Stephen Hunter Recommends

As the Democratic and Republican political conventions gear up, a few noteworthy films about electoral campaigning:

The Best Man (102 minutes, 1964) hails from a forgotten era in American culture. When conventions mattered? No. When television didn't rule? No. It's from another golden age: when Gore Vidal wasn't an artless blowhard. The film version of his play about the realpolitik of real politics, set at a national convention, is brisk, acerbic, funny and brilliantly acted. Cliff Robertson and Henry Fonda are the contending wannabe candidates, one (Robertson) a dangerous pretend populist, the other an august idealist with some fidelity problems and a high-strung disposition -- while party boss Lee Tracy tries to keep the thing from teetering into chaos and, worse, defeat. Journeyman Franklin J. Schaffner directed, and you'll never forget it was a play, but still it's great fun.

Primary Colors (143 minutes, 1998, R) presumes that you are not sick of Bill Clinton and want him to move back to Hot Springs and go to work running the grill for Bubba's Bar-B-Que on the lower end of Central. But if that's not you, you will find the movie highly amusing. Derived from Joe Klein's book of the same title, originally credited to Anonymous, it's cleverly directed by Mike Nichols with a script by Elaine May, his former comedy partner. John Travolta plays Gov. Jack Stanton, with his limitless talent, his brilliant mind, his charm, his charisma and his venality, lust and mendaciousness rendered in blazing primary color. It follows the governor through the presidential primaries and into the big fight itself, and pretty much sells you on its vision of politics as a completely practical craft, where idealism always comes in second.

The Last Hurrah (121 minutes, 1958) proves that all politics is global, even mayoral races. How universal a theme is this: A politico of great accomplishment has lost touch and passion but somehow musters the energy to try to cling to the job (mayor of Boston) through one last election. The cast is great: Spencer Tracy is Frank Skeffington, supposedly based on Mayor James Michael Curley of that great city, and Jeffrey Hunter plays his cousin and media adviser. Others are Pat O'Brien, Basil Rathbone, Donald Crisp and James Gleason. The director is greater: John Ford, at the end of his career. You'd think an old Irish genius could make a great last hurrah of a movie about a great old Irish genius's last hurrah of a political campaign, but sadly, the magic is missing. Still, it's an abiding pleasure to watch Ford working with all those old pros and also getting the best work anybody ever got out of Jeff Hunter. Far from great, but then that's the sadness of last hurrahs -- they're hardly ever great.

Emma Thompson and John Travolta in "Primary Colors": Selling its audience on a vision of politics built on practicality, not idealism.