The 20 best political satires in movies and TV

There’s a unique pleasure in the political satire. Whether in film or on television, well-wrought satires ask the viewer to think critically about the nature of politics, how power works, and how mendacity can overwhelm even the most upright political figures. The best of the genre are those films that use humor and real-world verisimilitude to crack open the facade of politics and politicians, revealing their hypocrisy. These films make the audience laugh, even as they encourage them to think more critically and aggressively about those who want to wield power over others.

1 of 20 ‘Wag the Dog’

Wag the Dog is oddly prescient, focusing on a spin doctor and producer who go to great lengths to distract from a presidential sex scandal, even faking a war in Albania. Of course, things quickly spin out of control, with hilarious and sometimes disturbing hijinks. The plot of the film would eventually mirror the real world, particularly the actions of the Clinton Administration, President Bill Clinton’s sexual indiscretions, and the wars in Eastern Europe. It’s the blackest of black comedies, and it ends up being as thought-provoking as it is hilarious.

2 of 20′ The Campaign’

The Campaign stars comedic heavy hitters Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis, who play Representative Camden “Cam” Brady and Martin Sylvester “Marty” Huggins, who end up vying for the same congressional seat in North Carolina. Like so many other comedies starring the leads, it tends to be low-brow, but they are both at the top of their game, and the film never loses sight of the fact that its primary goal is to make viewers laugh. Moreover, it takes delicious aim at some ridiculous foibles and situations in which American politicians and aspiring politicians find themselves.

3 of 20 ‘Man of the Year’

Though Man of the Year may not be seen as one of the late Robin Williams’ best movies, it’s still an entertaining (and surprisingly prescient) look at how entertainment and politics have grown increasingly entangled in the modern age. Williams stars as Tom Dobbs, who, like real-life figures like Jon Stewart, manages to tap into widespread anger. In his case, he eventually leverages it into a run for political office and, due to some technological shenanigans, becomes President. Though not every point the film makes lands quite as effectively as it should, it nevertheless demonstrates the extent to which entertainers in the modern world can use popular anger to become successful politicians.

4 of 20 ‘Yes Minister’

British television has long excelled at roasting the British government, and perhaps no series illustrates this as successfully as Yes Minister. It’s a cunning and subtle satire about the various machinations that always take place in governmental offices. Moreover, unlike some political satires, which talk down to their audience, Yes Minister had a sophistication that set it apart from other sorts of series. Moreover, it’s the type of show that helps the audience understand why so little gets done regarding government and politics: it’s all about petty egos and squabbling.

5 of 20 ‘Parks and Recreation’

Parks and Recreation is one of those rare things: a satire that isn’t cynical. The series’ eternal optimism is embodied in Amy Poehler’s Leslie Knope, who works for the Parks and Recreation Department in Pawnee, Indiana. She truly believes in the power of government to help the people, even if those people don’t always appreciate her efforts and are sometimes downright antagonistic. Populated by an extraordinary cast and elevated by sharp writing, it’s an entertaining and often insightful look at small-town government’s (dys)functions.

6 of 20 ‘Alpha House’

Alpha House emerged at the dawn of streaming, having been released by Amazon in 2013. Though it only ran for two seasons, it was a fun little sitcom focusing on several Republican Senators who share a house in DC. This is one of those satires that often has a bitter edge to it, and it doesn’t pull any of its punches when it comes to puncturing the self-regard of so many involved in American politics. It’s worth tuning in for the performance from John Goodman, who always manages to steal the show.

7 of 20 ‘Spin City’

As its title suggests, Spin City focuses (for its first several seasons) on New York City Deputy Mayor Mike Flaherty (played by Michael J. Fox) as he wrangles various political crises and spin, even as his personal life falls apart. It was a perfect role for Fox, even though he had to leave the series in its later seasons due to his ongoing battle with Parkinson’s Disease. It was also a perfect setup for a sitcom, even as it satirizes the various inanities plaguing a big city government like New York City.

8 of 20 ‘A Face in the Crowd’

Though Andy Griffith is best known for portraying the generous and wise Sheriff Andy Taylor on the long-running sitcom The Andy Griffith Show, he also appeared in several notable films, including the haunting political satire A Face in the Crowd. In the movie, he portrays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, a drifter who ultimately becomes a celebrity and, from there, leverages his success into political power. It’s a remarkable turn for Griffith, who captures the character’s hubris and callousness. Moreover, it shows just how quickly one can rise to power in America and how quickly one can fall.

Bette Midler in the Politician

9 of 20 ‘The Politician’

Ryan Murphy has repeatedly shown himself to be a remarkably prolific creator, and his partnership with Netflix allowed him to expand the possibilities of his creativity. In The Politician, he gave viewers Ben Platt’s Payton Hobart, a young man who will do essentially anything to advance in politics, whether in his high school or state politics. The series may not have as much depth as expected from a satire, but there’s still enough soapy fun to make it worth a watch, particularly once Judith Light and Bette Midler join the cast full-time in the second season.

10 of 20 ‘Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb’

Stanley Kubrick has a reputation for being one of the most cynical directors of the 20th century. That sensibility is evident in Dr. Strangelove’s: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. It’s the blackest of black comedies, focusing on a nuclear conflict set to erupt between the US and the Soviet Union. It’s precisely this engagement with a genuine apocalyptic threat that gives the film its bite and its sometimes absurd sense of humor. Of course, it also helps that it stars the great Peter Sellers — one of his generation’s most talented physical comedians — in three separate roles, including the deranged title character.

11 of 20 ‘Don’t Look Up’

What Adam McKay’s satirical allegory Don’t Look Up lacks in subtlety, it more than makes up for in sheer star power since the film stars such heavy hitters as Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Timothée Chalamet, and numerous others. At the heart of the story is a comet about to destroy Earth, and how no one seems capable or willing to address the problem head-on. It skillfully blends the director’s sharp comedic eye with a blistering look at how far too many people have failed to take the imminent climate catastrophe seriously enough.

12 of 20 ‘The Dictator’

Love him or hate him, there’s no question Sacha Baron Cohen is a brilliant comedian and satirist, as he shows in The Dictator. In the film, he portrays Admiral-General Haffaz Aladeen, a clear spoof and reference to many real-world dictators in the broader Arab world. The film is cruder and more vulgar in its satire than many of its predecessors in the genre, but therein lies its peculiar genius. Moreover, the film eschews even lip service to the pieties of political correctness, and there’s something almost refreshing about its willingness to offend anyone and everyone sitting in the audience.

13 of 20 ‘Vice’

Vice President Dick Cheney is one of the most controversial figures to have ever held that office, thanks in no small part to his part in orchestrating the War on Terror. Christian Bale gives an unsettlingly intense performance as Cheney, seeming to inhabit the body and mind of this divisive yet undeniably powerful figure. As a result, the film is one of the relatively few to ask the challenging and vexing questions about the Bush presidency and its impact on America in the domestic and international spheres. It may play fast and loose with historical accuracy, but it still provides insights into the workings of political power in the US.

14 of 20 ‘The Thick of It’

Before he created Veep for American audiences, Armando Iannucci showed his unique insight into the foibles of politics with his British series The Thick of It. It focuses on the various Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship members, showcasing the dysfunctions that often mar the British government. Like its American cousin and successor, it doesn’t pull any punches when it comes to depicting the foibles and manifold shortcomings of those at the heart of power, and this is what makes it both so scathingly funny and simultaneously so disturbingly insightful.

15 of 20′ The Regime’

Kate Winslet headlines in the HBO series The Regime, which takes place in an unnamed European country. Winslet portrays Chancellor Elena “Lenny” Vernham, a dictator who begins to plunge headlong into paranoia but who finds an unlikely source of strength in her bodyguard. It’s one of the actress’ strangest and yet most compelling performances, as she creates a woman who yearns to hold onto power, even though it is clear that it has taken a heavy toll on her. By turns bizarre and disturbing, The Regime is sure to be seen as one of the more notable and unsettling political satires of the 21st century.

16 of 20 ‘The Death of Stalin’

It takes a rare comedic talent to turn an event like the death of Joseph Stalin — one of the most notorious dictators of the 20th century — and turn it into an absurd farce. When Joseph Stalin died, his underlings immediately began jostling for power, with results that veer between violent and hilarious. Like the best satires, it manages to operate on several levels at once, criticizing the absurdity of Soviet politics, its reliance on an alternative vision of reality, the present political moment, and the rise of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

17 of 20 ‘Veep’

HBO and Armando Armando Iannucci knocked it out of the park with Veep, which focuses on the travails of Vice President Selina Meyer, memorably portrayed by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The series is scathing in its satire and commentary on American political life, and Selina is the role Louis-Dreyfus was seemingly born to play. Though a moderately talented politician, Selina often lets herself be led astray by her titanic ego and the ineptitude of her underlings. The series emphasizes how absurd and ridiculous politics are, making it such an incisive critic of the American political system.

18 of 20 ‘The Great Dictator’

Charlie Chaplin is, without a doubt, one of the most notable and talented comedic actors in the history of Hollywood. In The Great Dictator, released in 1940, he aimed the fascist dictators then coming to power in Europe, reducing men like Hitler and Mussolini to figures of fun and mockery. It’s a film that manages to be very funny and daring, particularly since, at its release, the US had yet to declare war against Germany. As he would so often do, Chaplin proved that there was a remarkable power in the moving image.

19 of 20 ‘Duck Soup’

Few comedy groups have been as unequivocally successful as the Marx Brothers, and Duck Soup is widely seen as one of their finest efforts. It pokes relentlessly fun at warmongering among political leaders and is generally cynical about the intelligence of the world’s supposed leaders. Groucho Marx is at his best as Rufus T. Firefly, the man who becomes the leader of the country of Freedonia, which ultimately goes to war with Sylvania. Even though it wasn’t well-received at the time of its release, it is one of those films that has benefited from retrospective appreciation, and it now has more than its place in the political satire canon.

20 of 20′ Hail the Conquering Hero’

Preston Sturges was one of those directors who had a keen understanding of American society, and he brought his sharp sensibility to Hail the Conquering Hero. Released in 1944, this satire focuses on Woodrow Lafayette Pershing Truesmith (portrayed by Eddie Bracken), a soldier who lies about serving in World War II, only for matters to get entirely out of hand when his hometown begins to worship him as a war hero, even going so far as to set him on a path toward public office. It’s a bitingly funny film, largely because it casts a very unflattering light on Americans and their tendency to elevate military heroes into the realm of political power.

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