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American Presidents in the Movies

As we hold our collective breath for the current Presidential Election circus cycle to finally yield a winner result, let’s recall some of the more memorable movie presidents—some actual, some fictitious, but most of them far more “presidential” than the slim pickings from which we voters must now choose.

Real Presidents

Daniel Day Lewis as President Abraham Lincoln (Lincoln, 2012)


Mr. Day Lewis snagged his third Best Actor Oscar for his noble portrayal of President Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s exquisitely produced but endlessly chatty period piece.

Bruce Greenwood as President John F. Kennedy (Thirteen Days, 2000)


Greenwood’s JFK isn’t the lead character (that would be the guy played by Kevin Costner), but his stoic portrayal of the president during the tense Cuban Missile Crisis makes the CIC come off as a wizened and contemplative strategist. Cliff Robertson also delivered a fine turn as a heroic JFK in the biographical war film PT-109 (1963).


Anthony Hopkins as President Richard M. Nixon (Nixon, 1995)


Hopkins conjures the essence of Richard Nixon with droopy body language and peculiar verbal rhythms, without relying too much on facial prosthetics. Hopkins towers over the movie in a performance as massive and complex as director Oliver Stone’s sprawling three-hours-plus film. Honorable mentions for memorable turns as Nixon also go to Dan Hedaya in Andrew Fleming’s 1999 comedy Dick and Frank Langella in Ron Howard’s 2008 drama Frost/Nixon.

For a veritable archive of historical reenactments of American presidents, check out Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2012), featuring supporting performances by the likes of Alan Rickman (as President Ronald Reagan), John Cusack (as President Richard Nixon), Liev Schreiber (as President Lyndon B. Johnson), James Marsden (as President John F. Kennedy), and Robin Williams (as President Dwight D. Eisenhower).

The late Robin Williams also did triple duty portraying President Theodore Roosevelt in the Night at the Museum trilogy.


Fictitious Presidents

Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley (Dr. Strangelove, 1964)


Sellers portrays three major characters in Kubrick’s cold war satire, and even though his President Merkin Muffley is his least comical (and, thusly, the least showy) role, Sellers creates one of the most memorable fictitious American presidents in the movies. During a crucial phone call to Soviet premier Kissoff to inform him of impending air strikes on his country, Muffley shows great diplomacy while tiptoeing around his Russian counterpart’s late night drunken belligerence. He keeps a (mostly) even temper in the face of horrific events as they are unfolding. But lest the military hawks gathered around the table think of Muffley as a feckless twerp, he shows he has the gumption to be Commander in Chief when he stands up to and shouts down a fanatical general in the War Room.


Gene Hackman as President Allen Richmond (Absolute Power, 1997)


In Clint Eastwood’s gripping political potboiler, Hackman is appropriately snaky as a Commander in Chief who kills his mistress and, as president, is in the most advantageous position to orchestrate a cover-up. (Eastwood is a thief who witnesses the crime, gets chased by assassins, etcetera.) Hackman played a similar scumbag politician a decade earlier in the Pentagon spy thriller No Way Out, so he was well-rehearsed at portraying such a frightful creature.


Martin Sheen as Greg Stillson (The Dead Zone, 1983)


This one’s on the list by mere technicality, because in the current-day timeline of the plot, Stillson never actually lives to become President. It’s only through one of Christopher Walken’s jerky premonition episodes that we see Stillson as a warmonger Commander in Chief who will instigate a nuclear holocaust.

Though Sheen was lauded for his portrayal of JFK that same year in a TV miniseries, his Greg Stillson is clearly a nightmare exaggeration of then-President Ronald Reagan.


Donald Moffat as President Bennett (Clear and Present Danger, 1994)


Another scary fear-monger in the Reagan mold, President Bennett suggests to his most trusted advisors a course of action that he cannot legally suggest: he tacitly authorizes a private war to retaliate against a South American drug czar who murdered the president’s friend (more likely, he was also a hefty campaign donor). Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan finds out about it and tries to make it right, first with some covert field action, then with a tense tête-à-tête with his boss in the Oval Office, then ultimately by testifying before a Senate subcommittee.

The most satisfying dialogue exchange happens as Bennett smugly assures Ryan that he’s truly a Teflon president and will indeed escape blame: “Sorry, Jack … the old Nixon two-step.”

Ryan retorts with a snort: “Sorry, Mr. President, I don’t dance.” (Mic drop.)


Donald Moffat as Lyndon B. Johnson (The Right Stuff, 1983)


Donald Moffat isn’t the only actor who has portrayed multiple Presidents (real or unreal), but his gangbusters turn as an uppity Lyndon B. Johnson while he was still a Senator and heading up NASA is among the best impersonations of the egomaniacal Texan ever put to film.


E.G. Marshall as The President (Superman II, 1981)


Even as he’s humiliated and kneels before Zod, we trust he does so reluctantly, and only for the better safety of the people of the world.


Kevin Kline as President Bill Mitchell (Dave, 1993)


Directed by the ghost of Frank Capra via Ivan Reitman, this charming political comedy of mistaken identity tells a tale of what could happen if a genuine nice guy who wanted to help others was somehow put in charge of the West Wing.

Kevin Kline plays two roles: a not-so-nice President who has a severe stroke during an infidelity, and “Dave,” a doppelganger who is convinced to impersonate the comatose President for the good of the country, protecting the office from scandal and for sake of the public eye. Sigourney Weaver is the estranged First Lady, who has her own private ways of knowing Dave is not her real husband (wink, nudge).


Jamie Foxx as President Sawyer (White House Down, 2013)

He’s not the first African American president in the movies—he’s preceded in this regard by both Morgan Freeman (Deep Impact, 1998) and Danny Glover (2012, 2012)—but he’s the one most clearly modeled on President Barack Obama, even if the story (terrorists lay siege to the White House) requires this fictitious Commander in Chief to wield a firearm.


John Travolta as Jack Stanton (Primary Colors, 1998)


At the time of the book’s publishing, the author’s name was credited as “Anonymous” (since revealed to be Time magazine political columnist Joe Klein), but it was no secret the character Jack Stanton is not-so-loosely based on Bill Clinton.

Consequently, Emma Thompson’s portrayal of Mrs. Stanton makes her a far more congenial character than her real-life counterpart.


Harrison Ford as President James Marshall (Air Force One, 1997)


When dastardly terrorists hijack Air Force One, John McClane the president (in the guise of Harrison Ford) springs into action. Clint Eastwood gets a lot of credit for the “Get off my lawn!” bit from Gran Torino, but Ford’s final dispatch of the villain while growling “Get off my plane!” is as close to “Yippie ki yay, motherfucker!” as it gets for him.


Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd (The American President, 1995)


Rob Reiner’s innocuous romantic comedy stars Michael Douglas—perhaps never before this likable—as a fine and decent president who is also a widower with a daughter. Enter Annette Bening, who helps to warm up the lonely CIC’s heart. Like Ivan Reitman’s comic trifle Dave, this upbeat comedy is the very definition of “Capraesque.”


Jack Nicholson as President James Dale (Mars Attacks!, 1996)


If slimy, giant-brained, green-blooded Martians ever do land on Earth and pretend that they come in peace, let’s hope whoever occupies the Oval Office is far more clever and has a sturdier spine than wimpy President James Dale, all-too-easily fooled and felled by a lethally prankish Martian ambassador.


Bill Pullman as President Thomas J. Whitmore (Independence Day, 1996)


Aliens have arrived, decimated our cities, and now threaten to wipe out the remainder of the human race.

Or is it enslave us? I honestly cannot recall.

Either way, there’s no better way to prove oneself as a President of words and deeds than by rallying the global defense force with a rousing speech, and then slipping into the cockpit of a fighter jet to assist in the desperate final assault on the alien mothership.

Tomorrow is Election Day. Too many men and women have laid down their lives for, among other liberties, our right to vote and have a say in this crucial election.

Please don’t sit this one out. Use your voice.


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