Out of the box

Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman discover what happens when a US presidential candidate gets involved in a sex scandal in Wag the Dog.

Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman discover what happens when a US presidential candidate gets involved in a sex scandal in Wag the Dog.

So the US election is over and everyone’s thankful Obama made it back to the White House.

There’s only one thing that is more fun than following US election news and that is watching a good US government conspiracy movie
- Ramona Depares

Well, if you aren’t, you should be, anyway. The saying “When confronted with two evils, always choose the one you’ve never tried before” applies very well in other, more exciting aspects of life. But it’s best not to follow it blindly when we’re talking politics. Better the devil you know tends to suit the purpose better.

But back to the US election. Of course, there’s only one thing that is more fun than following election news, with all the twists and drama it brings with it – and that is, watching some good action/conspiracy movie that revolves around the American president.

There are tonnes of them and most guarantee a good, popcorn-friendly hour-and-a-half. For those who are of a more critical turn of mind, chances are that they are more likely to appreciate less-actiony, more satirical offerings.

Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog is probably the most famous of them all. Starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, the black comedy revolves around the lengths a presidential candidate would go to to detract attention from the sex scandal he gets involved in.

Suffice it to say that the solution involves hiring a film producer to stage a pretend war against Albania. What starts out by being hilariously far-fetched winds up making you think and question every single political stratagem you’ve ever encountered.

The film was such a massive hit that the phrase ‘wag the dog’ became popularised into everyday jargon and today is taken to refer to creating an artificial situation to make a particular event appear as something that it is not, thus manipulating observers into reacting in a predetermined manner. Think of it as modern-day Machiavelli.

If an even weirder critique of American government is more up your street, Dr Strangelove: Or How I Stopped Worrying and Learnt to Love the Bomb, might be just the thing. A Stanley Kubrick offering, it goes without saying that the film achieved cult status in a remarkably short span of time after it was released in 1964.

Perhaps surprisingly considering everything, the US Library of Congress actually declared the film to be “culturally significant” and selected it for preservation in the National Film Registry. Starring the inimitable Peter Sellers, the film tells the story of a totally barmy Air Force general who decided ordering a first-strike nuclear attack on the Soviet Union is a good idea. The events that unfold are darkly hilarious, as we see the US President and his aides scrambling to recall the warheads.

But not everyone is after weird and wonderful. Not to worry. Hollywood has ensured that there are enough governmental sagas to hit all potential votes. Starting with The Manchurian Candidate. The version I saw was the 2004 remake, starring Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep and Liev Schreiber and, while it certainly won’t go into the annals of most magnificent example of film-making, it does offer its fair share of thrills and second-guesses. Washington takes on the role of a successful soldier who is sort of manipulated into becoming a candidate for the role of vice-president. Much shady shenanigans, and a murder or two, ensue before you’re allowed to get to the twist at the end.

Moving on to Enemy of the State, a 1998 Tony Scott production that finds the evil US Congress (no, really) attempting to pass a law that practically gives intelligence agencies unlimited surveillance powers.

On the other side of the fence are the goodies, including congressman Phil Hammersley. Needless to say, and I’m not giving away anything here because this happens pretty much in the first few minutes of the film, Hammersley meets a sticky end.

And of course, it’s up to the plebs to redress the balance and ensure that the nasty government doesn’t get away with it.

Which they do. Again, I’m not giving away anything here, because don’t they always?

More potential films should you still be in the mood for American politics: JFK (a classic directed by Oliver Stone, need I add more?); Bulworth (beautifully dark); The American President (also known as, the hunt for the First Lady is on) and, of course, because we all love a good dose of Harrison Ford, feel free to add Air Force One to the list.

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