radical American journalist – Jack Reed – who becomes involved with the Communist revolution in Russia and tries to bring its ideals to the United States. (He’s also the author of Ten Days That Shook The World, if that rings a bell.) Why do I like this movie so much? I find the history of communism – especially in the United States – to be pretty interesting stuff. But this is also an epic film, told over generations, which intersperses a story of global political change with Reed’s rocky but ultimately, loving relationship with his wife, Louise Bryant. Oh and the cast? Warren Beatty, Diane Keaton and a surprisingly toned-down and moving Jack Nicholson.

2. Julia. Another film about war, this time World War Two. This play centers on a friendship between two women – American playwright Lillian Hellman and her lifelong friend, Julia. When Julia joins the anti-Facist resistance movement in Vienna, she asks her old friend Lillian to smuggle some money to the cause while travelling through Europe. This is fundamentally a movie about the love between two friends (set against a broader backdrop of Nazi Germany, anti-Semitism and Hellman’s on-again, off-again relationship with Dashiel Hammett.) Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave star, but don’t miss the five-minute scene with Maximilian Schell. Priceless.

3. All The President’s Men. Yeah, I know. Like Godfather II (which I also love), they re-broadcast this baby far too often on TV. But what a great movie. It’s goes right to the nexus of corruption, money and power in Washington. Best of all, the whole thing has a thriller-like feel. Personally? My favorite scene is the one where the Dustin Hoffman character stays up all night drinking coffee and pumping some lady for information. Makes one proud to be a journalist.

4. Nothing Personal. If, like me, you have a quiet obsession with The Troubles in Northern Ireland, I’d highly recommend a small but powerful film that flew a bit under the radar screen called Nothing Personal. It’s a very intimate portrait of a handful of people on both sides of this conflict and how their lives – political and personal – intersect in complicated and dangerous ways. Warning: the ending will kill you.

5. 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. So this is a pretty harrowing film all around. It’s about illegal abortion under authoritarian rule in Romania. Not everyone’s cup of tea, I realize; definitely mine. But the reason I list it here under political films is that despite the grisly subject matter, the film is a statement – and a re-enactment, of sorts – of what it’s like to live under authoritarian rule. At a political moment when we’re all trying to figure out what’s going on in Egypt, this one is worth a watch. But be sure to fasten your seatbelt first.

What am I missing? Do weigh in in the comments section with your own favorite political films…

Image: Movie Theater by jimdeane via Flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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The IRA in Adulthood: Do Political Movements Grow Up?

May 7, 2009

I’m a sucker for movies about politics. Reds, Julia, and All the President’s Men count among my favorites.

So it was with a great anticipation that I rented Steve McQueen’s movie Hunger this past weekend. The movie is about the Irish Republican Army’s hunger strike in a Belfast prison in 1981, famously led by Bobby Sands.

I was not disappointed. It’s a harrowing, visually compelling film that got me thinking (again) about The Troubles in Northern Ireland.

But the movie also got me thinking about the life cycle of political movements. In the movie’s most famous scene (and I spoil nothing here), Sands squares off against a priest over the best way to advance the Irish Republican cause. Sands claims that his suicide (he calls it murder) is warranted because he believes in his cause even more than he believes in his own life. The priest, in contrast, doesn’t see why you’d kill off vital young members of a political movement in order to secure the movement’s future. Rather, he argues, the future lies in negotiation.

Fast forward 28 years or so and the priest’s view seems to have won out. While there is still plenty to worry about in Northern Ireland (including sporadic killings), the IRA leadership has put down its guns and embraced a power-sharing agreement with its former Protestant enemies. (For a quick primer on the peace process, look here.)

It’s the same story (with a different political context) that Philip Gourevitch tells in last week’s New Yorker about Rwanda. Only 15 years ago, there was a full-scale genocide taking place in Rwanda. Today, former enemies live together relatively peacefully.

So I’ve been wondering whether political movements like the IRA undergo a life cycle which is very similar to our own. They begin with a violent infancy (assassinations, protests, hunger strikes etc.), move into the fits of adolescence (oscillating between cease fires and renewed violence), and then land, finally, in an adulthood marked by realism and negotiation.

I have no idea whether this is a fair assessment of violent political movements and will leave that to the sociologists and political scientists to sort out. But I’m always pleased when something forces me to think about adulthood in an entirely new way.

*****

If, like me, you have a quiet obsession with The Troubles, I’d highly recommend a small but powerful film that flew a bit under the radar screen called Nothing Personal.

Image: Irish Republican Army by Sherber711 via Flickr under a Creative Commons License.

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