NEAL CONAN, HOST:
Passionate preparations, raucous rallies, debatable decisions, last-second scandals and the awful, awful suspense, Hollywood celebrates Election Day dramatics, even when the vote's in high school.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ELECTION")
REESE WITHERSPOON: (as Tracy Flick) Dear Lord Jesus, I do not often speak with you and ask for things. But now, I really must insist that you help me win the election tomorrow, because I deserve it and Paul Metzler doesn't, as you well know.
CONAN: "Election," of course. What's your choice for best Election Day movie? We'll accept nominees by email: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can call us: 800-989-8255, and lobby for your favorite on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION. Our favorite film buff, Murray Horwitz, joins us here in Studio 3A.
And, Murray, happy Election Day.
MURRAY HORWITZ, BYLINE: Happy Election Day, Neal. May I just say that the news item you just delivered about voters voting in the dark, I mean, sometimes the jokes just write themselves. You don't have to say anything.
CONAN: Well, as usual in this contest, we have to begin with some rules. So "Mr. Smith," "Advise & Consent," "Best Men," all terrific political movies...
HORWITZ: Right, but not about an election. So that's a thing- we're not just talking about political movies, just about movies about elections, or in which elections figure prominently, especially if the movie features actual election returns coming in, you know, "Election Night," or in the case of what we just heard, Alexander Payne's "Election" with Reese Witherspoon, the election morning or afternoon or whatever it was.
CONAN: As you're running up to the culmination of the campaign. And this is something that is, as I suggested in the introduction, guaranteed for Hollywood.
HORWITZ: Guaranteed for Hollywood. You know, it's - there are several sort of surefire genres. I mean, you have to really work hard to make a bad courtroom drama. You know, there's instances of that.
CONAN: People have done it, but...
HORWITZ: People have done it, but they've been hard-working. But gambling movies, sports movies, courtroom dramas, there's built-in suspense, you know. You know somebody wins and somebody loses. And that's why there had been hundreds of election movies, comedies and dramas and documentaries and biographies. Also TV shows, which is another ground rule: no TV shows. Although in this case, there are a couple of extraordinary feature films that premiered on cable that we'll likely touch on. I mean, they're so on the money, that we can't ignore them.
CONAN: Well, one of them was much honored this past year at the Emmys. That, of course, was "Game Change."
HORWITZ: "Game Change."
CONAN: In fact, that was the movie in which Sarah Palin's ascent to national prominence was described, including Julianne Moore playing Sarah Palin - this was an HBO movie - including, just after the election, her desire to make a speech. Here she's talking with Woody Harrelson, Senator McCain's senior staff campaign strategist.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GAME CHANGE")
JULIANNE MOORE: (as Sarah Palin) I want to salute John for everything he's done for this country.
WOODY HARRELSON: (as Steve Schmidt) That's not going to happen. You're not giving a speech.
MOORE: (as Sarah Palin) And why is that, Steve?
HARRELSON: (as Steve Schmidt) You're not giving a speech because the vice-presidential candidate has never given a concession speech on election night. It's not about you. It's about the country.
MOORE: (as Sarah Palin) Yeah, well, there's a lot of things that haven't been done before.
CONAN: Well, made for TV. For all that, a terrific movie.
HORWITZ: And nobody thought that anybody can outdo Tina Fey as Sarah Palin. But sure enough, Julianne Moore did more than honorably. And it's one of the films by Jay Roach, who's done several films about elections.
CONAN: Let's see if we can get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email us: email@example.com. Your best Election Day movie of all time. And we'll start with Bob, and Bob's on the line with us from San Francisco.
BOB: Thanks for having me. I think the movie I really like is "The Candidate," which came out in 1972, which was a fictional race. A young Bill McKay, a young California liberal running against an entrenched conservative, Crocker Jarmon. And what made it particularly interesting is we have lunch yesterday with Jeremy Larner, who won the Academy Award for, I believe, best original screenplay in the film.
CONAN: And one of the film's famous scenes that I think everybody is going to remember is - well, this is after they're about to go into the celebration after Bill McKay's victory. Here he is played by Robert Redford.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE CANDIDATE")
PETER BOYLE: (as Marvin Lucas) OK. We got about 60 seconds of privacy before they find out we're here now. So what's on your mind, Senator?
ROBERT REDFORD: (as Bill McKay) I don't know. (Knocking)
BOYLE: (as Marvin Lucas) OK. We got to get out. OK. I told you that we...
REDFORD: (as Bill McKay) Marvin, what do we do now?
BOYLE: (as Marvin Lucas) What a minute? What a minute? What? Move back just...
CONAN: What do we do now? Bob, I wonder, did you speak with the screenwriter about that particular scene?
BOB: Yes, we did. And that turned out to be a fairly major scene. What he wanted to create was a liberal candidate, and it really just came from the conversation he was having between him, Robert Redford and Michael Ritchie, who is the, I believe, the...
HORWITZ: He's the director. The director, right.
BOB: Right. He wanted to create an environment where a liberal candidate kind of lost himself in the electoral process. And when you start out at the beginning of the film where he has fairly concrete positions, as he goes through the film, he kind of softens many of these positions. And at the end, he is wondering what has he done. Where does he go from now?
BOB: Or where do we go from here?
HORWITZ: As he asks his campaign manager Peter Boyle. It's one of the most famous lines from any election movie. I'm interested, Bob, that Jeremy Larner had been a speechwriter for Senator Eugene McCarthy, I think.
BOB: That's correct.
HORWITZ: Yeah, yeah. So...
BOB: In fact, he was McCarthy's main speechwriter and he also, he also wrote the very famous speech that Julian Bond gave at the 1968 convention.
CONAN: Well, thanks very much for that informative phone call.
HORWITZ: Thank you, Bob.
BOB: Take care. Have a great day.
CONAN: You too.
HORWITZ: Bob also takes us on an important theme, I think, Neal. I mean, there really is a kind of thing that runs through some of these movies, particularly, the comedies. And that's the candidate who comes clean, the guy - and it's almost always a guy - who says what he really believes or confesses that he's been elected wrongly.
In "The Candidate," he sensed prominence by actually speaking his mind. He's given a perfect license to say what he really believes in, and then eventually, as Bob said, softens that. There's a part of us, I guess, that knows that our political candidates are jiving, and we want them to tell the truth. And it's a great temptation for a screenwriter. Oh, I get to tell the truth in the mouth of a politician.
CONAN: There is also a generational change on any number of levels of institutions. Do you think - well, it's "The Great McGinty," of course...
CONAN: ...the Preston Sturges' movie. But here it is from an email from Steve in Black Lake, Ohio: Spencer Tracy is the epitome of the machine politician in "The Last Hurrah." And, of course, if there's a remake, Bill Clinton can be a cast in the lead role.
CONAN: "The Last Hurrah" tells the story of Mayor Frank Skeffington running for re-election for the last time, played by the great Spencer Tracy, directed by the great John Ford.
HORWITZ: John Ford.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LAST HURRAH")
SPENCER TRACY: (as Mayor Frank Skeffington) Ladies and gentlemen, it appears in the vote that McCluskey has won, and he's going to be your next mayor. I wish to offer Mr. McCluskey my heartiest congratulations and good luck. Of course, he doesn't need the congratulations. He may, however, need the luck.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Just one question, Mayor Skeffington. Have you made any plans for the future?
TRACY: (as Mayor Frank Skeffington) I am going to run for governor of the state. And, I might add, I expect to win.
HORWITZ: It's great. And that was really prescient. It was 1958, that film, and he makes that address in front of the TV cameras. And it really is one of the first acknowledgments of the power of TV in politics.
CONAN: There is an exemplar of the Checkers Speech. His rival makes the speech with the dog on the couch and jumps up, all that stuff goes on. And so these are ways that we chronicle our society as well.
HORWITZ: Very much so. Very much. Just as the candidate was a reflection of a lot of the political foment of the 1960s, this was an acknowledgment of recent political history in the '50s.
CONAN: Let's go next to Rob. Rob out - with us on the line from Charlotte.
ROB: Yeah, how are you doing? Thanks for taking my call. Yeah. I just watched "The Campaign" with Will Ferrell last night, and I got to tell you, that movie hits the nail right on the head, especially when the two owners of the corporation with all the money go China and they tell him that - don't worry about which politician is there. They can't be - the end result is going to be determined by the money, and we have all the money.
HORWITZ: It's true.
CONAN: Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis in the...
CONAN: ...this summer's comedy, "The Campaign." They compete to represent North Carolina's 14th Congressional District. And Galifianakis plays Marty Huggins, the challenger. And here, we hear his final campaign ad where he makes a bit of a confession.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE CAMPAIGN")
ZACH GALIFIANAKIS: (as Marty Huggins) But on this Election Day, if you choose to vote for me, know this, I will never take another dime from any billionaire or corporation. And to get the ball rolling, I will tell you the darkest secrets of my life. On October 23, 1996, at 2:11 P.M., I farted in a very crowded elevator and blamed it on a war veteran. I would like to apologize to that woman.
CONAN: So political comedy as gross-out movie.
HORWITZ: Oh, God. Right. You know, and there we are with flatulence jokes in the political campaigns. But here, again, it's - I mentioned that it's prevalent in the comedies as in "The Great McGinty" and also in "The Campaign," where somebody comes clean, you know, and there is something very, very satisfying to audiences about that.
CONAN: Let's go next to Scotty. Scotty with us from Louisville.
SCOTTY: Yes. Hello. How are y'all?
CONAN: I'm well. Thanks.
HORWITZ: I'm good. How are you doing?
SCOTTY: My film is "Abraham Lincoln in Illinois" that starred Raymond Massey, who's the man who played Cal's father in "East of Eden." Y'all remember him?
HORWITZ: Yes, indeed. Raymond Massey.
CONAN: And in many, many movies.
SCOTTY: Yeah. He was...
CONAN: "Action in the North Atlantic" for one.
SCOTTY: Well, he was a very much sort of an over-the-top kind of actor. But in this particular role, he played with an amazing restraint in this - the whole movie is just - is pervaded with this air of melancholy. And, you know, Mrs. Lincoln is, you know, chiding him, you need to come home and we quit hanging around here. He's standing in the telegraph room, you know, trying to get the election results. And at the end, he gives this incredibly powerful, ultimately sad address, but it's just so touching that he's standing on the platform in Springfield about to, you know, leave on the train to go to Washington.. And of course, that was the happiest time of his life before he became president in Springfield, and he's saying how much he loved these people and what the town means to him and...
CONAN: And, Murray, it's interesting that this year, of course, we're getting to see Abraham Lincoln again on (unintelligible) role as a vampire killer.
HORWITZ: We're going to see him on Friday.
HORWITZ: As a vampire killer, sure.
SCOTTY: Yeah. And they take the ringer was Daniel Day-Lewis because he , he's just a hell of an actor.
HORWITZ: I'm looking forward to seeing that movie, and I assume there's going to be elections in that movie. But we, of course, won't know until it's out.
CONAN: Well, it's about the last four months of the administration, so I don't think so.
HORWITZ: Right, right, right. Oh, really?
HORWITZ: So we won't see that all. Well, you know, "Abe Lincoln in Illinois," I'm glad Scotty mentioned, it's a 1940 film. It's directed by John Cromwell. And for years, it was kind of the standard for political biopics. You know, if you grew up in the 1950s, 1960s, you always saw that image of Raymond Massey giving the House Divided Against Itself Speech. And it's Robert E. Sherwood's script from his own play. And it's very powerful, as Scotty said.
CONAN: Murray Horwitz is with us, our favorite film buff. We're talking about Election Day movies. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. And here's an email from Aaron in Urbandale, Iowa: "Bulworth," a funny, yet very poignant satire. I love it. This is the more modern take, Murray. This is exposing politics for the sometimes silly business.
HORWITZ: It's great fun. Halle Berry and Warren Beatty. It's - Warren Beatty directed it. It's amazing to think of - and you think that film as only yesterday. But that film's almost 15 years old. And here again, it's a politician who decides all bets are off. I'm going to tell the truth, and he does so as a kind of hip-hop artist.
CONAN: And in the meantime, he goes and vanishes for a little while just before, well, guess what, Election Day.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "BULWORTH")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Where is Senator Jay Bulworth?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (as character) Where is Senator Jay Bulworth?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Where is Senator Jay Bulworth? That's the question everybody is asking this Election Day after the senator astonished the political establishment yesterday by making no appearances.
HORWITZ: And he's hiding out at Halle Berry's house.
CONAN: As it turns out, learning a few things
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to Matthew, and Matthew is on the line with us from Denver. I think. There he is. Matthew, you're on the line from Denver. Go ahead, please.
MATTHEW: Hi. The election is crucial to "The Manchurian Candidate." The whole movie evolves around his election.
HORWITZ: That's true, Matthew, of the remake, of the Jonathan Demme version in 2004, where there actually is an election night and a very climactic election night party. In the original with Frank Sinatra, the John Frankenheimer film, there's no election. There's a nominating convention, but there's no election.
MATTHEW: OK. You're correct.
HORWITZ: But it's really a very interesting movie. I don't know if you'd want Meryl Streep to be your mother, would you?
MATTHEW: Not in that case.
CONAN: Not in that case. No, I'm not so sure.
MATTHEW: Well, thanks.
CONAN: Thanks very much, Matthew.
MATTHEW: Take care.
CONAN: And as we've gotten more modern with these films, what do you think we're learning?
HORWITZ: Oh, boy. I think two things. I think that we know a lot more about politics and about lessons that...
CONAN: Much more sophisticated.
HORWITZ: Yeah. We're much more sophisticated so that now a lot of the movies are about the process. You know, you think of something like "Wag the Dog" or the very literal movies that Jay Roach has done, like "Game Change" and "Recount," where you really see the mechanics of it and the behind-the-scenes. So we're - we may be a little bit jaded, and I'm not so sure it's a good thing.
CONAN: It's interesting in that context to compare two versions of a great film. This is "All the King's Men," and going back a long ways, you have Broderick Crawford in the star role.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ALL THE KING'S MEN")
BRODERICK CRAWFORD: (As Willie Stark) This is not a time for speechmaking. I should get on my knees and ask God to give me strength to carry out your will.
CONAN: And we don't think of Broderick Crawford as the great leading man. This is his great role - other than "Highway Patrol."
CONAN: But that - but in any case, remade later and interesting differences.
HORWITZ: Yeah. A lot of - first of all, you got Sean Penn instead of Broderick Crawford, which is sort of "Mutt and Jeff" in a strange kind of way. And again, it seems to me a little bit - I was going to use the adjective stark, which is a terrible pun because Willie Stark is the governor. But, you know, it's really - I can't be very original about this. It's leaner, just as Sean Penn is leaner. And it's a little meaner too.
CONAN: What does the Murray go see?
HORWITZ: Well, we try to stay away from documentaries in this, even though the Pennebaker film and Robert Drew film "Primary" is one of the most important films of all time. But mine goes to a one-hour film from just a few years ago called "Please Vote for Me." It's in Wuhan, China, where a group of third graders are given their first classroom election and you see these eight-year-old kids, and it's just heartbreaking and funny at the same time. They instantly discover politics. And as one friend of mine said, all the parents turn into David Axelrod and start managing campaigns.
CONAN: I will go another way and give the award to a film in which an election plays an ancillary but fascinating part: "Citizen Kane."
HORWITZ: Oh, well.
CONAN: And Orson Welles, of course, runs for governor. There is the scandal at the last minute and, well, his friend, Joseph Cotten upbraids him after the results come in.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "CITIZEN KANE")
JOSEPH COTTEN: (As Jedediah Leland) You don't care about anything except you. You just want to persuade people that you love them so much that they ought to love you back.
CONAN: Of course, "Citizen Kane" is the best in any number of categories.
HORWITZ: That's very, very true. And it does get a special award for this. Also, his opponent was Ray Collins, later Lieutenant Tragg on "Perry Mason" show.
CONAN: Speaking of "Highway Patrol." Murray, as always, thank you so much for your time.
HORWITZ: Don't forget to vote, Neal.
CONAN: Tomorrow, we'll look at some of the big winners and losers in ballots across the country. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Ken Rudin will join us for that broadcast. We hope you will, as well. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.