10 Unmissable Political Documentaries

With the UK’s political landscape transforming considerably over the past few months, political discussions have dominated not just the press headlines, but have permeated each and every one of our twitter feeds and dinner table conversations. And it’s not just the UK… across the pond, the apprehensive rumblings of the upcoming US Presidential Election could reach seismic levels by the time November rolls around. With this in mind, we’ve rounded up a selection of the best political docs out there. So for those interested in diving into a captivating and cutthroat world (for a few hours at least), here are 10 films you don’t want to miss.

1. Weiner (2016)

When we filed into the screening of Weiner at Sheffield Doc/Fest in June, the only review we had to go by described Josh Kriegman’s and Elyse Steinberg’s film as “the best documentary about a political campaign ever made.” It’s difficult to argue otherwise. Weiner follows disgraced former Congressman Anthony Weiner as he campaigns to become New York City’s new mayor. Having managed to successfully rebuild his reputation against the odds, a new scandal soon sends his campaign into meltdown and things go from bad to worse. Meanwhile the documentary crew that he invited on the campaign trail is there to capture the car crash of the campaign as it unfolds. The film was one of the highlights of Doc/Fest and is one of the funniest and quirkiest documentaries we’ve seen. It provides a fly-on-the-wall view into the inner workings of a political campaign and demonstrates how quickly one can be turned on its head. The film is now showing at multiple cinemas across the UK, so find out your closes screening here.

Anthony Weiner campaigning. Image: Flickr CC/ Boss Tweed
Anthony Weiner campaigning. Image: Flickr CC/ Boss Tweed

2.Winter on Fire (2015)

Nominated for an Oscar earlier this year, Winter on Fire focuses on the Euromaidan protests in Ukraine which eventually led to the 2014 revolution. The demonstrations, attended by almost a million people across Ukraine, opposed a corrupt political regime which used severe force to oppress the demands and freedom of speech of its citizens. The film shows the solidarity and bravery of the demonstrators dedicated to the cause, as well as the shocking brutality of the regime they are fighting against. The incredible footage from the frontline of the demonstrations – of petrol bombs, tear gas and fights between police and protestors – reveals the extremity of the conflict. The documentary is available to watch here on Netflix. 

Radically oriented protesters throwing Molotov cocktails in direction of Interior troops positions. Dynamivska str. Euromaidan Protests. Events of Jan 19, 2014. Image CC/ Mstyslav Chernov
Radically oriented protesters throwing Molotov cocktails in direction of Interior troops positions. Dynamivska str. Euromaidan Protests. Events of Jan 19, 2014. Image CC/ Mstyslav Chernov

3.The War Room (1993)

A behind the scenes insight into Bill Clinton’s 1992 Presidential Campaign, The War Room follows the team that ultimately won Clinton the election. The two main subjects of this fly-on-the-wall doc are George Stephanopoulos and James Carville, Clinton’s Communications Director and Lead Strategist, respectively, whose contrasting personalities hold the team together. D.A. Pennebaker’s film shows the Clinton team’s day-to-day operations as he competes in the New Hampshire primary up until his election. Along the way, the team must deal with the Gennifer Flowers scandal as well as accusations of draft-dodging. In the midst of negative press, Clinton’s team attacks Bush’s “read my lips: no new taxes” promise, and emotions amongst the team run high as the election nears. You can watch the film on YouTube here:

4.The Square (2013)

The film documents the events that took place in Egypt during the Arab Spring, from 2011 revolution in Tahrir Square up until 2013. It examines the personal stories behind the news, a young generation determined to reclaim their rights from a violent dictatorship, whilst the corrupt ‘Muslim Brotherhood’ attempts to use mosques to manipulate voters. Like Winter on Fire, this documentary comes to life through its incredible access to the protestors themselves, giving viewers an inside glimpse of the conflict from the front line. What truly makes the film stand out is it’s endearing characters – including Ahmed, a boy from the street who becomes involved in the political turmoil, and Khalid Abdalla, actor (who starred as Amir in The Kite Runner) turned activist. The documentary can be watched on Netflix here.

Millions of protestors in Tahrir Square. Image CC/ Jonathan Rashad
Millions of protestors in Tahrir Square. Image CC/ Jonathan Rashad

5. A Perfect Candidate (1996)

R.J Cutler and David Van Taylor’s film follows the 1994 Virginia Senate race between two contrasting candidates. Republican candidate and former Marine Oliver North was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal in the 1980’s, and the affair becomes an obstacle in his own campaign. His opponent, Democrat Charles Robb, brings his own baggage into the campaign and is far from an ideal candidate. With unprecedented access to both candidates and their campaign teams, this film proves that for politicians today, spin doctors and candidates’ moral qualities are as important as their policies. The film documents the race between two complex characters from start to finish. A funny yet chilling watch, this documentary ultimately asks the question: can a ‘perfect’ candidate really exist in today’s political climate?

6. Bitter Lake (2014)

Adam Curtis’s visually stunning film Bitter Lake explains the long and complex relationship between the US, Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan. It argues that Western politicians have attempted to create a “good vs evil” narrative in order to explain the world around us, and that this way of thinking is both nonsensical and destructive. This argument is explained in the context of Afghanistan and spans from the mid 1940’s to present day. Using archive footage shot by the BBC, the film outlines the alliances, leaders and policies that led to Afghanistan’s current political situation, the rise of militant Islam and the relationship between the West and the Middle East. Through its experimental and emotive style, the documentary deconstructs a complicated issue and encourages its viewers to look beyond the simplistic, repetitive narratives manufactured by our politicians and media. Watch it on iPlayer here.

FDR Meets with King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, on board USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, on 14 February 1945
FDR Meets with King Ibn Saud, of Saudi Arabia, on board USS Quincy in the Great Bitter Lake, Egypt, on 14 February 1945

7. Fog of War (2003)

The life of former US Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara is the focus of Errol Morris’s Oscar winning film Fog of War. The documentary details McNamara’s involvement in World War II, the Vietnam War and the Cuban Missile Crisis among others. Dubbed the ‘architect’ of the Vietnam War, McNamara made controversial decisions at the time, which he reflects on during over 20 hours of interviews with Morris. The film outlines the lessons that can be learned from McNamara’s career, with an 85-year-old McNamara himself expressing regret for some of his decisions, and pride for others. Using a combination of archive footage and interviews, the film provides a fascinating insight into the philosophical and moral dilemmas McNamara faced throughout his life.

President John F. Kennedy and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara
President John F. Kennedy (left) and Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara (right)

8. We Are Many (2014)

Having taken 10 years in the making, director Amir Amirani hits the nail on the head in his informed and thoroughly-researched approach to the Iraq war and the millions of protesters who took to the streets to prevent it. February 15th 2003 saw the world’s largest ever public protest as people in over 800 cities across the globe objected the decision of then Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President George W Bush to dismantle Saddam Hussein from power. With over 1.5 million people turning out in London alone, the film takes a subtle approach to asking the fundamental questions of why we went to a war that so many were against, and why such a huge outpour of support for the Iraqi people was ignored by political decision makers. With dynamic archive footage and interviews with protestors and participants from the general public as well as notable anti war activists including author John le Carre and Jeremy Corbyn, this is a political and ultimately humanist documentary not to be missed.

9. Primary (1960)

This cinéma vérité style film documenting the battle between John F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey for the 1960 Democratic Presidential nomination in Wisconsin was one of the first of its kind. The development of lighter, more mobile camera and sound equipment meant that the filmmakers could  follow the two candidates and the action as it unfolded. The result is a fly-on-the-wall documentary which gives viewers an intimate insight into the core of the political process. As well as capturing the riveting showdown between Kennedy and Humphrey, Primary serves as a valuable resource for any historian and no list of top political documentaries would be complete without it.

John F. Kennedy speaking in New York in 1960. Image CC/ FDR Presidential Library & Museum
John F. Kennedy speaking in New York in 1960. Image CC/ FDR Presidential Library & Museum
10.  Citizenfour (2014)

Whilst investigating the world of public surveillance in the US, director Laura Poitras received an email from a stranger calling himself simply ‘citizenfour’ . Together with investigative journalists Ewen MacAskill and Glenn Greenwald, she travelled to Hong Kong to meet this mysterious stranger, only to find that he was in fact Edward Snowden, the former CIA employee who famously spoke out about the US government’s illegal gathering of private information.  This famous documentary reveals the whole chilling tale, with interviews taking place in Snowden’s hotel room, where he lives whilst attempting to apply for refugee status after being all but banished from the US. With the Investigatory Powers Bill currently before parliament in the UK, the film holds a firm topical relevance and is worth revisiting two years after its release.

Words by Robbie Pyburn