Laughter is the best medicine, and people are in need of a prescription. With the results of the election looming large weeks after they occurred, many are looking for a reason to laugh, and avoid any talk of politics. Movies are a natural resource; theater attendance reportedly spiked the weekend of Nov. 8, as thousands flocked to escape from the stress of the week.
Ironically, films about American elections (and American politics in general) seem to reflect the need for good-natured escapism. Over the past century, political comedy became a genre in its own right. Classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and The Candidate reflected many of the public’s anxieties regarding the governing process by treating that process as laughable and corrupt.
Mr. Smith remains the best example. The plot follows Jimmy Stewart as a distinctly unqualified junior senator who, in between a series of hilarious mishaps and misunderstandings, uncovers a conspiracy that links a crooked senator to organized crime. While altogether inconsequential (the cliches of 1930’s Hollywood wouldn’t allow for anything more than a happy ending), it exemplifies the power and draw of political comedy. It’s funny, but it has a lot on its mind, and in an era dominated by the Great Depression, war and New Deal bureaucracy, the public welcomed it with open arms.
More recent political comedies poke fun at the modern campaign process. In 2008, Swing Vote imagined a scenario in which the presidential election came down to a single man named Bud, played by Kevin Costner, who knows almost nothing about the hot-button issues. The media misinterprets his lack of knowledge, and as a result, the two candidates constantly betray their own ideas in order to appeal to Bud’s “beliefs.”
Another election-based satire, The Campaign, stars Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis as competing candidates whose campaigns become embroiled in increasingly outlandish PR nightmares. In one scene, Ferrell’s character struggles to recite the Lord’s Prayer in an effort to win the religious vote.
These films take the idea of politics without ideals and pile on the laughs. Others, like 1972’s The Candidate, are more harshly accusatory. Written by a former speechwriter for senator Eugene McCarthy, the award-winning screenplay focuses on Bill McKay (Robert Redford), a young politician and governor’s son campaigning for a Senate seat in a race thought to be impossible to win. That changes when the nominee’s advisors gradually modify his campaign message to be more and more generic, a strategy that garners more support among voters, but limits any talk of actual legislation.
McKay wins in a shocking upset, but the realization of his campaigns negligence toward real issues continues to weigh on him. In the film’s final (and most famous) scene, he pulls his campaign manager aside and asks him, “What do we do now?” He never receives an answer.
It is a question that has hung over thousands of Americans in light of Donald Trump’s stunning victory. Recent headlines paint a portrait of a president-elect unprepared for the job ahead of him. Other articles reported an increase in protests and hate crimes following the election. An air of uncertainty hangs in the air throughout the country.
Movies remain a popular escape mechanism from the reality of post-election America. And political satire is proof of film’s ability to turn even the most frightening or stressful realities into comedy. If politics is really a circus, then at least film lets us laugh along with them.