Essential Political Documentaries

In the lead-up to the British General Election, Curzon Home Cinema highlight some key films that have tackled politics, elections and major social issues...

Election time finds the news – both real and purportedly fake – taking up an increasing amount of our day, as we wade through facts, opinions and policies to decide who to vote for. But the never-ending, 24-hour news cycle only responds to the moment, rarely allowing time for sober reflection. Heated, impassioned and responding to events as they unfold, election coverage is as far as you could get from its sibling, the political documentary.

Political unrest in Kiev (Maidan)

Political unrest in Kiev (Maidan)

The greatest documentaries balance the need to capture the urgency of the moment with the distance that time allows. For instance, those who followed the 1992 American Presidential election that resulted in Bill Clinton’s first term in office would never have guessed at the machinations were going on behind closed doors as revealed in The War Room (1993). The star of the film turns out not to be Clinton but his chief strategist James Carville, a scabrously witty Washington player. More recently, Get Me Roger Stone (2017) not only gives an insight into the tricks played by Republican strategist Roger Stone, but also an understanding of the various regime changes that took place in the Trump campaign office during last year’s election.

The greatest documentaries balance the need to capture the urgency of the moment with the distance that time allows.

Away from elections, other documentaries excel at specific campaigns or events. Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom (2015) and Maidan (2014) detailed how simmering rivalries between Ukraine and Russia erupted into violence on the streets of Kiev and other major Ukrainian cities. The Square (2013) remains one of the most lucid accounts of how the overthrow of Mubarak in Egypt and a movement for democratic government was splintered by factionist fighting. No End in Sight (2007) charts the collapse of America’s governance in Iraq, over a two-year period, from the fall of Baghdad to the end of the disastrous mismanagement of the occupation authority by the US diplomat Paul Bremer. Other documentaries have focused on key individuals within the political landscape, from the insiders Robert S. McNamara (The Fog of War, 2003) and Donald Rumsfeld (The Known Unknown, 2013) to a potential candidate whose proclivities destroyed his career (Weiner, 2016) and a rank outsider who unsettled the establishment (Edward Snowden in Citizenfour, 2014).

Edward Snowden in the Oscar-winning Citizenfour

Edward Snowden in the Oscar-winning Citizenfour

If documentaries like last year’s 13th (racism in America and the rise of the Black Lives Matter Movement), the earlier The House I Live In (the 2012 exploration of America's disproportionate African American male population and the penal industrial complex and Lake of Fire (a balanced, but incendiary, 2006 account of both sides of the abortion debate by American History X director Tony Kaye) zoom in on an issue as a way of taking a wider look at society, both past and present, a film like 2013’s The Spirit of ’45 takes a long view of British history from the end of the Second World War to the Thatcher years. Being a Ken Loach film, this is no dispassionate, or objective, take on the country’s recent past. But whether you agree or not with what it says, the film profits from its ability to stand back, take in the long view and – perhaps in a more ideal world – help us forge a way forward.

Five Key Films

Discover more award-winning documentaries on Curzon Home Cinema now.