With the holiday season in full swing and Congress eventually—sometime!—heading out of town for a Christmas and New Year’s recess, you might find yourself with some extra time for a movie or two. But for political junkies who might find science fiction action film The Matrix Resurrections just a wee bit boring, how about one of the many films featuring the U.S. Congress?
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Mr. Smith is perhaps the iconic congressional movie, featuring nothing less than a talking filibuster that concludes with Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) collapsing at the end. When his state’s U.S. Senator dies, Governor Hubert Hopper selects Smith, the head of the Boy Rangers, to replace him, hoping he’ll be both popular and easy to control. While the earnest Smith proposes a bill for the government to provide a loan for a camp for boys in his state, his corrupt opponents accuse him of graft. Thus, he is forced to defend himself as they try to expel him from the Senate, leading to his famed filibuster. Smith is saved when his remorseful enemy—who has posed as a friend and mentor throughout the film—confesses to the plan to take him down.
Rotten Tomatoes: 96% critic score | 94% audience score
Lincoln, based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s acclaimed Team of Rivals, depicts President Abraham Lincoln’s drive to ratify the 13th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, to abolish slavery before the end of the Civil War. President Lincoln’s negotiations with prominent Members of Congress, including Thaddeus Stevens, and the House’s debates over the Amendment feature prominently in the film. It is a spellbinding reminder of legal power Congress and the President have over the lives and destinies of individuals and the country.
Rotten Tomatoes: 89% critic score | 81% audience score
“Power is where power goes.” That’s one of the slogans Lyndon B. Johnson lived by as a Member of Congress, Vice President and ultimately President. Entering the White House upon the death of the younger, less experienced President John F. Kennedy, Johnson (Woody Harrelson) wields his formidable influence to pass the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. Johnson honed his political skill in both Houses of Congress and was legendary as the Senate Majority Leader. LBJ depicts his political acumen.
Rotten Tomatoes: 57% critic score | 55% audience score
Washington Story (1952)
What better way to find true love than by digging up dirt on the object of your heart’s desire? Gilbert Nunnally (Philip Ober) is a popular radio commentator with a jaded view of Washington. He persuades Alice Kingsley (Patricia Neal) to try to find evidence of corruption on the part of the young and seemingly squeaky clean Congressman Joe Gresham (Van Johnson), whose dealings with a lobbyist catch her attention. As Gresham repeatedly demonstrates his integrity, he and Kingsley fall in love.
Rotten Tomatoes: 57% audience score
Advise and Consent (1962)
Where Washington Story presents the Capitol in a rosy light, Advise & Consent presents a darker DC, filled with intrigue, blackmail and manipulation. The aging and ill president nominates Robert Leffingwell (Henry Fonda) to serve as Secretary of State. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee establishes a subcommittee, chaired by Senator Brigham Anderson of Utah (Don Murray), to investigate. Anderson discovers Leffingwell was associated with a communist group and lied under oath about it. Anderson has his own secrets, too, and his opponents blackmail him, leading to his death. The subcommittee and committee nonetheless report the nomination favorably, yet it has proven so divisive that it fails by a tie vote. Shot onsite at the Capitol, actual politicians and journalists even appear as extras too. Despite the appearance of these real Washingtonians, one New York Times critic noted that the film fails to be “accurate and fair about the existence of a reasonable balance of good men and rogues in government.”
Rotten Tomatoes: 75% critic score | 88% audience score
Manchurian Candidate (2004)
In this remake of the 1962 original, Senator Eleanor Prentiss Shaw (Meryl Streep) of Virginia wants her son Congressman Raymond Shaw (Live Schreiber), a Medal of Honor winner, to become President—and she wants it badly. So badly, in fact, that she orchestrates a decades-long, elaborate scheme with international conglomerate Manchurian Global to turn her son and other members of his military unit into puppets. Congressman Shaw is nominated to serve as the vice presidential running mate to the Governor Bob Arthur, and they win the election. Meanwhile Congressman Shaw’s commanding officer Major Bennett Marco (Denzel Washington) discovers that he and his fellow soldiers have been turned into automatons and searches for a way to stop Shaw’s ascent.
Rotten Tomatoes: 80% critic score | 63% audience score
The Seduction of Joe Tynan (1979)
Serving in Congress takes a toll on a Member’s family, and The Seduction of Joe Tynan explores this aspect of congressional life as liberal New York Senator Joe Tynan (Alan Alda) opposes the confirmation of Supreme Court nominee. Tynan has presidential ambitions, but his upward rise pits him against an old political friend and takes him further away from his family. Assisting him with his opposition to the Supreme Court nominee is attorney Karen Traynor (Meryl Streep), with whom Tynan becomes romantically involved. Tynan’s wife Ellie (Barbara Harris) discovers their relationship, further estranging them. Tynan acknowledges the affair and publicly seeks his wife’s forgiveness.
Rotten Tomatoes: 86% critic score | 38% audience score
Evan Almighty (2007)
Some in public life credit God for inspiring them in their actions, and in Evan Almighty, God (Morgan Freeman) takes center stage. Former journalist Evan Baxter (Steve Carrell) is elected to Congress, where he meets the more senior Congressman Chuck Long (John Goodman). Long gives Baxter a nice office and the opportunity to work on a piece of land development legislation with him. Meanwhile, God appears to Baxter and asks him to build an ark—Baxter came to Washington to change the world, after all. Much to Baxter’s dismay, his hair and beard grow wildly and pairs of animals follow him around. This attracts Long’s attention who reveals his corruption and works to ruin Baxter’s career. Baxter’s ark, however, saves his town from a flood when a dam—built by Long with poor materials and substandard practices—bursts. The supernatural elements aside, the film is a highly inaccurate depiction of life in Congress, but this should not be a surprise.
Rotten Tomatoes: 23% critic score | 52% audience score
The Distinguished Gentleman (1992)
Thomas Jefferson Johnson (Eddie Murphy) is anything but a distinguished gentleman in this comedy. A huckster with shady business dealings in Florida, his name is passably similar to that of his Congressman, Jefferson Davis “Jeff” Johnson. When the Congressman dies, the younger Johnson drops his first name “Thomas,” shortens his middle name to “Jeff,” hops in the race, and runs on name recognition alone. Once elected, he loves the high life of Washington, but finds himself growing a conscience. He finds that some of his constituents have developed cancer as a result of powerlines in their community. His efforts at addressing the issue leads him into conflict with Rep. Dick Dodge, the Chairman of the Committee on Power and Industry (not a real congressional committee), who is actually corrupt, though he had initially mentored Johnson. To expose Dodge, Johnson does what he knows best: stages a con.
Rotten Tomatoes: 13% critic score | 36% audience score
While we’re at it, it’s worth mentioning that several actors have gone on to serve in Congress. House Members include Sonny Bono (1995-1998); Helen Gahagan Douglas (1945-1951); Fred Grandy (1987-1995); Ben Jones (1989-1993); John Davis Lodge (1947-1951); Bob Mathias (1967-1975); and Will Rogers Jr, son of humorist Will Rogers, whose statue appears by the House Chamber (1943-1944). Actors who have gone on to the Senate are Al Franken (2009-2018), George Murphy (1965-1971), and Fred Thompson (1994-2003). Despite the entertainment industry’s reputation for liberal political views, most of these Members of Congress served as Republicans.
Other Members of Congress have not worked as professional actors but have made cameo appearances. The late Senator John McCain appeared as himself in Wedding Crashers. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who is the third in line to the Presidency as the Senate’s President pro tempore, has appeared in five Batman movies, sometimes portraying himself, sometimes simply as an extra. Speaker Nancy Pelosi also had a brief speaking role, depicting herself, in the series finale of NBC’s hit sitcom 30 Rock.
Photos: All photos via Wikimedia Commons.