Why We Can’t Stop Watching Movies About Political Corruption

Detroit Film Theatre director Elliot Wilhelm explores the lasting legacy of politics and corruption in American filmmaking.

Politics in American film has been a constant since Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator” was released in 1940.

Since then, the political storylines that make for the best movies are often the ones focused on corruption and the unethical use of power to get to the top, says Detroit Film Theatre director Elliot Wilhelm.

“We identify with these people. We don’t always cheer them on, but they are people who had real lives.” — Elliot Wilhelm, Detroit Film Theatre

“Movies about corruption will always be a part of the American cinema because there are great artists here and there’s great corruption here,” says Wilhelm, who has been leading the theatre inside of the Detroit Institute of Arts since 1974. “Most of all, people are allowed to tell these stories.”

Jake Neher/WDET
Jake Neher/WDET

Wilhelm recently stopped by CultureShift on 101.9 WDET to highlight some of his favorite films focused on corruption in politics, including classics like “All the President’s Men” released in 1976 and “The Candidate” starring Robert Redford.

“Pure crime stories about people who don’t feel anything, have no remorse or don’t have any stake for what they’re doing can be relatively uninteresting,” says Wilhelm, who says a film like “The Godfather” helped create a personal appeal to the viewer even as the characters on the screen were corrupt and unethical.

“This gigantic epic that chronicles the history of organized crime in America can be made not only interesting but really important to our own personal lives by showing us one family that’s in this business — the business of denial, murder, loving the children in the family and the toll that it takes,” says Wilhelm. “We identify with these people. We don’t always cheer them on, but they are people who had real lives.”

Click on the player above to hear DFT Director Elliot Wilhelm speak about the enduring relevance of the crime thriller.

Three Must Watch Political Crime Thrillers 

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The McCarthy-era documentary “Point of Order”

Released a decade after the Senate Army-McCarthy hearings of 1954, Wilhelm says this documentary highlights the personalities of the politicians. It’s also where a famous line of dialogue originally spawned from — “have you no sense of decency, sir? At long last, have you left no sense of decency?”

“The movie shows you in context where that came from,” says Wilhelm.

The rise of demagogues in “A Face in the Crowd”

“There have been a lot of movies that were cautionary fables particularly during the Cold War era about the rise of demagogues — how they could possibly assume high office in this country,” says Wilhelm. “My favorite from that period is ‘A Face in the Crowd.’”

The 1957 film was the cinema debut of Andy Griffith, who plays a drunk that finds fame as a radio broadcaster with great influence and ends up endorsing a presidential candidate for personal gain.

“It’s about the rise of power through unethical means,” says Wilhelm. “It’s about television, its power and the danger of that power.” 

The lasting influence of “The Manchurian Candidate”

“It’s the greatest conspiracy theory movie ever made,” says Wilhelm of the 1962 film based on the novel by Richard Condon. “It’s highly influential in both good ways and bad ways.”

Wilhelm says it was based on a real fear that U.S. soldiers were returning home from the Korean war brainwashed with communist propaganda.

“It’s a fascinating movie about what if that really happened?” says Wilhelm. “It’s incredibly entertaining. It’s made brilliantly. It helped to usher in that era of the ‘60s of which conspiracy and fear of Soviet nuclear disaster was everywhere.

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  • Ryan Patrick Hooper
    Ryan Patrick Hooper is the award-winning host and producer of CultureShift on 101.9 WDET-FM Detroit’s NPR station. Hooper has covered stories for the New York Times, NPR, Detroit Free Press, Hour Detroit, SPIN and Paste magazine.