The Best Man: Gore Vidal’s film about a US Presidential selection contest

Until I read about The Best Man in a positive review from a friend, this political thriller has completely passed me by, yet it is one of the best of the genre I have seen.

The Best Man DVD coverWritten by Gore Vidal it unsurprisingly takes a caustic view of politics, but also takes a realistic one. Unlike the cartoon character villains or heroes usually used to depict politicians in fiction, the characters in this film are rounded, subtle, believable and behave like real politicians.

The story is of a National Presidential Convention in 1964 for an unnamed party which has yet to choose between an Adlai Stevenson / John F Kennedy type candidate (William Russell, played by Henry Fonda) and a Richard Nixon type candidate (Joe Cantwell, played by Cliff Robertson). It is good dramatic stuff, with Russell sufficiently flawed that there is no simple good guy to cheer to victory and genuine tension until the very end as to who is going to win.

As you might expect from a Gore Vidal film, it treats themes such as segregation, the role of women in politics and homosexuality in a more modern and liberal way than many of the time. Even so, the portrayal of a key gay character is at times uncomfortably caricatured to contemporary eyes.

Yet much of the dialogue is waspish and benefits from close listening, having the sort of pacy intelligence which The West Wing had at its best. Two comments in particular, from the ex-President being courted by Russell and Cantwell, stuck in my mind. Both were directed at Russell:

The people like your sort. They figure since you’ve got so much money of your own, you won’t go stealing theirs.


You’ve got such a good mind that sometimes you get so busy thinking how complex everything is, that important problems don’t get solved.

Great fun to watch.

Buy Gore Vidal’s The Best Man, starring Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson here.

4 responses to “The Best Man: Gore Vidal’s film about a US Presidential selection contest”

  1. I would certainly endorse that recommendation and point out that, although a knowledge of the US political system gives one a head-start, it is not necessary for an appreciation of the deal-making and -breaking that goes on in the film. The pay-off is especially telling.

    As a bonus, there is a cameo by a then matronly Gene Tierney as a Washington hostess.

  2. I placed Gene Tierney in the wrong film – she was in that other excellent dissection of US politics, “Advise and Consent”. For an equivalent cynical analysis of British party politics, I would recommend “No Love for Johnnie” some of whose themes are still relevant today.

    • Thanks for those tips Frank. Never watched Advise and Consent. May now go and put it on my shopping list…

  3. The stage version of The Best Man was on in London earlier this year with Martin Shaw. The film of Advise and Consent is superb – Charles Laughton in his last role before he died is unforgettable as the Dixiecrat Senator Seb Cooley. However, the book (and series of which it is part) by Allen Drury is even better.

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