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6 films on American politics streaming online

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In the coming months, as the American body politic careens wildly and seemingly inescapably into the Trump administration, it helps to bear in mind that the descent of our politics into grotesque farce is nothing new. From Spiro Agnew’s clash with the “nattering nabobs of negativity” to Bill Clinton’s Heideggerian struggle with the meaning of “is,” our politicians have always given us something to simultaneously laugh and cry about. So the next time you find yourself faced with a bleak evening of CNN primary coverage, turn off Wolf Blitzer, fire up the Roku, and watch one of these classic post-Nixon American political films.

Title: All the President’s Men (1976)

Plot: The year is 1972, and five men have just broken into the Democratic National Committee’s offices at D.C.’s Watergate Hotel. As Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffmann) begin their investigation into what appears at first to be a minor burglary, they soon find themselves at the heart of a rapidly snowballing scandal that could bring down the Presidency of Richard “Tricky Dick” Nixon.

Background: The third film in director Alan J. Pakula’s Paranoia Trilogy (the first two are The Parallax View and Klute), All the President’s Men, and the presidential criminality its heroes expose, came on the heels of vast and dramatic changes in American life. The post-WWII consensus unraveled in the '60s with African Americans, gays, and women all demanding rights. The white conservative establishment — what Nixon adviser Pat Buchanan called “the Silent Majority,” a term explicitly echoed by Donald Trump in his current campaign — saw a reactionary savior in Nixon.

Then, thanks to the muckraking journalism of Woodward and Bernstein (nowadays both comfortably ensconced in the Establishment they once threatened to topple), the full scale of Nixon’s criminality, paranoia, and vulgarity was finally exposed. His administration was brought down, and American political culture was forever changed. All the President’s Men, released almost immediately after the events depicted happened, still stands as a landmark document of the era.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.

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Title: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984)

Plot: In this moving and inspiring documentary, we follow the trailblazing political career of San Francisco supervisor (basically a city council member, but they’re too cool to just call it that) Harvey Milk, from his campaigns and election as America’s first openly gay elected official, through his brief time in office, to the tragic assassination that cut short his life and career (an outcome he had predicted, but in the face of which he persevered). The film also tells the story of Milk’s killer, fellow supervisor Dan White, and by juxtaposing their stories we are presented with two very different visions of American life and politics. Finally, we see what Milk’s life and death have meant for the progress of gay rights in the United States. The film is narrated by Harvey Fierstein in his inimitable rasp.

Background: It has been said of those who die tragically (especially by violence) that their lives are often viewed in reverse, with the death the prism through which the rest of the life is interpreted. Director Rob Epstein strikes a superb balancing act in this film, going in depth into Dan White’s 1978 assassination of Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Milk (it is, after all, an important part of the story), while presenting an equally thoughtful portrait of Milk as he was in life and what he meant for gay Americans. Perhaps the most shocking thing to bear in mind when watching the film is that, when it was released in 1984, White had just been paroled, having served a mere five years of his seven-year sentence for murdering two people. It is a grim testimonial to the kind of violence that was, and still is, perpetrated against LBGTQ people in this country.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.

Title: Secret Honor (1984)

Plot: Our next look at the dark Nixonian vein running through American political culture is this Robert Altman gem, which finds Tricky Dick (Philip Baker Hall, the film’s only actor) alone in his library with nothing but a bunch of audiovisual equipment, a bottle of scotch, and his memories. Bitter memories, which he confides at length to his tape recorder, about all the mistakes that were made — not by him, mind you — by all the bastards who betrayed him: that smug Eisenhower, Henry Kissinger, and those stuck-up Bohemian Grove bastards (a private men’s club in California that never let Nixon in; one of their most prominent members, Walter Cronkite, comes in for an especially hefty dose of Nixon’s bile).

It's all harmless anti-nostalgia, you might say — until about midway through the film, when Nixon takes out his gun and starts playing with it. Then it really hits home that beneath Nixon the crook lies Nixon the pathological paranoid who once had an arsenal of Agent Orange and napalm at his disposal.

Background: Following his resignation and pardon by President Ford (and the passage of time and its friend, forgetfulness), Nixon’s reputation has undergone something of a rehabilitation in some quarters. The Nixon of Watergate, COINTELPRO, and the invasion of Cambodia has become Nixon the clever diplomat, who recognized the Sino-Soviet split, effected a rapprochement with Mao’s China, and brought us something vaguely resembling “peace with honor” in Vietnam (peace for us, anyway). But old-school lefties like filmmaker Robert Altman (MAS*H, Nashville) were loath to forget (or forgive) all the evils of the Nixon years, recognizing in it as they did a broader representation of all that was, is, and remains wrong with America: the racism, the paranoia, the militarism, the bad faith, and the lies upon lies to an infantilized American public.

This listicle has not seen the last of Richard Nixon.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.

Title: Tanner ’88 (1988)

Plot: On a much lighter note, let’s take a look at another Altman project, his 1988 political miniseries, Tanner ’88, which follows, in mockumentary fashion, the fictional presidential bid of Congressman Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) as he campaigns alongside very real candidates (Jesse Jackson, Pat Robertson, Bob Dole) for the highest office in the land. As he kisses babies, shakes hands, panders to and promptly alienates black voters, and has one very memorable “encounter” with a robot, Tanner’s fake campaign becomes increasingly indistinguishable from the shallow, glad-handing campaigns of his supposedly “real” opponents.

Background: Robert Altman’s Secret Honor may have taken a dark turn, but in this collaboration with Doonesbury author Gary Trudeau, in which they take full advantage of the freedom offered by HBO (a relatively new platform at the time), Altman strikes a balance among farce, realism, and post-modern shenanigans (its hybrid blending of actors and “real” people introducing several shades of meta into the equation). Tanner ’88 has been a key influence on subsequent American political drama, including the hit-or-miss work of Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing, K Street, if anyone remembers it, and Newsroom, which has thankfully gone away). It is also a key precursor to virtually every mockumentary/found footage film to come, which, again, has been pretty hit or miss.

Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.

Title: The War Room (1993)

Plot: When you hear the names “George Stephanopoulos” and “James Carville,” what’s the first thing that comes to mind? If it wasn’t “charismatic leading men,” then this documentary about the strategies behind the 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign is here to change that. Indulge your ‘90s nostalgia with Ross Perot’s painful debate appearances, view the genesis of pithy and insightful catchphrases like “It’s the economy, stupid,” watch Bill Clinton lie through his teeth about his sexual relationship with Gennifer Flowers, and dive into the heart of the film, the calculating, amoral political machinations by which Stephanopoulos and Carville brought Clinton into office.

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Background: Co-directors Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker are probably best known for the latter’s classic concert documentaries: Bob Dylan’s 1965 British tour in Don’t Look Back (1966), Monterey Pop (1967), and David Bowie’s last performance as Ziggy Stardust in the eponymous Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars (1973). The subject matter of The War Room may at first seem a departure. But, as we’ve all surely recognized by now, American political campaigns have very little to do with policy and everything to do with image and marketing, both of which rock stars have long been familiar with. And it’s for this reason that the real stars of this documentary, ostensibly about Clinton, are his handlers, Stephanopoulos and Carville, who, under the watchful eyes of Hegedus and Pennebaker’s cameras, can be seen here refining the political campaign into an art form, for better or for worse (probably worse).

Where it’s streaming: Hulu, Amazon.

Title: The Trials of Henry Kissinger (2002)

Plot: Former Secretary of State and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger may now enjoy the respect due an elder statesman, but as this documentary, based on one of the late Christopher Hitchens’ bitchiest books, alleges, there are many skeletons in Dr. Kissinger’s closet. That includes the hundreds of thousands dead in Southeast Asia and the thousands killed in Chile in the American-backed coup that overthrew President Salvador Allende in 1973. Although the film tries to provide some “balance” to its charges against Kissinger (former Nixon Chief of Staff and Reagan Secretary of State Alexander Haig is on hand to defend American foreign policy and consistently mispronounce Allende’s name), Hitchens and company make no bones about their goal here, namely a sweeping indictment of Kissinger and his dubious career. And given the impunity with which American leaders have been known to commit their crimes, it is likely the only indictment he’ll ever receive.

Background: Kissinger managed to survive the collapse of Nixon’s administration, and served for the duration of the brief Ford presidency, during which time he: endorsed the genocidal Indonesian invasion of East Timor and the South African invasion of Angola, while simultaneously calling for a devastating bombing campaign to punish the Cubans for sending in troops to fight the forces of Apartheid. When Ford lost re-election (well, he was never elected to begin with, so it wasn’t really a “re-election” campaign) in ’76, Kissinger re-entered private life, where his distinctly unscrupulous school of realpolitik — or diplomacy, as he calls it — continues to win him admirers throughout the American establishment. Whether making regular appearances on CNN or showing his “funny side” on The Colbert Report, Kissinger is only occasionally vexed by “fringe” figures calling for his indictment for war crimes. When he passes, we must prepare ourselves for the same campaign of deification enjoyed by the late Ronald Reagan.

Where it’s streaming: Amazon.