The 10 Greatest Performances in Political Thrillers

If The Ides of March has taught us anything before its release, it's that the political thriller is a fabulous forum to act well, build a surprising character and look amazing doing it. The genre of "political thriller" is an ill-defined one with many subgenres (including "supernatural political thriller"!), but it's always an opportunity for great characters to emerge through intriguing twists, red herrings and explosive climaxes. Movieline ranks the 10 best performances in the genre after the jump; please abort any nuclear wars you may have started before reading on.

10. Joan Allen in The Contender (2000)

Joan Allen scored her third Academy Award nomination as Laine Henson, the shrewd vice presidential candidate who is stalwart in protecting her past, even if exposing it would clear her of damning allegations. In this climactic scene, Henson opens up to the president (Jeff Bridges) and scintillates with her straightforward morality.

9. James Stewart in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956)

James Stewart frequently played deep, aloof protagonists who found themselves in dizzying circumstances in Hitchcock's movies, and The Man Who Knew Too Much is no exception. As Dr. Ben McKenna, whose son has been kidnapped in a predictably crazy plot, Stewart finds himself trying to save the life of a head of state at London's Royal Albert Hall. Stewart's hustle as we await the all-important crash of cymbals makes for one of Hitchcock's most thrilling climaxes. You can stop singing "Que, Sera, Sera" now, Doris Day.

8. Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon (2008)

It may be a slightly arch impersonation, but Frank Langella's performance as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon required a plainspoken charisma that the actor brings thoroughly. All of Michael Sheen's reactive mugging is justified thanks to Langella's offbeat provocations.

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  • NP says:

    Not as iconic as these, but I love Olivia Williams as Ruth Lang in _The Ghost Writer_.

  • Capote99 says:

    Thanks for the "Notorious" love, Louis, but I think Claude Rains is the terrific performance in that movie. He reins (ha!) in his hamminess and is quite moving, especially in the final walk down the staircase, to the car and ultimately to his doom.
    P.S. The late Ulrich Mühe gave a wonderful performance in "The Lives of Others."

  • ES says:

    Ditto on Olivia Williams in The Ghost Writer.

  • Emily says:

    This is a great list! I loved James Stewart in 'The Man Who Knew too Much' and Ryan Gosling is brilliant in 'Ides of March.' I'm glad that such a great political movie has come out n the past year. I love to read political novels, right now I'm reading "Operation Downfall" by Daniel McNeet (, but sometimes I do like to sit in front of a screen and watch rather than read.