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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Movies Ahead of Their Time: The Best Man (1964)

When pundits and party leaders began contemplating--dreading--a brokered Democratic convention at Denver this year, the first movie that came to mind was The Best Man. A 1964 film about an idealistic liberal candidate who the powers that be admire, but are still unsure of, isn't in the pantheon of revered political films. Films like Primary Colors (1998), The Candidate (1972) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) are far more well remembered than The Best Man.

The story revolves around Henry Fonda's William Russell vying for his party's nomination. Although there are others at the convention, it's really only between Russell and Joe Cantwell (Cliff Robertson). One of these two men will be the nominee. And when it comes down to it, most folks think Russell is a thinker and Cantwell is a doer.

The former President, Art Hockstader, who everyone at the convention is trying to get the nod from, sums up the party's reservations with Russell best with this: Power is not a toy we give to good children. It is a weapon. And the strong man takes it and uses it. If you don't go down there and beat Joe Cantwell to the floor with this very dirty stick, then you've got no business in the big league. Because if you don't fight, the job is not for you. And it never will be.

I'll leave you to find out what the dirty stick is. And once you find out what it is, you won't be surprised that in 44 years, things haven't changed that much.

Written by Gore Vidal, this one of those flicks that isn't easy to label as conservative or liberal. The fact that we're still having essentially the same debates, only with different issues, is why this movie matters. Beyond just being thought provoking, it's just a damn good flick that should get more recognition. Hopefully this flick will find the light of day again and will be re-released on DVD--a commentary by politicians as well as film folks would be so kick arse. Until then, watch A Man For All Seasons if you haven't. In some ways it covers some of the same thematic ground.

(Interesting side note and to put the The Best Man in greater context: China successfully tested its first atomic bomb in 1964 and the first Vietnam protests had started the year before in 1963.)

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