Scandals and politics go together like Lindsay Lohan and bad behavior. But not all scandals are the same. Some are manufactured salacious muckraking. Others are serious, shaking the national conscience to its very core.
On the scandal scale running from calumny to crisis, where does Benghazi fit? Here are 10 movies that might help you make that determination.
It was the granddaddy of all political scandals. In 1894, the French government convicted Captain Alfred Dreyfus of espionage and imprisoned him on Devil’s Island. Two years later, information surfaced that proved his innocence—and senior military officials suppressed it. Novelist Emile Zola launched an unrelenting campaign for justice. Finally, in 1906, Dreyfus was exonerated. The decade-long scandal transformed French politics. The 1937 Hollywood biopic and box-office home run reminds us that scandals are not always trumped-up tales. Sometimes they are real, and can be rectified only by dogged pursuit of truth and justice.
Frank Capra’s 1939 film classic about a naive young senator who uncovers graft in Congress opened to great controversy. Many complained it was anti-American. Stalin agreed. He ordered screenings in the Soviet Union as evidence of the corrupt nature of capitalist American politics. But the film’s message was all-American, captured in one line: “Liberty is too precious a thing to be buried….” Democracies have to hold themselves to higher standards.
This 1962 political thriller is based on a best-selling, Pulitzer-prize winning novel. And its plot is so complicated you almost need to have read the book to follow the film. Still, the fictional story of political conspirators working to derail the nomination for secretary of State realistically depicts how politics and dirty tricks can be woven together on Capitol Hill.
The greatest pleasure provided by this 1979 political thriller is the joy of seeing some of Hollywood’s most high-profile progressives play conservatives. All of them are thoroughly corrupt, obnoxious people, of course. It’s an article of faith in Tinseltown: when liberals get mired in scandal, it’s because they are tragically flawed; when conservatives get in trouble, it’s because they are evil.
No, not the god-awful ABC TV series. This 1989 movie is a fictionalized account of the real-life “Profumo affair,” a wicked cocktail of sex, infidelity, suspected espionage and politics that brought down a British government in 1963. An entertaining film, it reminds us that sometimes reality can be wackier than a movie script.
#5: Wag the Dog
Is a made-up story about a make-believe president who starts a war to distract Americans from a sex scandal threatening his re-election. The 1997 film hit the screens shortly before the American people learned about President Clinton’s Oval Office sexcapades and the subsequent U.S. bombing of a supposed al Qaeda nerve-gas factory in Sudan (that turned out to be a pharmaceutical plant). The black comedy provides a ready formula for turning almost any scandal into a conspiracy theory of one kind or another. But as Freud might have said: Sometimes a movie is just a movie.
For most people, the quintessential American political scandal is Watergate. But All the President’s Men isn’t the only Watergate picture made, and this 1999 comedy about two teenage girls who accidentally witness the break-in at Democratic campaign headquarters is much more fun to watch. The storyline: two clueless teens befuddle the most powerful men in Washington and bring down the Nixon White House. It’s a not so subtle dig at politicians who think they are better and smarter than the rest of us, and who believe they can play by their own rules and get away with it.
#3: In the Loop
It was inevitable that some enterprising screenwriter would try to turn the turmoil over the botched intelligence leading up to the Iraq war into a conspiracy. That pretty much sums up the plot of this 2009 black comedy (a spin-off from a highly successful British TV series). It’s all fun and games as unscrupulous politicians and witless government functionaries wind up manufacturing a pretext for the coalition invasion. But this funny movie is bad history, and it muddles the difference between an intentional fabrication and cover-up and a feckless government that just screws up.
#2: The Ghost Writer
In this entertaining and atmospheric 2010 mystery, an author hired to finish a former British prime minister’s memoir digs a little too deeply into the death of the writer he is hired to replace. Several people die to cover up the story behind the secrets and scandals. Turns out, it is all the CIA’s fault. That’s always the way in Tinseltown, where the CIA is invariably the root of all the world’s problems.
#1: American Hustle
Yes, occasionally people who are handed a public trust actually do cross the line and pay the price. That’s the official story of ABSCAM, an under-cover FBI operation that smoked out corrupt public officials by setting up fake bribery schemes. The 2013 movie is a mash-up of what really happened, but who cares? It is a blast to watch. The film’s real shortfall is that it lacks a moral core. The heroes are the people who play the system best–not the ones who do the right thing.
Over the decades, Hollywood has had many hits and many misses in depicting one its favorite stock characters: scandal-ridden politicians. Sooner or later, the tragedy of Benghazi will make it to the silver screen.
There’s no telling how the movie moguls will spin the story. For now, all we know is that what happened in Libya is a real-life tragedy–and that we still don’t know the whole story of what happened. More than 20 months after the event, that’s a scandal in its own right.