The best New York political films

An Oscar statuette dressed as a politician
An Oscar statuette dressed as a politician
Illustration by Alex Law

The best New York political films

From "Citizen Kane" to "X-Men"
March 1, 2018

New York has long been the backdrop of classic movies, including dramas, action adventures and romantic comedies. With the Academy Awards coming up, we compiled a list of the best films about politics in New York. Based on user scores on IMDb, the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, ranking on the American Film Institute’s updated “100 Years … 100 Movies” list – and our own subjective opinions – here is our list of 10 top political films set in New York.

Citizen Kane (1941)

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

IMDb user rating: 8.4/10

American Film Institute ranking: No. 1

What it’s about: A journalist tries to ascertain the meaning of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane’s dying word through an examination of Kane’s rise to power, influence and eventual fall from grace.

Why it’s on the list: Kane attempts to wield the power he accumulated in the media to make the jump into politics, before an extramarital affair kills his chances. More broadly, the film demonstrates the power of mass media to manipulate public opinion and politics.

12 Angry Men (1957)

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

IMDb user rating: 8.9/10

American Film Institute ranking: No. 87

What it’s about: Members of a jury deliberate the verdict in a murder trial, with a lone juror making the case against a guilty verdict that would mean the death penalty for a Puerto Rican teen.

Why it’s on the list: The film deals with the political themes of prejudice and inequity in New York City as well as the impact they have in court proceedings, which have played large roles in modern criminal justice reform efforts.

Serpico (1973)

Rotten Tomatoes: 90%

IMDb user rating: 7.8/10

American Film Institute ranking: N/A

What it’s about: An honest cop witnesses widespread corruption within the NYPD and attempts to blow the whistle, only to have his colleagues turn on him to keep him quiet.

Why it’s on the list: Frank Serpico, the titular protagonist, was a real-life police officer, and the movie features the real corruption that plagued the NYPD in the 1960s as well Serpico’s efforts to expose it.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (1974)

Rotten Tomatoes: 100%

IMDb user rating: 7.7/10

American Film Institute ranking: N/A

What it’s about: A group of criminals hijack a subway car and hold the passengers hostage, demanding a $1 million ransom.

Why it’s on the list: The film involves the city’s response to a subway hijacking, with the mayor ultimately deciding the pay the ransom in hopes the action will help him in the upcoming election.

Taxi Driver (1976)

Rotten Tomatoes: 98%

IMDb user rating: 8.3/10

American Film Institute ranking: No. 52

What it’s about: A mentally unstable Vietnam War veteran with insomnia drives a taxi at night while becoming increasingly detached from reality and growing more disgusted by New York City’s filth.

Why it’s on the list: One of the key themes of the movie revolves around the inaction of politicians to make substantial change, a realization that leads the protagonist Travis Bickle to attempt the assassination of a U.S. senator who’s running for president.

Do The Right Thing (1989)

Rotten Tomatoes: 93%

IMDb user rating: 7.9/10

American Film Institute ranking: No. 96

What it’s about: A resident in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood becomes angered by a local pizzeria’s Wall of Fame that only features famous Italians, despite its location in a predominantly black neighborhood. He demands the wall include black celebrities, a request the pizzeria owner refuses.

Why it’s on the list: While not directly about politics, the film showcases racial tensions and bigotry in New York City over the course of a single day through the lens of one particular neighborhood.


Malcolm X (1992)

Rotten Tomatoes: 91%

IMDb user rating: 7.7/10

American Film Institute ranking: N/A

What it’s about: The film examines the life of activist and leader black nationalist leader Malcolm X.

Why it’s on the list: Malcolm X had an enormous and lasting impact on the civil rights movement and politics as a whole, which the biographical film reflects.

X-Men (2000)

Rotten Tomatoes: 81%

IMDb user rating: 7.4/10

American Film Institute ranking: N/A

What it’s about: A group of superpowered mutant heroes attempt to stop Magneto from forcefully turning leaders from around the world into mutants themselves while attending a United Nations gathering on Ellis Island.

Why it’s on the list: The film acts as an allegory for any number of civil rights movements in which mutants represent the oppressed group, opening with a political debate over whether the government should register mutants and pitting the peaceful approach of Professor X against the militant opposition of Holocaust survivor Magneto.

Gangs of New York (2002)

Rotten Tomatoes: 75%

IMDb user rating: 7.5/10

American Film Institute ranking: N/A

What it’s about: Amsterdam Vallon returns to Five Points to get revenge on mob boss Bill “The Butcher” Cutting for murdering his father, pitting two rival gangs against each other in a fight that culminates in a violent confrontation that coincides with the real-life draft riots of 1863.

Why it’s on the list: Although the story is fictional, a large part of it revolves around the real Tammany Hall political machine and its influence on New York City politics as well as the dealings of Boss Tweed, a fictionalized version of whom is a character in the movie.

Weiner (2016)

Rotten Tomatoes: 97%

IMDb user rating: 7.6/10

American Film Institute ranking: N/A

What it’s about: The documentary chronicles the New York City mayoral run of former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was trying to make a comeback after a sex scandal forced him to resign from Congress, that ultimately failed due to another sex scandal.

Why it’s on the list: Weiner, for better or worse, was a major figure in New York politics ever since he entered the scene in 1992 as a New York City councilman, and the acclaimed documentary captured his final political collapse.

Rebecca C. Lewis
is a staff reporter at City & State.
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