In honor of Honest Abe’s birthday I whipped up an eclectic list of great films in which presidents (both factual and fictional) are key characters in the stories.
Young Mr. Lincoln (1939, dir. John Ford)
Henry Fonda portrays a pre-presidential Lincoln in this John Ford classic. Ford chooses to focus on a fictionalized case from the future president’s days as a lawyer. During an Independence Day celebration a man is murdered and two brothers are blamed. Lincoln takes the case and fights against popular opinion to prove that these men are innocent. Along the way he impresses the young debutante Mary Todd and showcases his Solomon-like wisdom. The film is a highly fictionalized account and a mish-mash of events that occured years apart. It’s still a great film that showcases a kind of president who doesn’t feel the pressure to act before looking at the facts and using reason.
The Manchurian Candidate (1962, dir. John Frankenheimer)
This is the granddaddy of all political thrillers, directed by one of the most overlooked craftsmen in American cinema. During the Korean War, a group of American soldiers are drugged and taken to a Communist Chinese lair where they are brainwashed. One of them, Raymond Shaw, is programmed to be a sleeper agent. Back in the States, Shaw’s mother (played by Angela Lansbury) has married a McCarthy-esque senator who is making a bid for the presidency. Secrets are revealed that slowly, but surely, connect Shaw’s experience in Korea with the political goings on in America. An amazing achievement that was originally pulled from release after the Kennedy assassination.
Dr. Strangelove (1964, Stanley Kubrick)
Classic. Simple as that. While the president isn’t THE main character is one of three played by the brilliant Peter Sellers. The highlight of his role as President Merkin Muffley comes when he must dial Russian Premier Kisov and let him know that he’s accidentally order the launch of a nuclear strike on Moscow. Muffley’s deadpan “my bad” tone raises the film into the comedic heavens. In addition, this is one of the sharpest satires ever made and it was very ballsy on Kubrick’s part to release a film about global nuclear destruction a couple years after the Cuban Missile Crisis and at the height of the Cold War. This would be the equivalent of someone making a comedic film in 2003 about bumbling terrorists onboard an airplane.
The Candidate (1972, dir. Michael Ritchie)
Robert Redford stars in a film that encapsulates the disenfranchised feelings of many people towards politics in the 1970s. Redford plays Bill McKay, the son of a legendary California senator, who is lured into running as the Democratic candidate for the Senate against unopposed, popular Republican. Yes, there really isn’t a president in this one, BUT it so perfectly tells the story of a campaign in the modern American system it very well could be. McKay was happy working as a pro bono lawyer for low income communities, and only agrees to run because he is guaranteed he won’t win and it will give him an opportunity to have a larger platform for the liberal issues he finds important. However, McKay ends up being more popular than expected and he finds his values being whittled away.
Warm Springs (2005, dir. Joseph Sargent)
Kenneth Branagh and Cynthia Nixon star as the young Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt in this HBO original film. The picture tells the story of FDR as he was coming to terms with his debilitating polio (in 2003, a study was done that suggested he was actually suffering from Gullian-Barré syndrome). He travels to a well-known therapeutic hot springs in Georgia where he struggles more with his humility than with the disorder. So much attention is paid to details here with the entire film being made on location at the actual Warm Springs, as well as Branagh driving the same car that was modified for FDR. A great picture about a wonderful president at a dark time in his life.
Idiocracy (2006, dir. Mike Judge)
The most accurate prediction of the future in our country. We also get two presidents for the price of one: Terry Crews an an ex-pro wrestler prez and Luke Wilson as the dim-witted time traveler who wins the following election. If you haven’t seen this unfinished masterpiece from the creator of Beavis and Butthead and Office Space, let me fill you in. Luke Wilson is the dumbest man in the modern Army, he’s put in a cryogenic capsule to test the technology, forgotten about for 500 years, and wakes up in a world where he is now the smartest man alive. He must tackle such issues as “why won’t the plants grow?” (Spoiler: They’re watering them with Gatorade). It’s not the smartest satire ever written, but damn its funny.