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For Hollywood, All Politics Is National

Films Detailing Campaigns for ‘Lower’ Office Tell Truths Not Heard on the Campaign Trail

Courtesy Sony Pictures
"Ides of March," starring Ryan Gosling and George Clooney, focuses on a presidential campaign.

When it comes to the campaign movie, presidents rule. Stories about people running for the House and Senate are rare indeed, forming a rump caucus of feature films in the cinematic canon.

In one of the quieter moments in “The Ides of March,” the recent George Clooney movie about a presidential campaign in the heat of the Ohio primary, the fictional Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris lets out some true feelings to his wife.

“F---ing Congressmen. Can you imagine doing this every two years?”

Morris is complaining about being asked to appear at a ladies’ luncheon for the local Congressman’s wife. He’s in the middle of a dogfight for delegates. But this presidential candidate’s frustration with retail politics is also a mirror for the movie industry’s attitudes about campaigns for “lesser” office.

It’s not that there is a shortage of films about politics. It’s just that most of them are about the exercise of power among those already in office. Less common are movies about people making their way to Congress. 

“True Colors,” a 1991 film by the late Herbert Ross, chronicles the friendship of two men over several years as one of them, John Cusack’s Peter Burton, aspires and ultimately gets elected to a House seat in Connecticut. 

The film vividly illustrates how Burton sacrifices his close relationships and breezes past moral considerations on his way to Congress.

It also shows how much painstaking groundwork goes into running for a House seat, including stump speeches to a somnambulant senior center.

But the plot centers on Burton’s raw ambition. 

He blackmails his mentor and father-in-law, Richard Widmark’s Sen. James Stiles, into supporting his bid.

“You may win an election or two. You may even be able to live with yourself. But God help you when the people find out. They always do,” a livid Stiles says.

Burton also betrays his best friend, an idealistic Justice Department attorney named Tim Gerrity who is played by James Spader.

“I needed more than you were able to give,” Burton tells Gerrity. “They say great men are embraced by thousands of strangers. I wanna be great! So you sacrifice the few to reach the many.”

The films’ location shoots and smart script make it a morality play worth revisiting.

“The Distinguished Gentleman,” the 1992 comedy by Jonathan Lynn, stars Eddie Murphy as a Florida con man who uses the fact that he and a recently deceased Congressman have similar names to win the latter’s seat.

“That’s a name even our Alzheimer’s group will remember,” says Doris Grau’s Hattie Rifkin, the Florida Silver Foxes Party operative who vets Jefferson when he makes the case to run on the Silver Foxes’ nomination line.

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