On this President’s Day, let’s look back at the films centered around an American President, and what actors were best at portraying the Commander-in-Chief – be it fact or fiction. Here are some of my favorite dramas, comedies and even romances that included the most powerful leader of the free world. We are only listing theatrical films and the HBO film adaptation of “All the Way.”
If we included television, we’d have a wider pool, and that’s for another list. What are your favorites that spotlight our U.S. leader?
1. Lincoln (2012) — Daniel Day-Lewis not only delivers the best presidential portrayal ever on screen, but also one of the best male performances of all-time. Day-Lewis won his third Oscar, and it was never in doubt. Just a remarkable portrayal of Abe as a man struggling to hold the country together and lead them to higher ground. Director Steven Spielberg brought a humanity to the story rarely seen in historical portraits.
2. Dave (1993) — Kevin Kline is Dave Kovic, who is hired to impersonate the commander-in-chief when President Bill Mitchell suffers a stroke during an illicit affair.
A comedic take on an everyman winning over government wonks with his common sense, solidly directed by Ivan Reitman. Sigourney Weaver is a formidable First Lady.
3. Thirteen Days (2000) – President John F. Kennedy saved the day when we were on the brink of nuclear war with Russia, known as the Cuban Missile Crisis. This is a historical look back at this tense political time in 1962, through the perspective of White House assistant Kenneth P. O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), with Bruce Greenwood strong as JFK.
4. The American President (1995) – This is Aaron Sorkin’s idealism front and center before “The West Wing.”
Michael Douglas shines as a widowed president running for re-election who starts a romance with an environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening, but the political fallout affects their relationship.
Savvy script, smart casting (especially Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox as chief of staff and press secretary) make this Rob Reiner-helmed comedy-drama a memorable one.
5. Air Force One (1997) – Harrison Ford as kick-butt President James Marshall. Love it! The fit commander-in-chief is a Vietnam vet in this political action-thriller directed by Wolfgang Petersen. A group of terrorists hijack the president’s plane and threaten the U.S. but our hero won’t let that happen on his watch. Glenn Close is the vice president and Gary Oldman the Russian bad guy, but it is Ford, in all his star power, as the take-charge head of state that made this movie one of the most successful of the ‘90s.
6. Nixon (1995) – Anthony Hopkins embodied the beleaguered president during his tumultuous White House years, with Joan Allen riveting as his long-suffering wife Pat. Oliver Stone directed, so the agenda is clear.
7. Frost/Nixon (2008) – Frank Langella was Oscar-nominated as the disgraced Nixon seeking redemption in his four-part interviews with Britain’s David Frost in 1977. Ron Howard sharply directed the adaptation of Peter Morgan’s 2006 play, with whip-smart movie script by the playwright.
8. Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) – Director John Ford teamed up with actor Henry Fonda for this look at honest Abe during his early years. Fonda embodies the heroic ideals of the lawyer and statesman who would become the 16th president of the United States.
9. All the Way (2016) — Bryan Cranston won a well-deserved Tony Award for his masterful portrayal of Lyndon Baines Johnson during the early days of the Civil Rights movement in the 2014 play by Robert Schenkkan.
This is the Emmy-nominated HBO adaptation, written by the playwright and directed by Jay Roach. Cranston is again uncanny as political animal LBJ, and the all-star cast includes Anthony Mackie as Martin Luther King Jr., Stephen Root as J. Edgar Hoover, Bradley Whitford as Sen. Hubert Humphrey and Melissa Leo as Lady Bird Johnson.
10. The Contender (2000) — The wonderful Jeff Bridges is a likeable two-term Democratic President, Jackson Evans, who decides to break the glass ceiling and appoint a woman Vice-President after the current one dies.
However, his nominee, Ohio Senator Laine Hanson (Joan Allen) gets entangled in vicious hearings with a bullseye on her back. This political thriller is written and directed by Rod Lurie, a former newspaper guy. Both Bridges and Allen were nominated for Oscars.
11. Primary Colors (1998) – John Travolta was at the top of his game portraying Jack Stanton, a charismatic Southern governor running for president. Recognize anyone? Based on the 1996 “Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics” by Newsweek’s Joe Klein, this fictionalized account of Clinton’s 1992 campaign had a crackerjack supporting cast (Emma Thompson, Billy Bob Thornton, Oscar nominee Kathy Bates), sharply directed by Mike Nichols and written by his former comedy partner Elaine May.
12. Southside with You (2016) – A ‘what if’ movie that works, quirks and all, with its imagining of what Michelle Robinson and Barack Obama’s first date was like back when they were lawyers in Chicago. Written and directed by Richard Tanner, this little charmer comes alive when the nervous future two-term president shows off his oratory skills at a community meeting. Parker Sawyer is a genuinely believable Obama but Tika Sumpter really shines as the life force who would become First Lady Michelle Obama.
14. Elvis and Nixon (2016) – You may think this is preposterous, but this really did happen. And it’s one goofy movie. On Dec. 21, 1970, rock ‘n’ roll icon Elvis Presley went to the White House for a meeting with President Richard Nixon – and that historical photograph is the most requested one at the National Archives. Talk about offbeat casting — Michael Shannon is a different kind of Elvis while Kevin Spacey impersonates Nixon.
16. Independence Day (1996) – Bill Pullman is memorable President Thomas J. Whitmore facing an alien invasion, and his rallyng-all-Americans speech is one of the best-known in films.
Here is the transcript of that great speech:
Good morning. Good morning. In less than an hour aircrafts from here will join others from around the world and you will be launching the largest aerial battle in the history of mankind.
Mankind, that word should have new meaning for all of us today. We can’t be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests. Perhaps it’s fate that today is the 4th of July and you will once again be fighting for our freedom not from tyranny, oppression, or persecution but from annihilation.
We’re fighting for our right to live, to exist, and should we win today the 4th of July will no longer be known as an American President holiday but is the day when the world declared in one voice,
“We will not go quietly into the night. We will not vanish without a fight. We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today we celebrate our Independence Day!”
This epic sci-fi disaster film made $817.4 million and won the Oscar for Best VIsual Effects.
17. Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” (2013) and 18. “White House Down” (2013) These aren’t films of particularly lasting impact but the casting of the presidents is genius.
In “The Butler,” Forest Whitaker plays a White House employee who serves multiple presidents – and this casting is certainly eyebrow-raising:
Robin Williams as Dwight D. Eisenhower, James Marsden as JFK, Liev Shreiber as LBJ, John Cusack as Nixon, and the most brilliant turn by Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan (with Jane Fonda as Nancy!).
Jamie Foxx is the kick-ass president in the action thriller “White House Down,” which came out at the same time as the inferior “Olympus Has Fallen,” all about a terrorist group creating chaos at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. He’s terrific and a good match-up with Channing Tatum as a heroic Secret Serviceman.
Honorable Mentions: Oscar nominee Sam Rockwell is pitch-perfect as George W. Bush in “Vice” (2018), but he’s barely a supporting character. In Natalie Portman’s tour de force “Jackie,” Caspar Phillipson and John Carroll Lynch are effective portraying John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Lynn Venhaus has had a continuous byline in St. Louis metro region publications since 1978. She is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, currently reviews films for Webster-Kirkwood Times and KTRS Radio, covers entertainment for PopLifeSTL.com and co-hosts podcast PopLifeSTL.com…Presents, and writes features and news for Belleville News-Democrat and contributes to other publications. She is a member of CCA, AWFJ and St. Louis Film Critics Association. She is a founding member of the St. Louis Theater Circle.