It’s President’s Day. In some part of the U.S. that means you get a day off school to do something that doesn’t involve standing in stark contemplation about our Presidents. For others, it’s just Monday. But to lift your spirits the Dames are discussing their top 5 favorite movie presidents. Some are fiction, some are real, all are probably more awesome than what we currently got going on in the White House now. (Don’t you dare @ us!) Feel free to leave your favorite movie presidents in our comments section and we’ll read them on a future episode.
I had thought this list was going to be difficult for me. But after scouring the internet for a few hours and finding some appropriate lists, I found I had more than 5. Go figure. One of these answers is a tie and another is a bit of cheat – yes, I know I’ve cheated two weeks in a row – but I love them all.
Robert Redford as Bill McKay in The Candidate (1972)
This one is a quasi-cheat because the movie ends with Redford’s McKay winning the Presidential election as opposed to seeing him in office. Regardless, McKay is a candidate who could only exist in cinema and could only be played by Robert Redford (though McKay is based on real presidential hopeful John V. Tunney). McKay is put into the election under the presumption he won’t win. This gives him the ability to say what he wants, and much of it is rhetoric I’d expect to hear from Redford if he ever did run for office. With his dashing good looks, verbosity, and that sweet 1970s hair I’d totally endorse him! The movie ends on a sardonic note, with the question of whether McKay is just another party politician, but one can’t be ordinary when they’re Robert Redford.
Dan Hedaya as President Richard Nixon in Dick (1999)
One of the only portrayals of a real President on my list is by far the funniest. Dick is a revisionist look at the Watergate burglary, seen through the eyes of “Deep Throat” aka “stupid teenage girls” Betsy Jobs and Arlene Lorenzo (Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams). Hedaya is best known to ’90s kids as Cher’s dad in Clueless but he’s the perfect incarnation of “Tricky Dick.” He’s blissfully out-of-touch with the youth of America, and can be incredibly mean. (“Checkers, get off me or I’ll feed you to the Chinese” will never not be funny.) This Nixon is like your absentee dad who barely remembers his kids’ names, yet expects undivided devotion. And when Arlene develops a crush on him….let’s just say the “Dick” jokes hit high alert.
James Garner as President Matt Douglas and Jack Lemmon as President Russ Kramer in My Fellow Americans (1996)
I’m fairly certain I’m the only one who remembers this movie, and I loved it before I even saw Garner or Lemmon in their classic film heyday. If Dick is the Presidency as presented as an absentee dad, My Fellow Americans shows the Presidency as your grandpa…or a version of him. Think Grumpy Old Men: Presidential Edition. Both Garner and Lemmon fall on personas they’d cultivated decades ago. Garner’s Matt Douglas predates Bill Clinton as the womanizing, ladies man President smooth with words. Lemmon’s Russ Kramer is a cheapskate who can’t drive a car and whines all the time. Watching them criss-cross the country to prove they didn’t murder a man leads to all manner of hijinks, from Kramer being unable to hear at times to Matt talking about “the First penis.” Yes, James Garner talking about his junk is odd, especially in a President-like context. And Lemmon’s wife in this is Lauren Bacall. Can you imagine a Presidency involving Jack Lemmon and Lauren Bacall in their prime?
BIll Pullman as President Thomas Whitmore in Independence Day (1996)
He’s a cliche choice but part of being a President is giving speeches and there’s a legendary one here. Sure, he delays a bit too long on the arrival of the aliens – who doesn’t listen to Jeff Goldblum right away? – and I always get a golden boy vibe of arrogance about his character, but the speech! If you need a rallying cry you play this scene. I’m not convinced our current administration hasn’t contemplated reusing this moment in some way.
Morgan Freeman as President Beck in Deep Impact (1998)
I’ll never not believe Deep Impact got the shaft because it was directed by a woman. Can you even remember the President in Armageddon?! That’s because we never saw him. MImi Leder gave us President Morgan Freeman, for crying out loud! Again, if you ever need someone to reassure you, or lie to you that an extinction-level event will be all right, you can’t do better than the voice of God himself. Freeman has a regal bearing as President Beck. He’s in control. And, again, the film predicts an African-American president a decade before we saw it in reality.
My problem this week wasn’t in finding five presidents to include. It was narrowing it down to my five favorites because there are some really great presidents, and I want my list not to look like everyone else’s, although there’s one name on here that obviously SHOULD be on everyone’s list of Best Movie Presidents. So, here we go:
Bill Pullman as President Whitmore in Independence Day (1996)
I mean…That Speech, am I right? Also? He’s a president who gets shit done. The movie opens with his poll numbers down, not because he sucks, but because he’s trying to fulfill his campaign promises and he knows he’s trying to do the right thing. And then when the aliens show up, he takes action. He cares deeply about his family, but is also able to put aside his personal loss to jump into the fray, literally, when his past life as a fighter pilot is desperately needed. I wonder what we would do to this kind of leader today.
Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln (2012)
Can I be super honest with you for a second? This is the only Daniel Day-Lewis performance I’ve ever actually enjoyed watching. Lincoln has been portrayed on-screen many times, but never with such depth and introspection. It’s a special film, and one that probably could only have worked with someone like Day-Lewis, who is so annoyingly dedicated to his craft.
Michael Douglas as Andy Shepherd in The American President (1995)
Can we just set aside for a second who plays the president and just appreciate the role? This film, directed by Rob Reiner and written by Aaron Sorkin, is charming and funny, and gives us a look at a president with a personality who is trying to have a personal life. There are some really funny moments, and sweet moments, and that perfect Aaron Sorkin dialogue. It’s no wonder this was the precursor for the best TV president of all time.
Morgan Freeman as President Beck in Deep Impact (1998)
Deep Impact was lost in the shadow of the flashier (and far less interesting) Armageddon in the summer of 1998. But even the title of this movie was meaningful in multiple ways. While it is very much an ensemble film, what Morgan Freeman does here is heartfelt. Imagine being the President and knowing for sure that most of your citizens are going to die. How do you move forward? And yet he does, quietly reassuring people, quietly looking for solutions, and then ultimately, calmly telling the doomed that it will all be all right. And even when it’s not, you can’t be mad at him for it.
Harrison Ford as President James Marshall in Air Force One (1997)
I don’t have much to say here except this: it’s much more fun to watch the President punching Russians in the face than kissing their asses.
Kevin Kline as Dave – Dave (1993)
OK, so maybe I’m starting off by cheating here because Dave, the titular character of Ivan Reitman’s comedy Dave, is not technically president. He’s an actor who makes his living impersonating the president for fairs and mall openings. But when the real President Bill Mitchell suffers a massive stroke that leaves him in a coma, the powers that be (including a deliciously Machiavellian Frank Langella) bring in Dave to pose as the president. It’s a classic “average guy” narrative, made better because Kline is just so damned charming as the normal dude who becomes the most powerful man in America. He’s also a pretty good president, untainted by politics and just trying to be – my God! – a decent human being. Those were the days.
Frederic March as President Lyman – Seven Days in May (1964)
John Frankenheimer’s Seven Days in May, about a US general attempting a military coup, is a terrifying political thriller and features a set of spectacular performances. It’s also the first time I realized Frederic March could act. He plays President Lyman, the supposedly ineffectual leader against whom General Scott (Burt Lancaster) is attempting the coup. Lyman is trying to lead the US into a nuclear disarmament treaty with the USSR, which puts him at odds with many of his military advisors interested in continuing the arms’ race. At a time when the US and the Soviets were in constant competition for weaponry, Lyman ends the film with an impassioned plea for rationality and peace, valorizing the peace-loving intellectual against the military strongman.
Bill Pullman as President Whitmore – Independence Day (1996)
I have a feeling Whitmore is gonna be on all our lists. Yes, he is the best president. He’s a good husband, a good father, and a good leader, seeing the country through an alien attack, giving us a rousing speech when all seems lost, and leading a strike force against the alien invaders. I’d like to see the Cheeto Menace do that.
Jack Nicholson as President Dale – Mars Attacks! (1996)
On the flip side is Jack Nicholson playing a sort of AU version of President Whitmore, this time facing off against some invaders from Mars in Tim Burton’s ridiculously enjoyable sci-fi spoof. Dale is a bit of a buffoon, but you know what? He tries. He tries really hard. And he has the wildest Jack Nicholson speech ever.
Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley – Dr. Strangelove, or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Yes, he’s ridiculous, but President Muffley, like President Dale, really does try hard. He tries to reason with the Soviets, who are understandably upset that the US has launched an attack likely to bring about the apocalypse. He tries to reason with the generals, who want to just blow us all into oblivion. He tries to keep things quiet and reasonable in the midst of a severe lack of reason. And he has the best damn line of any presidential character, ever: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight here! This is the War Room!”
As a former political nerd, I can say one thing: the last two years of action in Washington DC have beaten the life out of me. It seems with each passing day, there’s more soul-sucking news out of the Red Kee… the White House. So, it brought me great joy to think of my favorite movie presidents, and yes… I would take any of these men in our country’s highest office if it meant getting rid of what we currently have.
Bill Pullman as Thomas Whitmore- Independence Day (1996)
What is there not to love about President Whitmore? He’s young, charismatic, can defend our country from aliens, and above all else, he looks like Bill Pullman. It is thanks to Independence Day that Pullman is on my always and forever list of celebrity husbands. I freely admit, I still get a little misty whenever I catch his speech: “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.” It’s over-the-top, and it’s a Roland Emerich movie, but by god Pullman sells the shit out of that speech. And have you seen the man in a suit?
Jack Lemmon as Russell Kramer- My Fellow Americans (1996)
“Don’t you fall into the trap, Democrats are full of crap…” Okay, coming just about 20 years ago, My Fellow Americans depicts a fairly contemporary Washington DC, all partisanship and horribleness included. Russell Kramer is the movie’s Republican President adorably played by the always incredible Jack Lemmon. We know he’d be more fiscally responsible than our current administration, and to make matters even better it means his wife Margaret (Lauren Bacall) becomes our First Lady. Why didn’t that actually happen?
James Garner as Matt Douglas- My Fellow Americans (1996)
The My Fellow Americans trend continues with our third choice. Am I cheating by putting both men as separate entries? That’s for the readers to decide. Matt Douglas (James Garner) is the Democratic opposition to the Republican Kramer. Douglas is a parody of the ladies man politician, a definite product of the 1990s. However, Garner brings a fun and likable performance to the role of Douglas. It is yet another delightful part in Garner’s arsenal of awesomeness. What is so fun about this movie is it shows an eventual breakdown in political partisanship which contemporary Washington can only dream of. A Democrat and a Republican running on the same ticket?!? Yes, please.
William Daniels- John Adams- 1776 (1972)
Well, he might not have actually been President in 1776, but John Adams did move on to eventually become one. William Daniels brought the role he originated on stage to the screen and absolutely slays in his performance. I for one have always wanted a President to kill a music number, and Daniels absolutely shines in this movie. From the powerful “Is Anybody There?” to the utterly adorable “Yours, Yours, Yours”, he shows a passion and dedication we are so lacking in our national government today. “One useless man is called a disgrace. Two are called a law firm and three or more become a Congress!” (Seems oddly relevant today, doesn’t it?).
Ken Howard- Thomas Jefferson- 1776 (1972)
I have to add one more almost movie President from 1776. We all know Thomas Jefferson had his issues. There were lots of issues. However, have you even seen Ken Howard’s Thomas Jefferson? There are no problematic racial and gender issues; he’s just a young writer who loves his wife and plays a mean violin. Aside from his three season run on the television series The White Shadow, Ken Howard had few on-screen opportunities to shine. However, 1776 is definitely one of them. Check out the young actor in one of his best roles.