10 great presidential movies

Top 10 Juliette Harrisson 30 Oct 2012 - 07:28

As election day approaches in America, Juliette lists 10 of the very best presidential movies...

‘Tis the season – the US presidential election is upon us, and thanks to a combination of interest garnered by The West Wing and Obama’s genuinely historic victory four years ago, even the news over here in Blighty is full of debates, polls and predictions. If all this politics is leaving you rather confused, now would be a good time to pick up a suitably presidential film to get yourself in the mood – and so here are our picks of some great movies about US presidents.

It has not escaped my attention that all the presidents in these films, fictional or otherwise, are white men. This is because these have been selected on the strength of the film, and from films that deal primarily with the person of the President of the United States of America; and the few that do that and feature a female or non-white president just aren’t as good as these ten.

Morgan Freeman is a brilliant president in Deep Impact, but the film doesn’t focus on his character as much as, say, Independence Day, and so it’s not quite presidential enough to make the list – in Deep Impact, we’re all more concerned with whether Frodo is going to make it up the mountain in time.

There are one or two spoilers, ahead, particularly for Primary Colors.

10. All The President's Men

Genre: Political thriller.

Headline News: The President has been illegally bugging things, and it’s up to the two most accidentally handsome journalists in the country to expose him.

Which President? Real Republican Richard Millhouse Nixon.

Do I want to vote for him? I shouldn’t think so.

Defining moment: The cryptic conversation in a car park swimming in shadows with the spectacularly-named ‘Deep Throat,’ which spawned a thousand imitators.

Pros and Cons: All The President's Men isn’t actually about the president as such, as much as it is about the men who bring him down. But it’s an important presidential film all the same, and its shadow stretches across every film made since in which a journalist or other investigator meets a mysterious and anonymous informant in a dark car park, not to mention The X Files’ mysterious inside source and a notorious adult movie.

The film’s biggest drawback is that, having been made only three years after events that shook the United States, it doesn’t always trouble itself to explain things for viewers born, for example, ten years after Watergate in the United Kingdom. The young(ish) and the foreign may be left rather confused by the film’s constant assumption that everyone watching it knows exactly what’s going on at all times.

9. Independence Day

Genre: Science fiction adventure/disaster movie.

Headline News: Aliens are attacking every country on the planet and only an American geek, an American fighter pilot, an American crop duster and the American president can save us!

Which President? Fictional President of Unknown Affiliation Thomas J Whitmore.

Do I want to vote for him? It depends how you feel about really cheesy speeches. You might prefer to wait for his unfortunately deceased First Lady to reincarnate as emergency Galactic President Laura Roslin.

Defining moment: This! Is! Our! INDEPENDENCE DAY!

Pros and Cons: Okay, this film isn’t exactly about the president, and it’s a fine line between this and the many science fiction films that feature a fictional president to a greater or lesser extent. But, as one of the primary characters in a large ensemble cast, and as the president who makes that speech, it seems not unreasonable to let Independence Day in, and Pullman makes a really very likeable and impressively able commander-in-chief; he must one of very few presidents, fictional or otherwise, actually to lead his men into battle.

8. JFK

Genre: Conspiracy film.

Headline News: JFK was assassinated by a huge conspiracy that goes right to the top! And a man on a grassy knoll.

Which President? Real Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Do I want to vote for him? Sadly not an option, as he dies at the beginning of the film.

Defining moment: Jim Garrison pores over various photographs and the Zapruder film, developing his ‘magic bullet’ theory. Kevin Bacon in an 18th-century Marie Antoinette-style dress and wig is memorable in a different way, and kind of awesome.

Pros and Cons: Whatever you think of the real life politics of the thing, this is a master-class in how to make a conspiracy movie (and provides the name for our second X-Files informant, ‘X’). Like All The President’s Men, the film isn’t so much about the president himself as the events and people surrounding him, but the legacy of what JFK’s presidency meant to his supporters (including director Oliver Stone) is ultimately what gives this film its power.

7. Air Force One

Genre: Action thriller

Headline News: The president’s plane has been hijacked by evil Russians! Also, Wolfgang Petersen makes a movie in which some of the cast are still alive at the end!

Which President? Fictional President of Unknown Affiliation James Marshall. The film also features female Vice-President Kathryn Bennet, which is nice, though it would be nicer if she wasn’t told to ‘calm down’ within five minutes of everything going to heck in a hand-basket.

Do I want to vote for him? He’s Harrison Ford, of course you do.

Defining moment: The national security advisor has already been assassinated, but it’s the moment when head Evil Russian (Gary Oldman, of course) coldly executes mild-mannered, weeping deputy press secretary Melanie Mitchell that really shakes up both president and audience.

Pros and Cons: This is an exciting, satisfying action flick and Harrison Ford is an old pro at this sort of thing – in this case, he just happens to be playing the president. As the head of government of one of the most powerful countries in the world, Marshall has his drawbacks; he doesn’t consult allies, he doesn’t wait for the approval of his national security advisor and he doesn’t get his ass out of there when told to do so. But what do you expect if you elect Han Solo to be your national leader?

6. The American President

Genre: Romantic comedy

Headline News: The president is in love! Also, something about an environmental bill.

Which President? Fictional Democrat Andrew Shepherd.

Do I want to vote for him? That’s the general idea, though personally I’ve never been able to disassociate Michael Douglas from Gordon Gekko, and am therefore disinclined to vote him into office.

Defining moment: The speech at the end is intended to be Shepherd’s defining moment, but his early attempts to get Sydney to believe who he is, followed by sending her a ham, are rather more entertaining.

Pros and Cons: The American President is primarily a romantic comedy, and a rather good one – it’s funny, sweet and the lead female character gets sent a ham. Its real importance in terms of screen presidents, though, is that it’s also a dry-run for one of the greatest television series ever made, The West Wing (Aaron Sorkin having realised he had more to say about daily life in the White House than could be squeezed into one feature length film).

Once you’ve got your head around the fact that the president is the chief of staff, the national security advisor is the press secretary and the deputy chief of communications is an environmental lobbyist (plus Spin City’s deputy mayor of New York as an assistant to the president and Frasier’s dad as another environmental lobbyist), it’s a rather nice little prequel to the main, seven-season event.

5. Frost/Nixon

Genre: Historical/period drama (the more recent variety – no long frocks).

Headline News: Disgraced former president Nixon is giving a series of interviews to an obscure British comedian – during which he as good as confesses to criminal activity and almost apologises!

Which President? Real life Republican Richard Millhouse Nixon again.

Do I want to vote for him? Still no.

Defining moment: ‘I’m saying when the President does it, that means it’s not illegal!’

Pros and Cons: One of the best things about this film is that, because it’s a much more recent production, it does what All The President's Men does not and takes the time to explain what’s going on to us poor young people/foreigners. I now know, for example, that Nixon invaded Cambodia, though I remain unsure exactly why (I know he went to China too, but I have Star Trek VI to thank for that). The film also makes use of Michael Sheen’s famous ability to combine acting and impersonation and adds British national treasure David Frost to his extensive CV of politicians, football managers and less than sane Roman emperors.

4. Nixon

Genre: Biopic

Headline News: Nixon was a president of the United States who ended up having to resign due to illegal activity!

Which President? Yep, him again. Tricky Dicky.

Do I want to vote for him? Although ultimately you’ll probably remain unconvinced, you might think about it a bit longer than in the other two films that deal with him.

Defining moment: Smelling the flowers underneath his martyred nemesis Jack Kennedy’s portrait, Nixon refuses to resign, tries to fire people he’s not entitled to fire and insists that a man doesn’t cry, he fights.

Pros and Cons: Nixon succeeds in all the ways that the recent Margaret Thatcher biopic The Iron Lady didn’t; it takes an unpopular and controversial president and humanises him while at the same time acknowledging the various disasters of his term of office (a prolonged war, dead student protestors and, obviously, Watergate). Nixon has never been more sympathetic, or more frightening.

3. Primary Colors

Genre: Drama

Headline News: Everyone has secrets that can and will be used against them in the race for their party’s nomination! Yeah, okay, it’s not really news.

Which President? Fictional Democrat (and Bill Clinton expy) Jack Stanton.

Do I want to vote for him? He’s definitely flawed, but probably no more than most. Ultimately it depends whether you lean towards Republicans or Democrats.

Defining moment: Utterly disillusioned by the discovery that no politician, including her friend Jack for whom she herself has done some thoroughly questionable things, is above using dirty tactics, political operative Libby Holden kills herself.

Pros and Cons: One of the best things about this film is the performances – Adrian Lester, Kathy Bates, John Travolta and Emma Thompson are all on terrific form here. The film may not be saying anything we didn’t know already, but it says it very, very well. And Travolta’s Clinton impression is spot on.

2. Dave

Genre: Comedy

Headline News: The president has had a stroke and been replaced by a well-intentioned impersonator! Who fancies the First Lady.

Which President? Fictional President of Unknown Affiliation Bill Mitchell and his impersonator, Dave Kovic.

Do I want to vote for him? For Dave, yes – maybe even take a bullet for him. For Mitchell, possibly not.

Defining moment: Using pen and paper and on the advice of his accountant, in a cabinet meeting full of journalists, Dave successfully juggles the budget until there’s room to maintain the shelter for homeless children he recently visited.

Pros and Cons: Dave is a gorgeous little fable, doing lefty political idealism before The West Wing and doing it to perfection. The story may not be remotely plausible but it doesn’t need to be – this is a feel-good fairy tale and on that level it’s a delight. It’s also hilarious, Kline doing some fabulous dorky comedy as he sings to himself or tries to hide his manhood when his supposed wife surprises him in the shower.

There’s a colourful cast of supporting characters, especially Duane the stoic bodyguard, and the sweetly underplayed romance between Dave and the embittered First Lady is the icing on the cake.

1. Thirteen Days

Genre: Historical/period drama

Headline News: It’s 1962, and the world nearly ends in nuclear war. It’s frakkin’ terrifying.

Which President? Real Democrat John Fitzgerald Kennedy (pre-assassination, for once).

Do I want to vote for him? Well, he just about manages to avoid nuclear war – it probably depends to what degree you hold him responsible for getting into such a situation in the first place.

Defining moment: Genuinely concerned that most of the population of the US, Russia and probably quite a few other places are about to be wiped out, presidential aide Kenny O’Donnell spends a few minutes watching his son play football and has what he fears may be their last, brief conversation.

Pros and Cons: Like all films based on real events, there are elements of this film that are controversial or outright fictionalised, particularly surrounding the need to create a hero role in Kenny O’Donnell that requires other real-life participants’ roles to be side-lined. But what’s undeniable is the quality of the drama. It’s not often you see a contemporary, realistic (never mind actually historical) film that deals with people literally trying to save the world, the sort of stakes usually reserved for science fiction and fantasy.

The performances are all excellent, but more importantly, the tension is ratcheted up throughout so that, like fellow historical drama Apollo 13, no amount of knowing how it ends can quite kill off the conviction that this time it might all go horribly wrong…

Honourable mentions:

This list is for films, but there have, of course, been several great television series about American presidents. If you plan to make a television series about an American president, your best chance for success is to cast Martin Sheen – following a great performance as JFK in the slightly hagiographic but very good early 1980s series Kennedy, Sheen is, of course, fictional Democratic President Josiah Bartletin The West Wing.

A television series so good characters in romantic comedies make random references to their videos of it, The West Wing is funny, dramatic, heart-warming and chilling depending on the episode, and it is the only reason I understand anything of what’s going on in any of the movies listed above (well, except maybe Independence Day). It is also preachy, one-sided, idealised, sexist and after Sorkin left rather uneven, but no show is perfect. If you’ve never seen an episode, now would be the perfect time to start.

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