If you’re interested in a well-functioning democracy, you have to hope today’s midterm elections don’t feature politicians with the moral sensibilities of the presidents, senators, and politicos of all stripes seen in the movies. Onscreen, the corrupt representatives of the people often make their real-life counterparts look saintly by example, conducting schemes so outlandish that Richard Nixon himself would find them absurd. The following men are the top ten (or bottom ten) corrupt politicians, a Who’s Who of graft, thievery, conspiracy, unnecessary war, and ever murder.
10. Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight), Enemy of the State
Congressman Reynolds goes above and beyond the call of corruption, actually murdering a fellow congressman for refusing to support a bill that would expand government surveillance powers. Yikes. Reynolds’s crimes in the service of expanded government power make the accusations levied at George W. Bush seem tame by comparison. Fortunately, Reynolds is undone by poetic justice, when the murder is caught on a surveillance video.
9. Senator Pat Geary (G.D. Spradlin), The Godfather: Part II
Nevada has a reputation for seedy politicians, and that’s no surprise given the confluence of legalized gambling and prostitution, but Geary sets the bar pretty low. He attends the christening of the son of Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) for the purposes of extorting Michael in exchange for a gambling license and directing a few ethnic slurs at Italians. You know you’re talking about a classy guy when his Mafia associates seem moral by comparison. But Geary’s so scummy he’ll put his ethnic prejudices in his back pocket: when he kills a prostitute, he willingly partners with the mob to cover it up.
8. Mayor Cole (Bill Murray), City of Ember
Plagued by blackouts, food shortages, and water-pipe leaks, the underground city of Ember is in dire need of an infrastructure overhaul. Too bad they can’t rely on Mayor Cole for help. He’s actually quite popular with his constituents, but they don’t know that he’s secretly been hoarding food. When two young children learn his dirty secret, Cole dispatches his henchmen to arrest them. A politician who can’t even pick on people his own size is pathetic indeed.
7. Senator Joseph Harrison Paine (Claude Rains), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
When the upright Jefferson Smith (James Stewart) is appointed junior senator of an anonymous western state, he offers nothing but praise for his senior senator, Joseph Paine. “I remember Dad used to tell me that Joe Paine was the finest man he ever knew,” he extols. Papa Smith would have been crushed to learn that Paine is in fact scheming to profit from taxpayer money by enacting a shady bill. Shame on Paine.
6. Representative Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck), State of Play
To the public eye, Collins is an upstanding member of Congress. Behind the cloakroom doors, he’s not as innocent as his square-jawed good looks suggest. When reporter Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a pal to Collins, starts investigating the death of a congressional aide, he hits upon a rich lode of government corruption. Collins is but one devious player on a stageful of conniving politicos, but that’s no excuse for his crooked ways.
5. Bob Alexander (Frank Langella), Dave
Chief of Staff Alexander replaces an ailing president (Kevin Kline) with a doppelgänger (Kline). Shady tactics indeed, but at least Alexander’s actions are for the greater good. However, when Alexander tries to frame the president for the fraud that he himself committed, you know you’re dealing with a corrupt politician. In the end, the do-gooder doppelgänger foils Alexander’s plans to become the almighty POTUS.
4. Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro), Wag the Dog
If you had to list some of the most abhorrent abuses of political power, starting a war for personal profit would probably rank pretty high on the list, if not at the top. That’s the exact offense of Brean, the spin doctor to a U.S. president who’s caught with an underage girl. Brean deflects attention from the scandal by concocting rumors of a war with Albania. He hires a Hollywood producer to help with the charade, and it works. You can call Brean corrupt but not incompetent. The guy executes.
3. Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford), All the King’s Men (1949)
Starting off in county politics, Stark has grand aspirations to expose corruption in government. When he finally becomes governor of his southern state, though, he abandons all ideals and becomes as dishonest as the politicians he once decried. He allows graft in his administration, and when his son kills someone in a drunk-driving accident he attempts to cover it up through bribery. Then there’s the drinking and philandering. Stark’s crimes may not hold a candle to the murderous intentions of some politicians, but they’re all the more depressing for the loss of idealism and innocence they represent.
2. Adam Sutler (John Hurt), V for Vendetta
It’s tough to distinguish yourself from other dictatorial monsters when you control a government that’s a well-tuned machine for totalitarian oppression. But Sutler, the dear leader of the ultra-right-wing, violent, xenophobic, homophobic, freedom-phobic ruling political party, isn’t just your run-of-the-mill despot. He actually engineered the spread of a deadly virus, the very virus that causes England to panic and elect Sutler in the first place.
1. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), Star Wars: Episode 3 – Revenge of the Sith
The ambitions of Sutler, Stark, and every other politician in the movies pale in comparison to Palpatine, who aims for nothing less than absolute control of the whole galaxy, the end of democracy, and the elimination of the ancient Jedi order. Palpatine is crafty enough to play both sides, simultaneously waging war on the Jedi and the democratic intergalactic Republic, while also leading the Senate and using the war to persaude the Senate to hand him more and more power. Probably the most insidious, clever, and large-scale piece of corrupt maneuvering ever to appear on the big screen works for Palpatine, at least until Luke Skywalker has something to say about it.