Top 5 Political Movies to Watch in an American Government Class

Updated: May 23, 2020

Top 5 movies for an American Government Course.

When I teach American Government it is always nice to break up the discussions and activities with a movie about halfway through the semester. Sometimes, having two movies on hand is necessary in case you need to fill some time at the end of the semester. But among the many political movies out there, which ones should we watch in class? For this reason, I have compiled a list of 5 movies that I think work well in an American Government course.

Now before I get to the list, I would like to share with you best practices for using movies in your classroom, and I do not mean trying to figure out how to turn on the projector. Well, wait, check that, YOU ABSOLUTELY should test drive your video setup prior to class. Nothing more embarrassing than having to call up some students to figure out how to get the movie started.

So, once you are confident in your setup, don’t just press play and watch the movie. Tempting, I understand especially when May rolls around. Been there. But a little bit more effort here goes a long way. Make this an active learning activity! Make sure you prepare some sort of assignment that encourages engagement with the film. Provide the students with a set of questions that relate the movie to the class or perhaps even pause the movie and have a quick discussion session of concepts while viewing the film. Be choosy in selecting a film. Have it relate to a topic you would like to pay extra attention to in class. See if your students can make some connections. Check out my “How to connect it” points below or create your own. It’s really very easy and you will feel much better about teaching through movies if you do this.

1. Citizen King (2004)

There are a lot of movies about Martin Luther King, Jr. and none really stand out to me as the one that everyone watches. Obviously, I have not seen them all, but I have seen some and this PBS documentary stands out to me as the best. The documentary uses real footage of King’s activities in the Civil Rights Movement and uses exclusive interviews from those close to him. It documents his last 5 years of his life, starting with the Birmingham protests and ending with his death as he was jumpstarting the poor peoples’ campaigns. The film spotlights King as he was in the context of his time, not as the uncontroversial and agreeable symbol of equality that he is viewed today. Despite standing on firm moral ground, King was an embattled leader of a fracturing movement and a warrior for rights for everybody in the United States. The movie does a great job of showing the burden of being the leader, as attacks from the left and right worked hard to chip away his credibility just prior to his assassination. As the Civil Rights Era generation passes, let this film be the one that carries on that legacy and marks the history of this revered but often misunderstood figure. Show this one in your government class. Way more interesting than reading quizlet notes a textbook summary!

How to connect it: Most American government courses use the civil rights movement to teach about controversies over equality in public policy and American society. The film is detailed enough to teach about the tactics of civil rights organizations. Ask students to connect the film to concepts such as civil disobedience, the fourteenth amendment, state’s rights, social movements and of course, civil rights.

2. The Fog of War (2003)

Sticking with the theme of the biopic, the Fog of War documents the career of former Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara. Yes, his middle name is "Strange" (the movie talks about this a bit). Best known for his controversial role in Vietnam War, the film chronicles McNamara’s forays during his time at Ford Corporation, his early role in developing analytics during WWII, his recruitment into President Kennedy’s cabinet, and his relationship with President Johnson. At each turn, McNamara guides us into lessons learned and general principles in life and politics. The film does a great job interweaving these lessons into 20th century history and integrates well into lessons about decision making in the executive branch and foreign policy. In fact, I have substituted entire lectures on foreign policy units with just this movie. There is a lot of bang for the buck here academically, not to mention this is an Oscar winning film. Also recommended for an IR class, though I think it is easier to work this in an Intro to Political Science or American Government course. There are some very broad lessons about politics, so this is especially recommended for the Introduction to Political Science course that some colleges offer.

How to connect it: Use the film to teach about the role of cabinet secretaries. Lots of students today lack an understanding of the Cold War, which was instrumental in shaping American government. Also useful for motivating students who are interested in pursuing careers in government or research.

3. Milk (2008)

Sean Penn earned an Oscar for his portrayal of Harvey Milk, gay rights activist who became the first openly gay elected official in the United States in the 1970’s. This is a great political movie, but there should be some consideration here to the highly emotion content, particularly the ending (spoiler alert: yea, he dies). That being said, the movie could serve as a catalyst for student action and inspire them to become more civically involved as it follows Harvey Milk from activist to orator to mayor.

How to Use it: This is an ideal movie for a class that is more focused on civic action, but it also does a great job illustrating campaigns, social movements, the media, and local government. I can also see it as a good movie to incorporate into a state and local government course, if that is what you are teaching, since all the action takes place at the state and local level. Great for a course that is teaching in more detail about the social movements such as the gay rights movement. I noticed that this has gained some traction since the Obergefell decision in 2015. So if you want to cover more ground in that topic area, go for this movie!

4. The Post (2017)

The Post release during Trump’s presidency does not seem to be a coincidence. And what a useful story for our times. Of course, this movie looks back on the events of the Nixon Administration, specifically the publication of the Pentagon Papers which revealed embarrassing information about government regarding the Vietnam War. Here is a movie that relates specifically to a landmark 1971 case, New York Times v. United States. Students tend to favor newer films and this one is only a few years old. I really enjoyed this movie and students will too. There are usually a lot of journalism majors in those American Government classrooms, so this one will hit the mark for that group. It’s a great film. If you haven’t seen it, it is a must watch.

How to Use It: The film best demonstrates the sometimes acrimonious interactions of newspapers and media companies with the president. Great for teaching about the president, media and civil liberties especially the right to a free press.

5. The Candidate (1972)

Back when I was a kid in the middle ages, this was the movie we watched in American Government class. And we damn well liked it! Well, the truth is The Candidate, starring Robert Redford, is a great film, and has aged well. By the way, if I am going to classics, it is sooooo hard for me not put Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove here (wait, Strange? Is there a connection?), which of course is an even better film, but since we are sticking with American Government, The Candidate one is just the more relevant film. The Candidate demonstrates the shallow side of politics, where winning is everything, and image and name recognition matter in elections, not substance. This is still an important lesson, and possibly more relevant than ever.

How to use it: The movie compliments a discussion of campaigns and how personal characteristics play an important role in candidate selection. Use it when teaching about campaigns or the media. Great movie for an election year.

So there’s my list, folks! Please go ahead and use the comments section to include a few of your own favorite American Government or Political Science films. I know there are a lot more that can be added, but I had to pick 5. I’m thinking of a few right now but I am not going to write them because then, this list will turn into the top 6, which is a more awkward number than 5. If I did 10, we’d be here all day.

Okay you have my recommendations. What are yours?

dr. S
Dr. Strangelove, Robert Strange McNamara, hmmm, makes you think

#classroommovies #politicalsciencemovies #AmericanGovernment #APGovmovies

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