All along the campaign trail

With USF set to host the NBC News Republican Presidential Debate and a watch party on the MLK Plaza lawn tonight, it seems appropriate to start gearing up for the months-long slog to the November presidential election.

The Oracle takes a look at a few films that walked the campaign trail with their candidates – from gross-out comedies to hard-hitting dramas. If you’re seeking a subversive thrill or laugh to serve as an antidote to the seemingly endless debates and campaigning, these movies may be just the ticket.

“The Manchurian Candidate” (1962)

Imagine an America ruled by a sleeper agent from Communist Russia during the midst of the Cold War. In director John Frankenheimer’s classic 1962 political thriller “The Manchurian Candidate,” Major Bennett Marco (Frank Sinatra) is faced with this harsh reality.

When Marco and fellow Korean War Staff Sergeant Raymond Shaw are captured by Soviets and taken to Manchuria, China, Marco and other servicemen are brainwashed by the Soviets into believing Shaw saved their lives during combat. When they’re released, Marco and another serviceman begin to suffer from the same recurring nightmare of Shaw brutally murdering two soldiers while Soviets stand by and watch.

Marco goes to investigate, as Shaw prepares to run for president, playing into the sort of Cold War paranoia and fear of the 1960s. Released at the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The Manchurian Candidate” may not resonate quite the way it did in 1962, but it’s still a taut suspense thriller that’ll appeal to anybody with a taste for conspiracies.

“The Candidate” (1972)

While the idea of corruption and the dilution of one’s morals in order to join the political machine is not a new one, it’s never been quite as entertaining as the Robert Redford-starring 1972 film “The Candidate” – fraught with the same sort of antihero sensibilities that director Michael Ritchie would late inject into the classic “The Bad News Bears.”

“The Candidate” follows Marvin Lucas (Peter Boyle), an election specialist looking to find a Democratic candidate who can unseat popular California Republican Sen. Crocker Jarmon. When he finds Bill McKay (Redford), the son of a former governor with no interest in politics, he lets him say whatever he wants in an effort to close the seemingly unwinnable race against Jarmon.

McKay uses the platform to spread his own liberal agenda, but when he’s told he must follow scripted answers at debates, he realizes his time spent on the campaign trail has been nothing but a show and mockery of what elections supposedly stand for. It’s a satire with relevance that has sustained a few decades now, showing how the importance placed on campaigning can at times surpass the significance of being the one in the Oval Office.

“Tanner ’88” (1988)

Put “Doonesbury” cartoonist Garry Trudeau and “Nashville” director Robert Altman in the same room, and you’re going to end up with something spectacular. Case in point, the 1988 HBO miniseries “Tanner ’88” – a mockumentary miniseries that chronicled the supposed behind-the-scenes story of Michigan State Rep. Jack Tanner (Michael Murphy) as he bid for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

Featuring interviews with actual political figures like Bob Dole and Jesse Jackson, “Tanner ’88” chronicled the successes and failures of Tanner’s fictional run with both a grounded realism and satirical eye, culminating in what Altman would tell the New York Times was “two-thirds scripted and one-third found art.”

Altman and Trudeau essentially made a time capsule of the ’88 election, following the Democratic primaries right up until the nomination of Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis. Criterion Collection released the poignant miniseries in a box set in 2004, and Sundance Channel created a four-episode sequel in 2004 entitled “Tanner on Tanner,” which features Murphy in character as Tanner reflecting upon the ’88 election.

“Black Sheep” (1996)

Not all politically minded films have to be highbrow, as proven by the 1996 reteaming of “Tommy Boy” duo Chris Farley and David Spade. Campaign aide Steve Dobbs (Spade) is charged with preventing the bumbling idiot of a brother named Mike Donnelly (Farley) from spending anytime with his brother while he runs for governor of the state of Washington.

“Black Sheep” eschews the sort of dumb humor an intelligent person would have to have created, and there’s always a sort of an inspired manic glee that forms when you pair Farley’s typically absurd performances with Spade’s wise guy posturing. Not to mention a particularly insane performance by Gary Busey as a Vietnam veteran whose deceased family members are used as voters in an act of election perpetrated by Donnelly’s opponent.

While the film doesn’t stick out in the minds of many due to its exacting “Tommy Boy”-style plot, it’s formed a significant cult following and always manages to make its way on air around election time thanks to channels like Comedy Central.

“The Ides of March” (2011)

Rarely does the often-used term “tour de force” apply as it does here, at least in terms of the ensemble cast led by “Drive” actor Ryan Gosling, along with George Clooney, Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Evan Rachel Wood. Charting the trials and tribulations of Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney) and his Junior Campaign Manager Stephen Myers (Gosling), “Ides” crackles with an intensity that few thrillers in recent memory have.

“The Ides of March” is about Myers’ quest to serve the governor in every facet, until Morris’ personal matters become Myers’ own. Much like “The Candidate,” “The Ides of March” is about diluting your own political and personal beliefs in order to serve within America’s democratic system, at any cost.

While “Ides” hasn’t exactly lit fire to the awards season races, there’s a pretty good chance it’ll stay in the audiences’ memory longer than some of last year’s more lauded films. Until its closing moments, “Ides” espouses a message that will sustain its relevance as long as there are elections and politics.