Connecting state and local government leaders
The glitz! The glamour! The government officials! In honor of this weekend’s Oscar Awards, here are our team’s top picks depicting everything from municipal water wars to prominent politicians.
This Sunday, March 12, is the Oscars, which got those of us at Route Fifty talking about the best movies about state and local government.
Our staff threw out a lot of titles for consideration.
For instance, “Ghostbusters” was a contender. It was ultimately eliminated as it’s more a commentary on political ideology than about state and local government. Still, it was a hard decision given that one of the movie’s best scenes takes place in the office of the New York City mayor. Bill Murray’s character famously quips, “But if I’m right, and we can stop this thing, Lenny, you will have saved the lives of millions of registered voters.”
We also had to eliminate probably the most well-known government movie of all time, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” After all, it mainly deals with the federal government.
And we didn’t include titles that a majority of us hadn’t had the pleasure of seeing. One such production was the 1978 film, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” which our former executive editor described as “basically a movie about a local government health inspector just trying to do his job.”
This is all to say that we were able to whittle the list down to a manageable five.
Be forewarned, though, this list is by no means comprehensive. Furthermore, the criteria we used to determine which movies qualified for the list was pretty broad. We decided that the main themes of the films had to concern the workings of state and local government, show multiple levels of government at work, deal prominently with the issues confronting states and localities, or be a commentary on those issues.
The movies also had to be good, which, as we all know, is subjective. That’s why this is Route Fifty’s list of the five best movies about state and local government.
For the above reasons, we aren’t ranking these movies in any particular order. So, with the caveats out of the way, here are the best movies about state and local government:
“12 Angry Men” (1957)
The 1957 film starring Henry Fonda shows the workings of the American criminal justice system, and is regarded as one of the best films of all time. Set in a New York County Courthouse, it follows a jury of 12 men as they deliberate the case of an impoverished teenager accused of stabbing his abusive father to death. The judge instructs the jury that if there is any reasonable doubt, the jurors are to return a verdict of not guilty. If they find him guilty, then the defendant will receive a mandatory death sentence.
It’s easy to forget that this critically acclaimed neo-noir classic from the ‘70s is basically a story about municipal water. The film follows some unscrupulous businessman bribing politicians to steal a smaller town's water supply in order to give the city of Los Angeles cheaper access to more resources. It’s basically a true story, based on California’s real-life “water wars.”
This story about a killer shark is a local government classic. The carnage that ensues essentially boils down to a decision by Amity Island Mayor Larry Vaughn to keep the beaches open for the July 4th weekend, which leads to the deaths of five constituents.
But there is so much more to it, which author David Dudley captures in a great article about how cities work. “Beyond the failures of the Vaughn administration,” he wrote, “Jaws offers a rich set of insights into the mechanics of cities: It’s a story about how chronic corruption, ineffective leadership, and inadequate planning can turn a hungry fish into a regional economic catastrophe.”
“Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (1988)
The cartoon crime story may be a controversial choice, but it’s a pretty great state and local government story. Set in a fictional area of Los Angeles in 1947, this film noir depicts a world where cartoon characters are an ethnic minority living alongside human beings. At the center of the story is Roger Rabbit, a toon movie star falsely accused of murder. His only hope is an alcoholic human ex-cop turned private investigator. But really, “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” is a story about neighborhood redevelopment, urban planning power-grabs, gentrification and class.
Simply put, “Milk” is a biographical film based on the life of gay rights activist and politician Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay person to be elected to public office in California, as a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. It’s a pretty engaging tale of how this transplant from New York built an unlikely coalition with the Teamsters, united the city’s mostly apolitical gay community and essentially was elected on the issue of cleaning up dog poop.
Before we leave you, we wanted to list the movies that received honorable mentions, which include: “Serpico” (1973), a story about a cop who blows the whistle on police corruption; “Taking of Pelham One Two Three” (1974), about the heist of a subway train that shows multiple levels of local government at work; “Police Academy” (1984), an over-the-top comedy about a police department facing a shortage of officers; and “All the King’s Men” (2006), which is loosely based on Louisiana Gov. Huey Long.
An earlier version of this article mistakenly described the 1973 dystopian flick, “Soylent Green,” as “basically a movie about a local government health inspector just trying to do his job.” The movie we were describing was actually "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."