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Political intrigue takes center stage on the big screen

Richard Carter | 8/31/2011, 4:25 p.m.
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"President Lincoln proposed a vote to his cabinet that got nine nays and one yea. The yea was Lincoln's and it passed..."-William Devane, "The Missiles of October" (1974)

With the 2012 presidential campaign officially underway, more and more is being said and heard about potential challengers to Barack Hussein Obama. However, politics in America isn't only about wannabe presidents and their campaigns.

The rough-and-tumble world of political infighting means dealing with crises, as well as pushing, shoving and throwing sharp elbows by people seeking to be mayors, governors, members of state legislatures and Congress. The same is true of their often devious advisers.

And, of course, there is political intrigue. The president and other elected officials sometimes find themselves faced with unexpected, unknown and scary challenges. Occasionally, the lives of millions of Americans are at stake.

For stone-cold political aficionados such as this writer, the back-and-forth of big-time politics helps make America what it is. Although I'm eagerly awaiting NBA games pitting the Brooklyn-bound New Jersey Nets versus the new-look New York Knicks, I prefer lively debates between smart, high-powered candidates for a significant political office.

As a devotee of vintage films, I've always cherished those about down-and-dirty politics, especially those detailing national and international machinations and chicanery. So as Obama's challengers line up and Tea Party-driven Republicans gain strength, here's a brief, alphabetical look at political intrigue in 16 relevant and memorable flicks:

  • "The American President" (1995): A hot-to-trot widowed president (Michael Douglas)-ala Bill Clinton-misbehaves with a lobbyist (Annette Bening), ignoring election year implications. The fine cast includes Martin Sheen and Richard Dreyfuss.
  • "The Assassination of Richard Nixon" (2004): Were President Richard Nixon's policies bad enough to kill him? In 1974, loser Sam Byck-a brilliant Sean Penn-thought so. He failed and Nixon resigned. Fine support by Don Cheadle and Mykelti Williamson.
  • "Beau James" (1957): New York's most colorful mayor was Jimmy Walker in the 1920s-not Ed Koch in the '70s and '80s. Bob Hope as Walker struts his stuff and runs the city with aplomb. With Vera Miles and Paul Douglas. Narrated by Walter Winchell.
  • "Bulworth" (1998): In a crisis of conscience, a California congressman seeking re-election (Warren Beatty) woos the Black community. With Halle Berry, Don Cheadle, Michael Clark Duncan and Isaiah Washington. Funny, unsettling and thought-provoking.
  • "By Dawn's Early Light" (1990): Renegade Soviets fire nukes from Turkey at Russia. NATO is blamed and America is attacked. Flyers Powers Boothe and Rip Torn fight as a general (James Earl Jones), the president (Martin Landau) and a Soviet boss intervene.
  • "Collision Course" (1976): During the Korean War, President Harry S. Truman (E. G. Marshall) meets egotistic Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Henry Fonda) on Wake Island to plot a strategy. The general urges nuclear strikes against China, then president goes home and fires him.
  • "The Contender" (2000): After the death of the vice president, the president (Jeff Bridges) nominates a female senator (Joan Allen) to succeed him. A vindictive congressman (Gary Oldman) dredges up a sex tape to humiliate her in public hearings. Timely, ugly and fine.
  • "Dr. Strangelove" (1964): Peter Sellers plays the president, a mad scientist and a British captain. A loony general (Sterling Hayden) launches a nuclear strike on Russia. James Earl Jones and Slim Pickens lead the attack as George C. Scott tries to stop it. Funny, but scary.
  • "Fail Safe" (1964): Features tense political overtones involving the president (Henry Fonda) and key advisors as a computer glitch sends U.S. bombers to attack Moscow. A realistic feel is added by Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Dan O'Herlihy and Dom DeLouise. Tingling.
  • "First Lady" (1937): Kay Francis stars as the ambitious wife of the secretary of state (Preston Foster) who pushes him into running for president against a corrupt judge (Walter Connelly). Anita Louise, Victor Jory and Verree Teasdale are part of the fine cast. Ahead of its time.
  • "The Glass Key" (1942): The searing Dashiell Hammett novel lives as political boss Brian Donlevy backs the reform candidate (Moroni Olsen) for governor, then is accused of murdering his son. With Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and William Bendix. Tough stuff.
  • "A Lion is in the Streets" (1953): The great James Cagney is a cunning bayou peddler who crusades against crooked a cotton buyer and runs for governor, ala infamous Huey Long of Louisiana. Color added by John McIntire, Lon Chaney Jr. and Jeanne Cagney.
  • "The Manchurian Candidate" (1962): John Frankenheimer's superior, chilling original. Laurence Harvey is a brainwashed war hero turned political assassin. With Angela Lansbury as his diabolical mother and Frank Sinatra, James Edwards and Khigh Deigh.
  • "The Missiles of October" (1976): Political infighting is highlighted in this taut account of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Lookalike William Devane as President John F. Kennedy, Martin Sheen as brother Bobby and Howard DaSilva as a gruff Nikita Khrushchev. The real thing.
  • "My Fellow Americans" (1996): Two ex-presidents and longtime enemies-Jack Lemmon and James Garner-uncover a plot blaming one for a dirty deal by the current president (Dan Aykroyd). They struggle but succeed. Esther Rolle plays a fine supporting role.
  • "World War III" (1982): Russian paratroops sabotage Alaska's oil pipeline due to a U.S. grain embargo. The president (Rock Hudson) talks to the Soviet premier (Brian Keith) in Iceland. David Soul, Cathy Lee Crosby and Jeroen Krabbe are opposing combat officers.