Record Recs: (Free) documentaries and political dramas

Sofie Jones and Stephanie Teng

It has been more than a month and a half since most students left campus and returned home to finish the semester remotely. If you are anything like us and have found yourself in a bit of an entertainment rut, look no further than Swank, a free movie service offered by the College Libraries that includes hundreds of blockbuster movies you can’t find on Netflix.

Every week until the end of the semester, two Record editors will each choose five movies: four old favorites and one new discovery. This week, Stephanie Teng ’23 talks thought-provoking documentaries and Sofie Jones ’22 dishes about the intrigue and thrills of American politics.

Stephanie recommends: Four thought-provoking documentaries

Jiro Dreams of Sushi (2011): One family, one restaurant, one job: making sushi. Jiro Dreams of Sushi focuses on the simplicity and complexity of art. An amateur might say that sushi is easy – simply slap some raw fish on a ball of rice. At the age of 84, Japanese chef Jiro Ono has spent his entire life exploring and developing this seemingly simple process. By ceaselessly perfecting details like the temperature of the rice, the thickness of fish and even the seating of his customers, Jiro transforms a simple dish into his unique art.

Betting on Zero (2016): On the surface, Herbalife was just another company in the dietary supplements market; before long, however, people started to criticize its business model and question whether it was better labeled a pyramid scheme. Hedge fund titan Bill Ackman was one such critic. Directed by Ted Braun, award-winning director and screenwriter, Betting on Zero is a shocking account of a modern pyramid scheme and how it enriched the already-wealthy by further impoverishing the poor. The film follows Ackman’s journey to tank the stock price of Herbalife while giving voice to the company’s victims, many of whom experienced severe financial loss. And if you like Betting on Zero, do not miss out on Braun’s earlier but equally acclaimed documentary, Darfur Now.

Arctic Tale (2006): This was a childhood favorite. Beautiful cinematography, fresh footage and the soothing voice of the background narrator — the three core traits of a good nature documentary. As the documentary brings you to the coldest and farthest corners on Earth, it will take your mind away from your residence in quarantine and remind you of the beauty and terror preserved in the icy terrain.

Citizenfour (2014): This award-winning documentary was filmed at the request of its subject, Edward Snowden, before he became a notorious whistleblower. It captures Snowden’s transformation from an average citizen to a central figure in a national controversy. Through investigations conducted on sensitive subjects such as NSA operations, the documentary brings the nature of privacy and transparency into discussion: How will technology redefine these concepts, and what barrier must we set between necessary public surveillance and infringement on privacy? By focusing on a problem that is increasingly important and yet intentionally avoided by presidential administrations, the film takes a long, hard look at how technology will continue to change the relationship between us and the government.

And one I’d never seen before that you definitely should:

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry (2012): He could have made money as an artist but did not; he built the 2008 Olympic venue but boycotted the Olympics; he should have stayed silent under the pressure of the Chinese government but chose not to. In many ways, artist and activist Ai Weiwei is an eccentric man: whether it be his bold artistic statements or his fearless political acts, he is considered one-of-a-kind both in and out of China. Directed by Alison Klayman, this award-winning documentary follows Ai in his journey to make art and organize against his own government. The film is moving not only in its effort to record the modern liberal movements within China, but also because of the collective bravery exhibited by those in it.

Sofie recommends: Four political picks well worth an endorsement

All the President’s Men (1976): This is the gold standard of political thrillers. Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman star as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein in this true story about the unlikely pair of rookie Washington Post reporters who investigated the 1972 Watergate burglary and eventually brought down President Richard Nixon. The movie follows the duo as they navigate the prickly underbelly of Washington D.C. politics, getting chased by political adversaries and conducting secret interviews with government whistleblowers. At its core, however, it’s a story about the importance of a free press during tumultuous times, something that feels more relevant now than ever.

The Ides of March (2011): This movie is less starry-eyed than some of my other recommendations. Instead, it is a dark and suspenseful look at just how far some will go to secure power and influence. George Clooney directs and stars as a presidential candidate vying for the Democratic nomination, with the help of his scheming junior campaign manager, played by Ryan Gosling. Over the course of the film, personal scandals and lies threaten to ruin their primary campaign at every corner. It is a gripping and provocative story about who really gets hurt when politics and power imbalances are at play.

Frost/Nixon (2008): In 1977, three years after leaving the White House, former president Nixon broke his long-standing silence on the Watergate scandal in several televised interviews with David Frost, a British journalist who Nixon hoped would go easy on him. This movie tells the behind-the-scenes story of how Frost (Michael Sheen) captured the attention of the nation in a series of captivating and unexpected conversations with the disgraced former leader (Frank Langella). The film’s storytelling and actors’ performances are impeccable, providing a fascinatingly nuanced account of two larger-than-life figures.

The American President (1995): I know I will get some significant flack on this one, but I have a soft spot for Aaron Sorkin’s quippy dialogue and any movie that dares to combine romance with D.C. power politics. Michael Douglas plays a widowed Democratic president who is trying to date while also serving as leader of the free world. When he meets a career-focused environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening), a whirlwind romance ensues but is soon threatened by mounting political pressure from his Republican opponents. I’ll admit it is not the most realistic movie, but it is quick-witted and heartfelt. We all need a little bit of escapism right now, so why not spend a few hours getting caught up in the fantasy of a president who gives sweeping speeches and sweeps a woman off her feet?

And one I had not seen before but you might enjoy:

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939): Although this is widely regarded as the most influential  movie about American politics, I had never seen it before. Jimmy Stewart stars as Jefferson Smith, a folksy country man who is unexpectedly appointed as a United States senator after an older politician dies. The acclaimed but secretly corrupt Senator Paine offers to advise Smith, the unpolished but patriotic leader of the Boy Rangers, sensing that he might be a useful puppet down the line. What follows is a political comedy of errors that gets to the heart of the ethical battles that fuel American democracy. Under the direction of Frank Capra, it offers a sharp and entertaining look at political trials and tribulations that still feel relevant over 80 years later.