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Legal Download: Political satire on demand

The world of film is changing. For one thing, there’s not much actual film anymore. The future is digital; more and more, it’s streaming on our computers, too. Every week in Legal Download, we survey the landscape of online movies to bring you a snapshot of what’s available. This week, elect to explore the political satires available on demand.

THIS WEEK’S THEME: Political Satire

Do you, Legal Download reader, solemnly swear that you will faithfully execute my recommendations and will, to the best of your ability, watch these blistering satires of our government and its elections, legally and without consideration of possible pirated copies, so help you God? Good, then let’s get to the movies.

On SundanceNow
IN THE LOOP (2009)
Directed by Armando Iannucci
$3.99 to rent or stream; $17.99 to purchase

Before Armando Iannucci was the creator of the HBO series Veep, he was the creator of a similarly themed and similarly styled BBC series called The Thick of It. In between the two, The Thick of It begat a standalone big-screen spinoff called IN THE LOOP. The film, one of the funniest and most savage satires of the military industrial complex since DR. STRANGELOVE (which appeared on our end of the world edition of Legal Download, but could also qualify for this list), follows the media-manipulated run-up to a politically advantageous invasion of an unnamed Middle Eastern country. When a bumbling British diplomat (Tom Hollander) says in an interview that war is “unforeseeable” he sets off a chain of events that makes it a whole lot more un-unforseeable. The cast — which also includes James Gandolfini, Mimi Kennedy, Chris Addison, Zach Woods, and Peter Capaldi as a hilariously vulgar U.K. policy man — is as funny as the writing. That, as you’ll see, is high praise indeed.

On Amazon Instant Video
THE CANDIDATE (1972)
Directed by Michael Ritchie
$2.99 to rent, $7.99 to purchase

This pitch black look at the sad realities of our democratic system remains as relevant today as it was when it premiered forty years ago. Robert Redford stars as Bill McKay, a liberal but apolitical lawyer who’s drafted by a campaign strategist (Peter Boyle) to run an unwinnable race against a popular Republican. McKay agrees because he’s told that with no chance of winning he’s free to speak his mind. McKay’s candor brings him attention — and the threat of a landslide defeat. To save face, he starts compromising his values, which starts helping him gain in the polls, which brings more compromise, which brings more success. And that’s THE CANDIDATE’s brilliantly bleak message: that anyone who wins an election in this country has to sell out their beliefs so thoroughly that by the time they get into office they’ve lost complete touch with the reason they entered politics in the first place. It’s like election as Ricky Bobby-style NASCAR competition: if you’re not first, you’re last, and whatever it takes to win is worth it. Of course, once you win then you find yourself looking around wondering “Now what?” McKay has no answer. Let’s hope after four decades, our own elected officials take another look at this film and reassess their own priorities going into this November’s election.

On iTunes
BULWORTH (1999)
Directed by Warren Beatty
$2.99 to rent, $9.99 to purchase

Warren Beatty, that other great, ruggedly handsome pillar of 1970s left-wing Hollywood manhood, reconfigured some of THE CANDIDATE’s ideas into a new satire some twenty-five years later. In BULWORTH, Beatty plays a similarly desperate candidate at the other end of his career: bitter and suicidal after decades acquiescing to special interest groups, Democratic Senator Jay Bullington Bulworth plots his own assassination in order to cash in a lucrative insurance policy for his daughter. With days to live and nothing to lose, Bulworth goes the Bill McKay route: for the first time in years he starts speaking his mind. Unlike McKay, his outlandish remarks energize his campaign; the crazier he behaves — dressing like a hip hop artist, rapping his stump speeches — the more popular he becomes. Here’s how I see BULWORTH. THE CANDIDATE is like a glass of milk; BULWORTH is like that same glass of milk after it’s been left out on the counter for a couple years and gone curdled, sour, and bitter. What do we do now? You mean there’s something more to this game than just becoming famous and getting on TV?

On Netflix
PRIMARY COLORS (1998)
Directed by Mike Nichols
Free for streaming plan members

Sometimes the line between truth and satire is awful hard to see, as in Mike Nichols’ PRIMARY COLORS, based on the bestselling roman à clef by Anonymous (actually former Newsweek columnist Joe Klein). John Travolta stars in one of his most underrated performances as Democratic Presidential candidate Governor Jack Stanton — but for all intents and purposes he’s playing Bill Clinton, which makes Emma Thompson, who plays his wife, Hillary Clinton, and Billy Bob Thornton and Adrian Lester, as his political strategists, James Carville and George Stephanopoulos. Lester’s Henry Burton is the focus, an idealistic young campaign worker and grandson of a famous civil rights activist who joins Stanton’s campaign and witnesses firsthand both his enormous charisma and his enormous character flaws. Charisma and character flaws are basically the only elements of PRIMARY COLORS’ portrait of politics: issues are mentioned and occasionally debated, but Nichols — working from a script by his old comedy partner, Elaine May — suggests that elections are essentially male beauty pageants: the questions are a little harder, but the answers are less important than the smile you wear while you give them.

On YouTube
WAG THE DOG (1997)
Directed by Barry Levinson
$1.99 to stream

“War is show business,” says Washington DC spin doctor Connie Brean (Robert De Niro) to Hollywood producer Stanley Motss (Dustin Hoffman). With weeks to go before the November elections, an unnamed President (maybe Jack Stanton?) has been caught making sexual advances toward a teenage girl; Brean is brought in to distract the electorate and secure victory for the incumbent. He hires Motss to help fabricate a phony war with Albania that includes nuclear suitcase bombs, fake news footage with fake war victims (Kirsten Dunst) holding fake kittens (a bag of tortilla chips gets replaced in post-production), and a imaginary war hero who turns out to be a psychotic criminal (a brief but hilariously grimy supporting turn by Woody Harrelson). WAG THE DOG doesn’t have much faith in the American public, who are shown to take anything they see on television, no matter how fake, as gospel truth (a few years later, “reality” television premiered, proving the film 100% correct). It does, however, have a great deal of faith in the American movie industry, particularly in producers. Hoffman’s Motss is charmingly unfazed by disaster, scoffing off each new roadblock with his trademark “This is nothing!” Well of course it’s nothing. It’s just show business. Right down to the war in Albania.