Socio-Political Drama: The Genre That Never Disappoints
Have you ever wondered why films based on socio-political drama rarely perform bad? Arguably not financially, but besides being praised by the intelligentsia, such films are a memorable title for years and anyone who talks about them in depth could be called a veteran moviegoer.
In this article, we’ll analyze what things make a socio-political thriller so great and different. The article will target three points one-by-one. But before we move on to those parts, we have to define what exactly is a socio-political drama.
A socio-political drama is a film that, first of all, doesn’t have the supernatural element in it. Further, it’s based on some real life social event, mostly regarding modern history, international politics, or political implications of other social issues and events. It’s a loose umbrella term for related types of films, the most important of them being political thrillers.
You should note that there’s no official tag as a socio-political drama, before you move on to read this article. It’s an invented term that groups together historic thrillers, political thrillers, and the related types of films. I strongly think it should be a term in film science, because of the convenience it provides by targeting multiple genres that belong to the same realm. Extending its radius, historical period dramas, like the Liam Neeson-starrer Schindler’s List, a 1993 film with an 8.9 score on IMDb — could also be taken within the scope of socio-political thrillers, even if they’re not explicitly thrillers.
Let’s get back to discussing socio-political dramas. Such films inherit the nature of a thriller automatically, because to make these successful, and competitive to the high-VFX action dramas these days, it’s needed. That’s why the political nature is flavored with thrill. Even if a known socio-political event doesn’t have the thrill in it, which is quite impossible, thrill can be easily invoked in such films because they often deal with scandals, murders, dirty politics, and firearms.
A user “g-tyaneus” has culminated 25 titles of political thriller films on IMDb, which you can read here. Some names from the list are: All the President’s Men, The Ameteur, The Assignment, The Constant Gardener, and The Day of the Jackal. Hopefully, these titles will tell you what a socio-political thriller looks like. If not, feel free to move on to the last part where you’ll find another list that focuses on modern era. That one will be easy to understand, unless if you were living under a giant rock all this while.
Generally, filmmakers choose highly acclaimed, sensational, and news-making pieces of world history to turn into a socio-political drama. Because of their popularity and the interest people have, the films based on such an event turn out to be successful. Consequently, socio-political dramas are fueled by the trends. Scandals, wars, and civil disorders attract the most attention, therefore they’re top selling material as concepts.
So, what makes these films intangible?
Perhaps it’s the uniqueness of the subject. Almost all other genres have stereotypes, you see. Obvious stereotypes that we don’t even recognize because of the fierce familiarity we have with them. Let’s do a quick judgment of how unnoticed stereotypes creep inside our favorite blockbusters.
Fantasy is basically about light vs. dark. Superheroes’ movies revolve around good vs. evil. Technology? There’s going to be highly advanced societies that we cannot even imagine with each technology movie delivering better than the previous. Military — patriotism. And don’t even get me started on highschool romance, alien invasion, or zombie apocalypse.
We’ve grown extremely adept in blending stereotypes while writing stories of any kind. So although advanced mega-robots mesmerize us in Pacific Rim, but to be frank, we’ve seen the technology in a couple dozen similarly-successful films beforehand. This makes the characters, story, and the film itself prone to be forgotten easily. Only a few exceptional titles brave the storm and remain memorable even with a lot of stereotypes.
We see a lot of films that don’t impress a romantic blot in our hearts. For example, Pacific Rim, Elysium, and a ton others are quite boring. But when the concept was fresh (and the VFX very, very poor, remember), that’s exactly when we saw truly memorable stories: Terminator series, RoboCop, and even Star Wars series.
If the idea is new — as a nuclear-powered robot was in the first Ironman — fantastic. But after 6 years, even Transformers: Age of Extinction seems plain boring, given that the VFX and budget are colossus. And here’s the meat of this discussion: in stark contrast, for a socio-political thriller drama, the subject is standalone and unique every single time.
That’s the reason how the 2001 Brad Pitt-starrer Spy Game, an emotionally mind-blowing film is as good as the Tom Cruise-starrer Valkyrie, that came out in as late as 2008. While we saw things turn boring in 6 years for mainstream genres, a gap of a bigger 7 years didn’t have any effect on socio-political genre. The trail doesn’t end in 2008. We recently had Argo that just reconfirms that the gaps don’t matter.
And while future technology imagination is exhaustible, the pages of history are spread over centuries of human civilization. The endless supply of great ideas makes sure that socio-political dramas thrive unrivaled. There’s another reason for their evergreen nature, however.
A socio-political thriller requires much more months for the extra research, expert opinions, and sorting out of historical inconsistencies. Beyond that, filmmakers also have to make sure that the existing political landscape doesn’t get upset or finds the script a bit too thorny to gulp down. Controversies make good films, but there’s a fine line between the ethics of film-making and acting like a cheap news channel. A controversy of today might not make a good film today, but will surely be an idea for the next generation.
Anyway, for all this additional hardwork, such films are sparse and dot the Hollywood after scores of mainstream titles have made their presence felt. And this is precisely the second reason. After a lot of this vs. that heavy budget blockbusters and pleasing romantic movies, we need a refresher to jolt us. A sophisticated drama that sets our minds ablaze with serious thinking, confusions, and anxiousness. Something like a historic thriller about ancient Rome, a film about some revolution, a documentary on a civil unrest, a film advocating the human rights violations in a particular war, a sensational political thriller, anything.
It works like food for brain. Like watching Ancient Aliens after boatloads of Las Vegas bargaining (for those who didn’t find any sense, it was a suggestive reference to the shows of History channel). Within scientifically pointless (no offence intended) action and romantic fantasies, we need a socio-political thriller that tickles our brain cells. The inherent quality of socio-political dramas to be rare, thus, proves to be rather rewarding.
This genre is not for everybody. So some of you might not admit that the once-a-while socio-political thriller is really needed. It’s totally fine to argue that you can keep your life together by just watching Hangover. But then, there are people who think that we need such sophistication to keep the film business in good shape.
Getting back to topic, there’s one final point about this genre never disappointing.
Superiority of Quality
It’s all about the gentlemanly, respectful, and plain superiority of such works. There can be 8 parts of Harry Potter and the Marvel Universe can spew frequent high-end action films every now and then, but there will always be one Argo. Bow down to decent superiority.
Thanks to the endless nature of story-writing, you can be sure that Age of Ultron will be surpassed by the next Avengers installment. Also, let’s take the example of comedies. Here’s a simple food chain of films: The Mask < Pink Panther 2 < The Dictator. I reckon everybody would agree to this ladder of comedy.
Apparently, the socio-political genre isn’t like this. Vietnam War or Nazism, World Wars or American Revolution — each piece is equally precious when it comes to socio-political films.
So, did I get you interested? Well, that was what I wanted to do. If you want to explore the territory of the socio-political thrillers and dramas, I have a little recommendation list.
Note that the list is nowhere near exhaustive, and that the titles are in a random order, not placed according to any criterion. Lastly, I gave preference to the ones I’ve watched — therefore leaving out more important titles couldn’t be completely avoided.
Munich (2005), All the President’s Men (1976), Valkyrie (2008), Argo (2012), The Parallax View (1974), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014), The Ghost Writer (2010), Spy Game (2001), 12 Years a Slave (2013), Schindler’s List (1993), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and so on.
What do you think? Leave a comment.
I believe there is a certain amount of emotional attachment to these films as well. I would say humans are inherently egotistical and seeing our history up there on the big screen makes us feel important. We also feel a kinship with those on the big screen because now we have an understanding and connection with these historical (whether fabricated, exaggerated, or real) figures.
Sometimes it gives voice to otherwise unheard stories, such is the case in films like 12 Years a Slave. These allow an outlet for groups who are traditionally silenced to share their impact on our history and their struggles. In the same breath, those who aren’t members of the group feel they have a different understanding of the others’ suffering.
During your research, did you find any socio-political dramas slated to be hits but flopped at the box office?
Yes, people are nostalgic to history, plus political thrillers have the spice of controversy, that we naturally love to see. You’re also right about such films highlighting unheard stories. I could perhaps cover these points.
Well, a lot of socio-political dramas have flopped, but because they weren’t a good story to start with — not because they didn’t get the audience.
One disappointing case would be White House Down. Besides all its action, it could be considered a flop. But if you’ve watched it, you’ll know that it wasn’t a really great movie after all. Maybe less depth in story and lack of any background research led to its downfall.
Ever watched Rang De Basanti?
Yes I have, but old Bollywood movies are poorly-directed. If a new Bollywood movie on the story of Bhagat Singh comes out, it will be a splendid political thriller, that’s for sure.
Does the Elite Squad movies qualify as drama? Best socio-political work I’ve watched for years.
No. I have refrained from taking modern military and crime films into the scope because that way we might as well take Black Hawk Down and a dozen other high-grossing military movies. What will be left for the crime-military genre?
Films like these help people to think critically about the world around them in a very real sense.
Carpenter’s “They live” and “The Thing” are pretty good for good examples of sociopolitical allegories.
I can’t imagine a more political movie that has gone on to have more real world impact than V. From V came the rise of Anonymous, directly assuming the Guy Fawkes persona as their avatar.
I will found it interesting that the original japanese Gojira/Godzilla film is deeply political, being a metaphore about nuclear devastation and its victims.
This was a wonderful read. Thank you. Work with purpose and important message are most valuable.
Thank you for the compliment.
Some of my favorite social and political movies Welcome to Sarajevo and The Scarlet and the Black.
Kill The Messenger (2014) would be a recent example of this genre, thought at least in the UK it ran in cinemas to little attention. Maybe because its subject matter is too close to recent history.
The Silent Star. A film not very well known, but important for its take on nuclear war.
V for Vendetta, Farenheit 451, 1984 are missing from this article.
Was any of those movies a huge hit though? Or massively influential as a film? They’re all adaptations of super important books, but I think the movies are still less important than the books they’re based on.
I may not agree or have seen all the films on this list but, as a political scientist, I’m very happy that this has become an article!
I understand that I’ve missed a lot of remarkable titles, specially V. I don’t know how those titles didn’t come into my mind or show up in my research. I added movies like Argo and 12 Years a Slave in final draft, too.
So perhaps, from my next article, I need to go more in-depth. I’m genuinely sorry and also sad that I missed titles like V — which is surely a big part of socio-political culture.
I guess my main focus was movies that have a real-life basis, and not invented stories, because there’s not much difference between an invented political thriller and an action flick. I wanted to mainly focus on realistic or documentary-type stories.
*Argo should not be on the list as most of it was invented by Ben Afflick and not base entirely on historical fact (*esp the fact that it was the Canadians that smuggled them out, not the Americans).
Also you should include Hotel Rwanda.
There are a lot of films that have political themes running through them, including some thrillers. I have always loved the movie “Three Days of the Condor.”
I really enjoy movies with social and political themes.
Too many commas.
Haha… I don’t understand why I type with so many commas!
I would make a case for District 9 based on your criteria in this article. It is such compelling take on discrimination and Apartheid, masterfully laid out in a story we all know – that first extraterrestrial encounter – only told in a way that few films have explored well. A sociopolitical sci-fi flick that is outstanding in every way. I’m still waiting on that sequel. This movie begs for one, but it needs to be perfect.
Good article. I agree these are superior films. I like your point about how social dramas are unique because they are specific. You should clean up this post though. Many typos and misspelled words.
Thanks for this article. I’ve been floundering around trying to identify the genre mix of a series of books I want to write. Definitely historical, but with a twist because the story concepts revolve around not only American history but interests of other countries during that time period. “Mystery” didn’t seem to fit. Nor did “Political Thriller” because it’s not about political leaders themselves. Socio-political thrillers may not ultimtely fit either, but at least with your suggestion list, I can view those and make up my mind how similar/dissimilar they might be. Appreciate the shove in a concrete direction. 😎
I think that there is a certain inherent realism that needs to be in political dramas in order to be considered good. Hence the critique.