Literally hundreds of actors have played presidents on TV and in the movies, but finding a standout role may be actually tougher than picking a president.
From all-out satire to serious film, from thriller to history, presidents make appearances in all kinds of films. Sometimes the fate of the world is at stake, sometimes the state of the president is at stake, and sometimes nothing is at stake.
There are great movies with presidents in them—Being There and Dr. Strangelove, for instance—where the depiction of the president is perhaps the weakest part of the film. Who even remembers that Franchot Tone played the unnamed president in Advise and Consent?
Then there was the tiresome trend in the ’90s (Dave, The American President) where the world would just come together in joy and happiness as soon as a president became sufficiently liberal.
Some films actually depict the weight and responsibility of being president—and then some. Henry Fonda’s noble president in Fail Safe nukes New York to stop all-out nuclear war, while Morgan Freeman as president in Deep Impact decides who gets to survive an asteroid impact and repopulate the human race (a topic first dealt with in the dark satirical masterpiece Dr. Strangelove).
So here is the short list of presidential depictions in film and TV I found the most memorable.
1. 13 Days—John F. Kennedy
Of all the movies about thinking the unthinkable, this is the most realistic—because it was real.
The movie tautly follows JFK and his national security team (along with his political consultant played by Kevin Costner) through the Cuban Missile Crisis. The best part of the film is Bruce Greenwood’s balanced portrait of JFK, stripped of glamor and weighing issues of war and peace in the nuclear age.
The worst is the narrative device of making the movie too much about political consultant sh*t. Sure, using Costner’s character, Ishmael-style, as an outsider looking in as an everyman narrator for the rest of us is both a classic and useful device. Exaggerating his role—particularly when he tells the president he’s being “set up” by cartoonish generals who really want nuclear war—is almost unforgivable.
2. Idiocracy—President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho
After the last campaign season, no discussion of movie presidents is complete without at least a mention of President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho.
Terry Crews plays the leader in Mike Judge’s hilarious future dystopia where merit no longer matters. Luke Wilson is “average Joe” Bauers, an army librarian who awakens from a suspended animation experiment to find he is the only one left with any book learning and becomes a hero by irrigating crops with water instead of energy drinks.
3. John Adams—John Adams
What seemed like an odd casting choice at the time gives way to a nuanced and terrific portrayal by Paul Giamatti of a guy following the toughest act in history—George Washington—and struggling to put his own stamp on the job, while boxed in by the precedents set by THE president.
Laura Linney is also the best first lady in film history with a superb turn as Abigail Adams, a true political partner and sometimes instigator.
4. Amistad—John Quincy Adams
Perhaps the best depiction of an ex-president. John Quincy Adams’ former role looms large in every action he takes in Amistad as he puts slavery on trial while trying to free slaves who rose up in mutiny against their captors on a brutal slave ship.
In real life, JQA was less judicious in his comments. His inflammatory rhetoric about the South is credited with making compromise almost impossible before the Civil War.
But Amistad brought back an important incident in American history, and Anthony Hopkins is great in the role.
5. Independence Day—President Thomas J. Whitmore
It’s not quite Henry V’s “once more unto the breach, dear friends,” but come on, the “Independence Day” speech is irresistible. The only thing close to it in real life in the last 25 years is George W. Bush’s best moment with the NYFD after 9-11.
Bill Pullman’s president is that man of action we all wish would be in charge in that time of crisis, but seldom is.
6. Air Force One—President James Marshall
Next to the speech in Independence Day, “Get off my plane” is the greatest thing a fictional president has ever said in a thriller. Harrison Ford’s James Marshall is perhaps the greatest fantasy president in movie history—calm, wise, a man of action, and a great father.
7. 24—President David Palmer
Dennis Haysbert’s depiction of President Palmer was so authoritative and lasting in Seasons 1-4 of 24, that he is still using his voice of authority 10 years later to make people feel that buying Allstate Insurance is the safe choice.
In the age of terrorism, the character of President Palmer reversed the trend of ’90s movie presidents, as a liberal who had to temper his ideals in the face of threats he had not taken seriously before assuming the office.
8. John Adams—George Washington
The most underrated part of the fine HBO series John Adams is David Morse’s appropriately quiet, but still imposing, performance as the man who put the precedents in the presidency. The scene above shows just how commanding George Washington was, even in a room of intellectual giants and men who were literally changing the world—and had the hubris to actually believe they were.
Morse even captures Washington’s slight discomfort with speaking in public with his wooden teeth without overdoing it. Also memorable is Washington’s reading the Declaration of Independence to the troops.
9. Lincoln—Abraham Lincoln
I’m not a big fan of historian Doris Kearns Goodwin who wrote the book, and the movie contains a few irritating Spielbergisms, but Daniel Day-Lewis simply disappears into the role of our second greatest president at the time of the nation’s greatest crisis.
Once you’ve seen the movie, it’s hard to read a Lincoln quote without seeing—and hearing—Lewis’s portrayal in your head.