Sign up for our Watching Newsletter to get recommendations on the best films and TV shows to stream and watch, delivered to your inbox. We also have lists of the best movies on Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, along with the best TV and movies on Hulu and Disney+.
This film by Robert Drew was one of the first American campaign documentaries and a starting point for the “direct cinema” movement, which emphasized observation over explicit commentary. It was the perfect approach for this up-close look at a week in the 1960 presidential Democratic primary, in which the populist Hubert Humphrey and a charismatic young senator named John F. Kennedy, handshake, glad hand and chitchat their way through Wisconsin. A fascinating portrait of the day-to-day drudgery of the political campaign, “Primary” is the standard for how those campaigns would come to be documented.
‘Chisholm ’72: Unbought and Unbossed’ (2004)
In 1968, the Brooklyn educator and activist Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman elected to Congress. Four years later, she became the first woman to run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and the first African-American to seek the nomination in either party. This energetic documentary by Shola Lynch tells the story of that presidential campaign with affection and a sharp eye for context, as well as a keen awareness for how the racism and sexism of the era shaped Chisholm’s campaign.
‘The War Room’ (1993)
Luck and access are crucial to documentary-making, and in 1992, filmmakers D.A. Pennebaker (“Monterey Pop”) and Chris Hegedus hit the jackpot. Bill Clinton looked like a long shot for the Democratic nomination, much less the presidency, but their cameras were there for every step of his journey to the White House. Their access to Clinton was limited, but they were more than welcomed to observe the campaign’s brain trust: lead strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos, who had the rhythm and interplay of a good comedy team. The resulting film underlines the political truism that the people calling the shots are often not the ones at the podium.
‘A Perfect Candidate’ (1996)
Many voters have felt the frustration of being asked to choose “the lesser of two evils,” but few constituencies felt that burn quite like the people of Virginia in 1994. In that year’s Senate race, they were offered the choice between Charles Robb, the scandal-plagued incumbent Democrat, and Oliver North, the Republican challenger and a prominent figure in the Iran-contra scandal. As with “The War Room,” the filmmakers spend much of their time behind the scenes with key figures, if less capably. It’s a depressing film, deftly portraying the desperation of the race and the nonpartisan nature of corruption and incompetence. But it is also darkly funny, playing in spots like a nonfiction “Veep.”
‘Street Fight’ (2005)
Before he won his seat as a senator for New Jersey, Cory Booker was a charismatic young underdog taking on the state’s political machine. In “Street Fight,” Marshall Curry documents Booker’s first (unsuccessful) 2002 bid for Newark mayor against the longtime incumbent, Sharpe James, and captures the astonishing measures James and his campaign took to win. Curry’s rousing — and sometimes infuriating — film poses important questions about identity politics and the inherent corruption of the political system. Years later, considering the fates of those involved, it also plays like an archetypal origin story.
‘By the People: The Election of Barack Obama’ (2009)
Long-shot candidates are a running theme in political documentaries — one can imagine how many films about unsuccessful campaigns are sitting in frustrated filmmakers’ storage units — but few candidates have seemed like a longer shot than Barack Obama, the young African-American senator with a funny name who took on the Clinton machine in 2008. Directors Amy Rice and Alicia Sams focus mostly on Obama’s primary battle, which gives an incomplete picture of his historic candidacy. But the moments they capture convey the passion and dedication of the candidate and of the team that made his victory possible.
Obama’s 2012 rival, the former Governor Mitt Romney of Massachusetts, was criticized throughout his campaign as being overly stiff, bordering on robotic. Released just over a year after Romney’s defeat, this film by Greg Whitley challenges that perception, providing an intimate look at the candidate and his extended family during that campaign (and during his previous bid, in 2008). It’s not a nuts-and-bolts post-mortem like “The War Room,” and it leaves out key elements of both campaigns. But it is a valuable look at a man who never quite captured the imagination of the American electorate, and who still doesn’t seem to understand why.
‘Our Brand Is Crisis’ (2005)
The practices of the average American political campaign are, in many ways, of dubious export value. Nonetheless, American campaign operatives have found plenty of (well-paying) work abroad. One of those operatives is James Carville, whose firm was hired to work its magic during the 2002 Bolivian presidential election, a race that ended in antigovernment riots and bloodshed. Director Rachel Boynton uses after-the-fact interviews to frame the strategy sessions and complex policy discussions, and to examine whether the realities of Bolivia in 2002 were, as one participant puts it, “conditions that democracy ultimately can’t deal with.”