Author: Dr. Emily Stacey, Rose State College
This is a short list (very hard decisions were made!) of my favorite election documentaries. I also share how I tie these films into an Introductory American Federal Government (AFG) course.
Note: You could also use any of these for a Political Film class and have the analysis of the films be much more in-depth than AFG.
Read on for my favorite election documentaries, listed in no particular order:
The War Room (1993)
Ah, the 1990s. I know most of us yearn for a simpler time in American politics. This documentary can provide your Gen Z students with a glimpse of what traditional campaigning was, in the “before” times.
This documentary offers an excellent look at what it takes to win a campaign—but from a behind-the-scenes perspective. In its analysis and in-depth coverage of the 1992 Bill Clinton presidential campaign, the documentary underscores the importance of the campaign apparatus behind the candidate, namely the campaign communications director (Stephanopoulos) and campaign strategist and expert (Carville).
I use this documentary to teach the importance of the political media and framing in a presidential campaign and beyond.
A classic. This documentary provides viewers with rare insight into American politics before the digital revolution. It recalls a time when primary candidates were still kissing babies and conducting whistle-stop tours around the country.
While the documentary only focuses on the primary battle in the State of Wisconsin (oddly enough, a state very much in play in 2020), it’s a visceral display of politics that American citizens hadn’t experienced prior to the handheld camera.
I use this documentary to teach the primary election campaign section of the Campaigns and Election chapter in AFG.
Kill Chain (2020)
Fresh and terrifying! A look at the vulnerabilities of the American voting systems and the technologies utilized, along with the gaping holes in security.
This HBO documentary is a chilling tale of a computer scientist’s attempt to warn about the hackability of voting machines in the United States starting in the mid-2000s. The film details 2016 and the breaching of numerous voting machines and voter databases across the United States leading up to one of the most critical elections in American history.
Part of my doctoral work and expertise is digital technologies/media. So, I make it a point to educate my students about what’s new in these areas. This documentary fits well with teaching Politics, Media and Technology chapters, as well as Campaigns and Elections.
Dark Money (2018)
An important look at the aftermath of the 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC Supreme Court decision that overturned campaign finance reform.
The documentary focuses on that decision’s impact on Montana. It highlights the consequences for state and local politics due to the unleashing of dark money into campaigns.
This documentary complements chapters on special interest groups and campaigns. The conversation is always interesting; students don’t necessarily understand where a politician’s money is coming from and what exactly it obligates the politician to do, say, vote on, etc.
Get Me Roger Stone (2016)
While this isn’t exactly an election documentary, it’s difficult to comprehend the politics of—and leading up to—the 2016 campaign. A key figure in all of it is Roger Stone.
This documentary doesn’t just focus on the eccentric former Trump political operative. It focuses on his entire inner circle in the 2016 campaign, along with an overview of the American political culture that got us to the Trump era. It shows how figures such as Stone crafted the culture.
It’s a fun look at what it’s like to campaign in the Trump—and likely Post-Trump—era.
This film can be taught with the Executive Branch/Presidency chapter as an explanation on the key people candidates and presidents keep around them. You can discuss how these figures aren’t accountable to American citizens as they’re not elected positions but appointed at the pleasure of the executive.
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