The role of the President in Hollywood has changed over the years. In earlier films, the President was considered to be of such high, godlike importance that filmmakers would refuse to even show his face, creating a sense of mystery about the man of the people. Nowadays … not so much. Now we’ve got real and fictional Presidents in roles that range from superhero to supervillain, and everything in between.
So sit back, pour yourself a lovely beverage, pop some fresh corn, and enjoy yourself while we explore some good, fun, and controversial movies about Presidents.
President: Richard M. Nixon
Played By: Frank Langella
Hollywood loves a villain, and for many of the filmmakers that came to prominence in the 1970’s, there was no bigger villain than President Richard Milhous Nixon. Whether the hatred was deserved or not, he has served as the inspiration for many of Hollywood’s great villains, including George Lucas’ portrayal of the Emperor in Star Wars.
But Nixon himself has shown up in film, too. The most recent case was in 2008, when Ron Howard produced and directed a movie based on a play about an interview between British Reporter David Frost and the disgraced President called Frost/Nixon. The movie goes over the increasingly tense interviews between the two men culminating in Nixon’s eventual confession that he participated in a coverup. While it’s forceful on this issue, the movie is fairly gentle with Nixon as a man, showing him as someone who’d craved power, but found himself incapable of fully grasping the office he’d longed for.
Unfortunately, the movie does play somewhat fast and loose with the truth (the biggest point: Nixon never admitted participating in an illegal coverup) and some of the portrayals are actually pretty weak, with the exception of a powerhouse performance by Frank Langella as Nixon.
9. Dr. Strangelove (or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb)
President: Merkin Muffley
Played By: Peter Sellers
Who’d have thought you could make a hilarious dark comedy about nuclear war directed by one of the most stringent auteurs in the business? Well, they did it. Stanley Kubrick forged a movie about a nuclear crisis, fluoridation conspiracies, an alcoholic Soviet Premier, a cowboy riding a bomb through the air, and a wheelchair-bound totally-not-a-Nazi-anymore German-accented scientist with a tendency to throw up an occasional Roman salute, and wound up with one of the darkest, blackest, best comedies in the history of the Cold War.
Holding it all together are three men: Peter Sellers, Peter Sellers, and did we mention Peter Sellers? The man owned the film via his triple roles of Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, former Nazi scientist turned adviser to the President, Dr. Strangelove, and President Merkin Muffley, a weak-natured, ineffective, bureaucratic, bland, nerdy puppet of the military establishment.
Muffley was based on 50’s Democratic candidate Adlai Stevenson, whose intelligent speech style came across as too high-minded for the average person, and who got labeled “egghead” by the GOP – a label he proudly adopted. Later on, his Hollywood clone’s inability to outdo the series of traps laid out by the military and the enigmatic Dr. Strangelove ultimately made him incapable of preventing nuclear war and unwittingly turned him into the biggest mass murderer in history.
8. Mars Attacks!
President: James Dale
Played By: Jack Nicholson
Tim Burton’s movie based on a trading card game remains a popular cult classic. It was Burton’s first major venture into CGI-based effects, and it was ultimately not a box-office success. It was just too weird and “Burtonesque” for the average audience. Still, plenty of people lined up to see little green men destroy famous world landmarks and murder millions before having their heads explode to the tune of Slim Whitman’s “Indian Love Call.”
Heading up the non-CGI cast, however, was Jack Nicholson. Like Peter Sellers before him, he played more than one character: Art Land (a ineffective and openly sleazy casino developer) and President James Dale (and ineffective and slightly sleazy politician). Nicholson gave us a President modeled a little bit off Merkin Muffley, Bill Clinton, and Richard Nixon, plus a whole lot of Jack Nicholson. Nobody plays Jack better than Jack, and that’s why we love him.
President: Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho
Played By: Terry Crews
The basic premise of this underseen, underrated, sunk-by-its-own-studio comedy is that intelligent people have bred so little they’ve gone extinct. Since dumb people were far less selective in their breeding, the result is a society where a moderately intelligent guy from 2006 is frozen and wakes up in 500 years, suddenly finding himself the smartest man on Earth. He has to help an unbelievably stupid society solve all of their problems, including a massive agriculture crisis caused by watering their crops with an energy drink.
Enter President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, former porn star and professional wrestler with fantastic hair who caps off his speeches by firing a machine gun, and whose Presidential limousine is a pimpmobile. Loud, opinionated, and utterly clueless, this is a man who struggles with, but ultimately decides he needs smart people to help him out … and needs to punish evil doers with death by gigantic monster trucks. He is the lowest common denominator in a society that is the lowest common denominator, and fits in perfectly.
6. Head of State
President: Mays Gilliam
Played By: Chris Rock
The gimmick of this movie is simple: the Democratic Party, in desperate need of a candidate for an upcoming election they’ve all but conceded, selects an African-American alderman as their candidate, and hilarity ensues as the candidate – Mays Gilliam – struggles to balance his need to represent all African-Americans with his sudden, somewhat forced prominence on the national stage. Ultimately, his brother (played by Bernie Mac) convinces him to just be himself and focus on the issues he feels are important. Campaign hijinks occur (such as an ad suggesting Mays supports cancer, while he baits his opponent into a last-day-of-the-campaign debate), but in the end, Mays is elected and goes on to be President.
So how is Chris Rock? Well … he’s Chris Rock. There’s not really a whole lot of depth to the character, and we essentially just get a comedy routine standing behind a podium instead of prowling on stage. But what Mays Gilliam is, is fun. He’s a fun guy whose own awareness of his limitations as a man make him far, far more human than almost anyone else on this list. The comedy is average, but the heart of the movie is ultimately about a regular Joe who’s less concerned about the lofty issues, and who just wants to do right by the people he loves.
5. Fahrenheit 9/11
President: George W. Bush
Played By: George W. Bush
The plot of Fahrenheit 9/11 is simple: George W. Bush sucks. Seriously – that’s the entire message that Michael Moore wants to communicate, and he does so by questioning Bush’s election, criticizing his administration’s response after the 9/11 attacks, exploring connections between the Bush and bin Laden families, and attacking his handling of the Iraq War (sprinkled with questions about Bush’s national guard service, his connections to the oil industry, and the problems with the then-ongoing war.)
Ultimately, Moore’s plan backfired, since Bush got reelected and all. From our vantage point, it appears that Bush knew full well how to use his fratboy doofus image to deflect negative attention onto willing subordinates like Dick Cheney and Karl Rove, thus allowing his enemies on the far left (like Mr. Moore) to waste their time, energy, and money on criticizing him, while he sat back and accomplished exactly what he planned to. Is this what Moore intended? Probably not but, much to his dismay, he ultimately played right into Bush’s hands. His re-election in 2004 became more about marginalizing his critics – and Michael Moore unknowingly did exactly what Bush needed him to do.
President: Abraham Lincoln
Played By: Daniel Day-Lewis
Abraham Lincoln is an American hero who only existed to free the slaves, right? See, this is what happens when you skip history class, folks. Lincoln, as every other President, was a complex human being whose public image was often at odds with his private life. He didn’t start the Civil War to free the slaves; however, by the time the end of the war approached, he saw a golden opportunity to right a national wrong, as he began the push for the passage of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which would end slavery in the United States.
And this is where Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln picks up. During the closing days of the Civil War, Lincoln is struggling to see the proposed amendment get enough bipartisan support to get through an extremely factional Congress, with the Radical Republicans insisting on racial equality and the anti-Confederate Democrats wanting to honor the anticipated wishes of their Southern cohorts. Lincoln ultimately – and barely – succeeds in his efforts, allowing him to continue managing the war to its end before his fateful night at Ford’s Theater.
Daniel Day-Lewis went to extraordinary lengths to make sure he depicted Lincoln as Lincoln was, spending a full year ahead of filming devouring dozens of books on Lincoln and working with makeup artists to get the image just right. He even made note of the fact that Lincoln was a tenor, not a baritone, and that his private dealings were far more mercurial than the noble statesman we’ve envisioned from years of other films. Instead of a god, Lewis gives us an Oscar-winning portrayal of Lincoln as a husband, father, and politician trying desperately to balance his vision for the future of the United States against competing visions.
3. Primary Colors
President: Jack Stanton
Played By: John Travolta
One of the worst-kept secrets of the ’90s: “Primary Colors”, a book about a sleazy, womanizing southern governor running for President in 1992 with his long-suffering, politically hungry and willfully ignorant wife, was really about Bill Clinton. In fact, every single character in the novel was somehow related to one or two real life people, including the primary character, an idealistic campaign manager named Henry Burton, who was a cover for George Stephanopoulos. In the story, up-and-coming Presidential candidate “Jack Stanton” recruits “Burton” to work on the Stanton Presidential campaign. Over the course of the campaign, Burton learns that the candidate who’d he help to build up was, in fact, a smart and capable, but sleazy and womanizing politician with massive skeletons in his closet. This slow-burn revelation ends up making Burton more cynical and Stanton far less appealing – and far more human. Reportedly, Clinton loved the book.
While the movie is definitely about Burton, John Travolta’s performance as Stanton earned him a good deal of praise. He is very much a Clinton-style candidate: genial, driven, and very smart about the political chess game but, at the same time, equally flawed and dangerous and tangible. The movie offered a very good comparison between the public persona that Clinton put on and the private persona we learned about as time moved on, and Travolta, honestly, nailed it.
2. Air Force One
President: James Marshall
Played By: Harrison Ford
With most Hollywood Presidents, you can usually tell which party the filmmakers are pushing. Not so with Air Force One, a movie where politics were nearly absent, and where the President was depicted not as a sleazy politician, but as an unlikely hero.
Harrison Ford plays James Marshall, Vietnam Vet and Medal of Honor jet pilot turned President who’s facing a terrorist attack, led by Gary Oldman, against what should be the most secure plane on the planet. Faced with the choice of turning and running – as he’s instructed to do by his protectors – or working to save his family, friends, and staff on the plane, he wages a one-man war against the terrorists while his cabinet back at the White House struggles with what the consequences are of a missing or captured President. Eventually, he tells the terrorists to get off his plane and saves the day.
Marshall isn’t overly Presidential in the movie. He’s making some big decisions and shows some command authority, but mostly, Harrison’s playing John McClane on a plane. He’s a comic book superhero who has to use both his brains and his brawn to fix an impossible situation that reaches halfway around the globe to a cabinet and Vice President in conflict about whether the President is still, legally, the President. It’s a tense tale and Harrison nails it.
President: Bill Mitchell / Dave Kovic
Played By: Kevin Kline
The ’80s and early ’90s were golden years for Ivan Reitman, and before his career took a sudden spiral into the void, he came out with one of the best depictions of a President in cinematic history.
Kevin Kline plays Dave Kovic, a temp agency owner who has a side gig as a Presidential impersonator for President Bill Mitchell. He’s good enough to get called upon by the Secret Service to impersonate the President at a public appearance while the Prez disappears to have an affair, and ends up having a massive, debilitating stroke instead. He’s then recruited to continue pretending to be the President, even dating the First Lady to truly get himself into the role.
Dave uses his newfound power to start doing good things like balancing the budget and trying to find jobs for every American and, since we obviously can’t have THAT in a President, partisan hijinx ensue, ultimately resulting in Dave faking another massive stroke, allowing the Vice-President to take over officially.
Kevin Kline does a fantastic job as both the confident and arrogant Mitchell, and the shy and gentle-natured Dave. And much like Dave, the movie has a very gentle hand when it comes to the politics of the characters, never really exposing what parties are in play. The movie is less about the partisan game than it is about the character and heart of the man at the center of the movie, a man whose accidental rise to power and the consequences that ensue are the center of the movie. By the time the final Constitutional crisis rolls around, the audience couldn’t care less that the throne of the United States has been usurped by an imitator, because they’re so engrossed by the character of the usurper and his growing list of friends and enemies that it just doesn’t matter.