5 Netflix Documentary Movies To Learn About American Politics

Watch these films about how elections are won and lost.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in "Knock Down the House."
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) in "Knock Down the House."

As if 2020 weren’t wild enough, there will be a presidential election in November. It may feel like we’ve been facing this pandemic for a year and even the Democratic primary seems like a memory from another age, but the general election is now less than five months away.

Even if you’re 100% clear on the candidate you’re not going to vote for, you may still want to learn more about the American political system before Election Day. So I’ve recommended a few movies on Netflix that look at the various facets of campaigning.

These five documentaries focus more on the nitty-gritty of running a race than the zoomed-out political picture (for that, see “American Factory” or “13th”). This list also has a balance between inspiring stories that may convince you to run someday and nightmarish tales that’ll make you want to run away.

Read on for the list. And if you want to stay informed about everything joining Netflix every week, subscribe to the Streamline newsletter.

Premise: The movie follows four Democratic women running in the 2018 congressional elections: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Cori Bush of Missouri, Amy Vilela of Nevada and Paula Jean Swearengin of West Virginia. All four sought to represent Americans tired of typical politicians.

The documentary has much footage of Ocasio-Cortez before she became a national name and, eventually, “Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.).”

It won the Festival Favorite Award and the U.S. Documentary Audience Award at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival.

Debut date: May 1, 2019

Runtime: 1 hour, 27 minutes

Watch the full movie below: Netflix uploaded the documentary to YouTube and I’ve embedded that video below.

Premise: The filmmakers started following Republican political strategist Roger Stone in 2011. The original focus was the self-described trickster’s consulting work for the conservative movement, going back to the reelection of President Richard Nixon.

Stone ultimately became involved in Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, and the movie examines that as well. “Get Me Roger Stone” offers some insight into Trump’s campaign and subsequent election.

The movie debuted before Stone’s 2019 arrest for obstructing congressional and FBI investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election. Stone was later tried and found guilty on multiple counts.

Debut date: May 12, 2017

Runtime: 1 hour, 32 minutes

Premise: The movie follows Mitt Romney as he runs for president in both 2008 and 2012. Romney earned the Republican nomination the second time around but lost the general election to President Barack Obama.

“Mitt” offers insight into the stresses of running for president and the sacrifices a candidate’s family must make to court nationwide support. It shows the bleak reality of devoting so much time and effort to a goal that doesn’t pan out.

This documentary debuted before Trump began his presidential run in 2015. Watching it now feels like a glimpse into a different Republican Party that may not exist anymore. These days, Romney, who became a senator representing Utah in 2019, continues to make clear his differences with Trump. Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that Romney would not support Trump’s reelection.

Debut date: Jan. 24, 2014

Runtime: 1 hour, 34 minutes

Premise: Since 2018, Netflix has released a series of short movies about pivotal moments in music history called “ReMastered.” One of these installments focuses on a meeting between Nixon and musician Johnny Cash.

Nixon wanted to use country music for his own political ends. Cash had long been vocal about his love of America, but his politics did not align with Nixon’s. The musician agreed to play at the Nixon White House but tried to subvert the moment.

“Tricky Dick and the Man in Black” gives insight into how politicians can try to co-opt culture and potentially turn movements to new ends.

Debut date: Nov. 2, 2018

Runtime: 59 minutes

Premise: The movie follows a period of political turmoil in Brazil.

Here’s a brief breakdown of what happened: President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, better known as Lula and a member of the Workers’ Party, ran the country from 2003 to 2010. His successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached and removed from office in 2016. Her vice president, Michel Termer, ignored an extremely negative approval rating and refused to step down until the next election. Lula planned to run again, but was arrested on corruption charges in 2018 and therefore couldn’t run for office. The far-right conservative Jair Bolsonaro won the presidency. It then came out that the charges against Lula and the Workers’ Party were likely a conspiracy to aid the rise of Bolsonaro.

Although “The Edge of Democracy” isn’t about the United States, the threats to fairly elected government that it highlights should be seen as a warning.

The movie was nominated for Best Documentary Feature at the 2020 Academy Awards.

Debut date: June 19, 2019

Runtime: 2 hours, 1 minute