Whether you’re a casual moviegoer or a diehard cinephile, you will learn a lot about government from watching these ten great movies, all of which are rated as being some of the best of all time by IMDb and the American Film Institute.
1. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
A tyrannical Empire threatens the freedom of its people and uses mind control, torture, propaganda, and force (including The Force) to destroy their way of life and even an entire religion. There’s no way this could happen on our planet, only in a faraway galaxy… right?
Empire won Best Sound Mixing and a Special Achievement Academy Award; other films that have received this award include Superman, Raiders of the Lost Ark, and Toy Story.
2. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
For countless generations, young people have been taught that fighting and dying for their country is the most glorious thing a citizen can do. Two millennia ago, the Roman poet Horace opined, “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori” — how sweet and honorable to die for the fatherland!
In All Quiet on the Western Front, a soldier repudiates the professor who planted this idea in his head, recounting the horrors of the Great War to a new class of young students. “We used to think you knew; the first bombardment taught us better. It’s dirty and painful to die for your country. When it comes to dying for your country, it’s better not to die at all! There are millions out there dying for their countries, and what good is it?”
All Quiet won Academy Awards for Best Director and Outstanding Production in 1930.
3. Schindler’s List (1993)
“He who saves one, saves the world,” says the Talmud. In Schindler’s List, one selfless man spends his entire fortune to protect German Jews during the Holocaust, employing them in his factory making pots and pans. His act of mercy and defiance would have been considered treasonous at the time, but history has shown Schindler’s subversion of the Nazi state to be one of World War II’s greatest acts of heroism.
Schindler’s List won Best Picture in 1994.
4. Gandhi (1982)
“If they kill me, then they will have my body, but not my obedience.” This is how Gandhi explained his principle of nonviolent resistance to a crowd of people who wanted nothing more than to use violence to free India from the grip of the British empire. His strategy eventually paid off and led the British to leave India in 1947.
Gandhi won bet Best Picture in 1983.
5. Paths of Glory (1957)
During the depths of World War I, in an attempt to produce a positive story for the press, a group of Allied generals order their troops to charge a fortified German position. Despite protests from subordinates that the mission is both hopeless and pointless, the battle proceeds — ending, predictably, in meaningless carnage.
In this film, director Stanley Kubrick shows how wars are planned by people who do not bear the costs of their mistakes: “Perhaps it was an error of judgment on our part. On the other hand, if your men had been a little more daring, you might have taken it. Who knows? Why should we have to bear more criticism and failure than we have to?”
Paths of Glory received, surprisingly, zero Oscar nominations.
6. Lawrence of Arabia (1962)
Set during the First World War, this film shows the seeds of conflicts that are still raging in the Middle East today. T.E. Lawrence, a black sheep British officer, helps the Arab Bedouins to unify their territory and drive out the Ottoman Empire, but following the war, the British betray them with a giant colonialist land grab. These disputes over land, borders, and (you guessed it) oil help trace the roots of conflicts that are still shaping the politics of the region over a century later.
Lawrence of Arabia won Best Picture in 1963.
7. Papillon (1973)
Starring Steve McQueen (a motocross racer who insisted on doing all his own stunts), this film is based on a true story about a man wrongfully accused of murder and his attempts to escape a French Guiana labor prison camp. It shows the conditions of the French penal system at the time (solitary confinement, the guillotine) and life in the brutal island prison.
Papillon was nominated for Best Music, but it’s also one of Dustin Hoffman’s best supporting roles. (If you find you like Steve McQueen prison break movies, then you’ll also like The Great Escape, where Steve McQueen shows off his motocross skills.)
8. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939)
Jimmy Stewart plays an earnest man of the people, appointed as a U.S. Senator by his state’s crooked political machine, which hopes to manipulate the inexperienced Mr. Smith. The senator has just one goal: to build a small camp for boy scouts in his hometown. But it doesn’t take long for him to realize that the only way to get anything done in Washington is to bribe and threaten people. In the end — armed with nothing but a sack lunch, coffee, and an apple — he launches an epic filibuster to expose corruption and turn the tide against the Washington political machine. If only it were that easy…
Mr. Smith won Best Story in 1940.
9. The Deer Hunter (1978)
You’re probably noticing a theme here: war is terrible, and governments are responsible for it. The Deer Hunter begins with the story of a group of friends hunting deer in their small hometown, later to be drafted and sent off to fight in Vietnam. The terrors of war leave a permanent mark on all the characters, and most of them, including Christopher Walken, slowly slip into despair, losing the innocence and careless joy they had at the start.
The Deer Hunter won five Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director.
10. Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001)
If a single sentence could summarize this film, it would be: “Taxation is theft!” One small town in India must compete in an absurd cricket match against local British officers or else face a triple tax on their land, known as the Lagaan. Caste ranks are broken down as the town unites to defeat their oppressors in a Remember the Titans-style moment, and in the end, everyone is left singing in the rain.
Lagaan was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2002.