This Friday, "Broken City," the new Mark Wahlberg/Russell Crowe political thriller, opens nationwide. The tale of a low rent private detective (Wahlberg), hired by an unscrupulous mayor (Crowe) on the eve of his reelection, is awash in the kind of conspiratorial treachery and deep-seeded mysteries that always go along with movies whose central theme is political corruption.
It got us to thinking about other great movies that investigate the ins and outs of political corruption, so we compiled a list. Do you agree? What do you think we left off? What were you glad we included? And no, we will not mind our own business! We have to investigate all leads!
"Dave" (Ivan Reitman, 1993)
Not all political corruption has to be totally nefarious. Take, for instance, the story of Dave (Kevin Kline), a man who looks uncannily like the President of the United States and who, after the actual President suffers a stroke, is asked to take over (mostly because the President's cabinet is worried about the mental state of the Vice President, played with low-simmer malevolence by Ben Kingsley). It's mostly cute and cuddly, right? Yes, well, replacing the leader of the free world with some dope is still somewhat corrupt and untrustworthy. Still: funnier than most political corruption movies, and a whole lot more cuddly, thanks largely to the laser-sharp script by future "Hunger Games" director Gary Ross and warm direction by "Ghostbusters" mastermind Ivan Reitman.
"The Parallax View" (Alan J. Pakula, 1974)
Nobody in the seventies was better at crafting politically paranoid yarns than Alan J. Pakula, who also directed "Klute" and "All the President's Men" (his output lessened as the years went on and he died in a freak auto accident on the Long Island Expressway). "The Parallax View," adapted from the novel by Loren Singer ("Alien" franchise stalwart David Giler and Robert Towne worked on the script), concerns a conspiracy surrounding the assassination of a senator (and potential presidential candidate) atop Seattle's Space Needle. Warren Beatty, at the height of his hunkiness, plays an intrepid reporter trying to get to the bottom of it, and you can better believe it involves political corruption! Wonderfully downbeat and beautifully shot by Gordon Willis, "The Parallax View" is often (frustratingly) overlooked in the canon of conspiratorial gems.
"The Distinguished Gentleman" (Jonathan Lynn, 1992)
Made during Eddie Murphy's fallow period (before his career picked up again with "The Nutty Professor" remake), "The Distinguished Gentlemen" is none the less a pretty funny, fairly sharp political comedy focusing on the corruption surrounding a Florida con man elected to congress. The central joke, of course, is that the con man isn't nearly as crooked as the other congressmen or the lobbyists who line their pockets. While exhibiting little of the snap that made Lynn's previously film, "My Cousin Vinny" (released earlier that same year), such a zeitgeist-capturing smash, it still attempts to be more than your average Eddie Murphy comedy of the period (it's better than, say, "Vampire in Brooklyn"), and it's stab at addressing the corruption in congress is commendable, if not exactly exemplary.
"Traffic" (Steven Soderbergh, 2000)
Steven Soderbergh's multifaceted epic, encompassing various aspects on the United States' war on drugs, features a number of storylines and dozens of characters. Of course, at the heart of the war on drugs is corruption – the same people fighting to tighten legislation are also making gobs of money from the sale of illegal drugs. (Can you imagine? Me neither.) "Traffic" gets bonus points for portraying vast political corruption on both sides of the border (in the Mexico section we are thankfully lead by the moral compass of Benicio del Toro) and for being the closest thing Generation Y has to "The Godfather." With the legalization (or at the very least decimalization) of marijuana a major political talking point this past electoral cycle, it's true that the drug war might not be raging like it once was, but it's taking on a different form.
"Chinatown" (Roman Polanski, 1974)
Maybe the ultimate political corruption movie; crafted lovingly by Robert Towne and Roman Polanski at about the time all the good will, positive vibes and free love from the sixties had dried up and evaporated for good. Polanski was particularly suited for this bleak worldview, considering his beautiful young pregnant wife had been murdered years earlier by the Charles Manson cult (it's this real life event that helped Polanski secure "Chinatown's" dour ending). Even though it was set in 1937, "Chinatown" felt utterly contemporary (and still does), centering on political corruption in Los Angeles and the essential issue of how water makes its way to LA. Director David Fincher is a "Chinatown" fanatic; his underrated 2011 thriller "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" wasn't a billion-dollar-franchise-starter like the studio wanted but rather a loving, handsomely crafted homage to "Chinatown."
"The Manchurian Candidate" (John Frankenheimer, 1962 and Jonathan Demme, 2004)
The Richard Condon novel of the same name has been adapted twice, in two wildly different political landscapes and by two completely different filmmakers, but one thing remains true with both – the government is pretty damn corrupt. The core of both films (and the book) remains the same – the corruption of a young man, destined for politically greatness, who is co-opted by nefarious influences both inside and outside of our government, and coerced into some truly diabolical deeds. The John Frankenheimer original was born during a period in American history where prominent political assassinations were happening almost weekly, while the 2004 retread got into thornier issues like America's questionable involvement in overseas wars. Both are utterly thrilling, conspiratorial contraptions that will, at the very least, have you wondering what your "kill word" would be. (Mine would be "butterscotch.")
"All the President's Men" (Alan K. Pakula, 1976)
As far as real life political corruption goes, it doesn't get much more corrupt than the Watergate scandal, which ended with a president getting dethroned. Now that's drama! "All the President's Men" takes the perspective of reporters Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman), the men who cracked open the Watergate case and got the ball rolling on the Watergate scandal, by digging deep into what was then thought to be an unimportant case involving a burglary at the Watergate Complex (where the Democratic National Committee was headquartered). They traced the burglars back to Nixon and even though you know the outcome, it remains edge-of-your-seat exciting, mostly thanks to Pakula's brisk direction, William Goldman's note-perfect script and Gordon Willis' breathtaking cinematography. It remains powerful influential, on everything from David Fincher's "Zodiac" to Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty."
"L.A. Confidential" (Curtis Hanson, 1997)
Based on the self-proclaimed "Mad Dog of American Crime Fiction" James Ellroy's 1990 novel of the same name, Curtis Hanson's sprawling, dizzyingly intricate "L.A. Confidential" explores political corruption in Los Angeles in the early fifties. (Clearly, it too owes a debt to "Chinatown.") The film concerns three police detectives – straight arrow Ed Exley (Guy Pearce), brutish Bud White (Russell Crowe) and aloof Sgt. Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) as they investigate a series of brutal killings. Of course, mere murders make way for a vaster, interconnected conspiracy involving high-ranking government officials. What's amazing is that, throughout the knotty plot (which at times can become almost labyrinthine), the characters are what remain the most vivid part of "L.A. Confidential," and not just the cops but characters like Kim Basinger's high class call girl (she won an Oscar) and Danny De Vito's slimy paparazzo.
"JFK" (Oliver Stone, 1991)
It doesn't get much more epic than "JFK" and political corruption doesn't get much more corrupt than what Stone proposes in "JFK" – that certain renegade factions of the government (including, potentially, the Vice President), along with fringe groups and the mafia – conspired to kill John F. Kennedy, America's golden boy president who promised to return the country to its former glory. Told through the story of New Orleans District Attorney Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner), who made the Kennedy Assassination his pet project (to widespread derision) years after the fact, implicating a number of prominent and underworld New Orleans types in the vast, interconnection conspiracy. No matter what you think about JFK's assassination, it's hard to argue with the artistry and craftsmanship on display in Stone's film – this thing has so many moving parts it's hard not to watch it with your jaw slung open. Even as a delusional fantasy, it's an utter masterpiece.
"Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" (Robert Zemeckis, 1988)
For some reason animated films (or partially-animated films) are drawn to the same mechanics of "Chinatown," the best of which is "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," Robert Zemeckis genuinely innovative riff on film noirs and big city corruption. (See also: Gore Verbinski's Academy Award-winning treat "Rango.") Bob Hoskins plays a washed up, alcoholic detective (see this is who they always hire because the powers that be don't think they'll be able to finish the job – but they do!) tasked with figuring out whether animated vixen Jessica Rabbit (Kathleen Turner) is cheating on her rabbit husband Roger (Robert Fleischer). Of course, a vast conspiracy is uncovered that involves political corruption and the decimation of Toontown, a safe haven for animated characters, to make way for a freeway; an unrelentingly clever and observant marvel, still.