Photo: Electric Entertainment, Lionsgate and Miramax
One aspect of all movies about real-life presidents — an aspect one worries future films will not share — is a reverence for the office of the president. Every aspect of a human being’s life, whether it’s before, during, or after his time in the White House, is filtered through that lens: This person once held the most powerful office in the world. Everything else they do seems more important, more magnified: We look for insight into their soul in the most mundane, and least mundane, of life’s tasks. Their whole life becomes an origin story.
Again, this feels like it will all change because of our current situation. How reverential can anyone find the job after this? But that’s the one thing these movies about real-life presidents have in common: the importance of the office contrasted with the basic humanity of the officeholder. Not every president featured in these films is a great man. But they are all Large Men, men of import and power. That’s probably going to change in 20 years.
One rule about this list: We didn’t include documentaries. (Sorry, Jimmy Carter: Man From Plains.) This is a look at fictionalized characterizations of real-life presidents, for better and, often, worse.
Bill Murray seemed to be trying for an Oscar with his portrayal of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, but he sure picked the wrong vehicle here, a groaner of a “whimsical” historical drama in which FDR is a decent but flawed man who pauses from the responsibilities of the office occasionally to get hand jobs from Laura Linney. (The scene in which this happens will haunt your memories for years.) Murray isn’t bad, exactly, but he’s playing a cartoon, and the movie doesn’t cut much deeper. This is a movie that needed a lot more thought put into it — though if they had thought all that hard, they probably wouldn’t have made it at all.
Produced by Terrence Malick, The Better Angels cast newcomer Braydon Denney as a young Abraham Lincoln living in Indiana with his mom (Brit Marling) and dad (Jason Clarke). Writer-director A.J. Edwards (who served as an editor on To the Wonder and Knight of Cups) gives the proceedings an ethereal Malick-ian glow. The camera swirls and glides over the actors, and the black-and-white imagery is gorgeous, but The Better Angels reduces the characters to mythic abstractions. (Lincoln’s father is stoic. His mother is angelic.) There’s no saying filmmakers can’t create impressionistic portraits of famous figures, but this one drifts away so lazily that there doesn’t seem to be anything particularly pertinent to Lincoln’s legacy or impact in its making.
What if you’d always wanted to be president, only to find out that the only way you’d become commander-in-chief is by taking over for a beloved POTUS who’d just been tragically murdered? Rob Reiner’s LBJ uses that as its provocative hook, casting Woody Harrelson as Lyndon Baines Johnson, a gruff, ambitious politician who failed to win the White House in his own right, settling to be vice-president to the charismatic but distant John F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan). Harrelson’s barreling, vulnerable performance tries to show the wounded outsider within Johnson — an uncouth Texan out of step with the snobby East Coast Kennedy brothers — and the film builds tension as we watch LBJ become president and work to pass JFK’s monumental civil-rights bill. But LBJ’s blandness outshines everything else. This movie feels like a missed opportunity — and a further indication of Reiner’s waning powers.
Much of the prerelease buzz revolved around Michael Shannon’s wild interpretation of Elvis Presley, but now it’s hard not to watch Kevin Spacey as Richard Nixon and feel … well, pretty gross about the both of them, to be honest. Spacey’s Nixon isn’t so much evil as he is pathetic, and the movie’s attempt to play the notorious meeting between Nixon and Presley as farce is a balancing act it can’t quite pull off. The Presley story here is a lot more interesting, and Spacey mostly seems to be doing an impersonation rather than an incarnation. Not really worth the effort or time.
Dopey and certainly bad for you — but, if you’re in the right mood, also wonderfully bonkers — this action flick hoped to cash in on the “historic figures or books, but with horror!” wave that also included Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Adapting Zombies novelist Seth Grahame-Smith’s book, which reimagined our 16th president as a kick-ass vampire slayer, director Timur Bekmambetov overdoes the gloomy grandeur and violent kill sequences. But there’s a charm to the sheer ludicrousness of the proceedings, especially thanks to Benjamin Walker, who plays Honest Abe with such reverence that you get sucked into the film’s goofy, silly-serious tone. Not surprisingly, Vampire Hunter was a commercial disappointment, but its cheesy gusto makes it perfect Sunday-afternoon cable viewing.
The film that ended Merchant-Ivory’s run of critical and commercial art-house hits, Jefferson in Paris is a muddled drama that’s not without some intriguing ideas rustling around inside it. Looking at Thomas Jefferson’s tenure as American ambassador to France a couple of decades before his presidency, the movie draws from two romances he pursued at the time: with the painter Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) and his slave Sally Hemings (Thandie Newton). As played by Nick Nolte, the Jefferson we meet is a man who’s lost, grieving a dead wife while trying to keep his nascent nation together, a storytelling perspective that offers some insights into the secret self-doubts of our Founding Fathers. But Jefferson in Paris never quite succeeds as either a character study or a love story.
An origin story of sorts that shows the formative years of Barack Obama, Barry follows our 44th president as a college student (played by Devon Terrell) in New York trying to find his footing in the big city. There’s a love story at Barry’s center — Anya Taylor-Joy plays one of his classmates — but director Vikram Gandhi is more interested in Obama’s search to find himself as he tries to come to terms with not feeling wholly comfortable with either white students or black friends. There’s a genuine attempt to strip away Obama’s mythic persona — the real man was getting ready to wind down his time in the Oval Office at the time of the movie’s release — but Barry suffers a bit because it doesn’t have quite enough distance or perspective to really offer a compelling take on the transformative politician. It will be interesting to rewatch Barry down the road: In several ways, the movie is less about Obama than it is our relationship to a president who seemed to be too good to be true — and seems even more that way now.
This is the slightly cuckoo, slightly reverent Lee Daniels movie about a White House butler (Forest Whitaker) who serves multiple generations of presidents and attempts to raise a family (with wife Oprah Winfrey and son David Oyelowo; this movie does not lack a pedigree, that’s for sure) through a particularly combustible period in our nation’s history. The movie moves along well enough but, oddly, screeches to a halt every time we meet a president played by a famous actor who doesn’t so much inhabit the real-life figure as wave bemusedly behind his mask. Robin Williams’s Eisenhower and John Cusack’s Richard Nixon are both just strange, but there’s a little more going on with Alan Rickman’s Ronald Reagan (with Jane Fonda as Nancy!). A whole movie with Rickman as Reagan might have been onto something.
This goofy comedy sees the Watergate scandal through the eyes of two silly but smarter-than-they-look teenagers (Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst), and it works better as a comedy than any sort of real-life commentary. Dan Hedaya’s Nixon is adequately buffoonish and paranoid, but he’s just sort of passing through his own film; Williams and Dunst, happily, are the real stars. Also the real stars: some truly inspired down-credit casting, from Dave Foley as Haldeman, Harry Shearer as G. Gordon Liddy, Jim Breuer as John Dean, and, amazingly, Will Ferrell and Bruce McCulloch as Woodward and Bernstein, a couple of doofuses who have no idea what’s going on but do very much love being on television.
The first of two Obama portraits to emerge in the final year of his presidency, Southside With You imagines how the future president’s first date with Michelle Robinson played out. Sort of a Before Sunrise–like romantic drama, writer-director Richard Tanne’s feature debut benefits from some pretty stellar casting in the form of Parker Sawyers’s reticent, charming Barack and Tika Sumpter’s strong-willed Michelle. There’s an undeniable amount of wish-fulfillment going on here: Southside With You is what we want to think it was like when these two lovebirds first went out, two bright people with their whole lives ahead of them. Tanne sometimes stumbles trying to bring significance to their date, which is why the movie works best when we’re just hanging out with likable characters getting to know one another. History can wait.
This dramatization of John F. Kennedy’s heroics during World War II was accused of hagiography when it was released, five months before Kennedy was shot in Dallas. Watched today, it basically treats JFK as heroic as just about every other movie of the last 50-plus years has, only as a younger man. (Although it should be noted that Cliff Robertson was almost two decades older than Kennedy was when he played him.) The movie was made under the prowess of Kennedy’s father — who had once been a film executive — so JFK is made to look like the very best of humanity, but that seems like more of a problem for June 1963, when it was released, than, say, December 1963. The movie is straightforward and perfectly pleasantly made. If it weren’t about a president, you wouldn’t notice, and you wouldn’t mind: You’d like it just the same.
2017’s Oscar-nominated Darkest Hour told of one of Winston Churchill’s most trying moments as he faced down Germany, and Thirteen Days does something similar for John F. Kennedy, tracing the tense weeks during the Cuban Missile Crisis showdown with the Soviet Union. Bruce Greenwood plays JFK as a distant, complicated, hesitant figure, but the film is actually told from the perspective of his trusted adviser Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner). Directed by Roger Donaldson with a minimum of fuss, Thirteen Days emphasizes strategy, debate, deliberation, and anguished choices — it’s a film where the electricity comes from ideas and dialogue. As such, the film has the appeal and limitations of a well-mounted play, but the actors (including Steven Culp as Bobby Kennedy and Dylan Baker as Robert McNamara) dig into the screenplay’s bare-bones, life-or-death drama.
It would be easy to assume that Oliver Stone, liberal firebrand, would eviscerate George W. Bush in his biopic. Shockingly, W. mostly pities a man who, according to the film, simply wasn’t equipped for the life that fate had in store for him. Josh Brolin plays Dubya as a good-natured underachiever who, after becoming a born-again Christian, decides he wants to do something meaningful. The movie undoubtedly lays the wood on several in Bush’s inner circle — Thandie Newton’s impression of Condoleezza Rice is particularly mean — as W. ponders what happens when a useful idiot falls under the sway of warmongers with bad intel. Stone makes a compelling argument that, deep down, Bush never really wanted to be president — if he’d stayed in Major League Baseball, he might have been happier — and yet, the whole world had to pay for his misreading of his talent and skills. Neither damning nor satiric, W. is oddly wistful, almost regretful — rare sentiments in a Stone film.
Yet another movie in which white lawyers end up saving the day for their black clients, this one at least has a focused, earnest Steven Spielberg and a hammy, sort of glorious Anthony Hopkins playing John Quincy Adams, the former president who comes out of retirement to argue for the citizenship of a boat full of slaves in transit from Africa. This is Spielberg trying to do for slavery what Schindler’s List did for the Holocaust, but, obviously, this subject isn’t as firmly in his wheelhouse; the subject would be handled infinitely better by black filmmakers years later. But the Adams scenes have an extra kick: You never forget you’re listening to a president, using his powers for the ultimate good.
The timing of the Primary Colors film couldn’t have been better: The Lewinsky scandal broke two months before the movie’s release, so its story of a smart, well-intentioned presidential candidate whose excesses wouldn’t allow him to get out of his own way felt particularly resonant. (Though it didn’t help the film make a profit.) This was John Travolta at the peak of his powers, and his Clinton (or “Clinton,” wink, wink) oozes charisma while remaining slippery: It really does feel like Bill. Emma Thompson is kinder to Hillary than the next two decades would be, and the movie feels both of the moment and quaint today … neither of which is a bad thing. Plus, Kathy Bates’s terrific performance reminds us of why we all believed in the Clintons … and how they ultimately let us all down.
Ron Howard’s ticktock of how British journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen) got an out-of-office and exiled Richard Nixon (Frank Langella) not only on his television show but to confess to his crimes is smart, linear filmmaking, what you’d expect from Howard, but not much more. It’s still particularly striking to watch it today, considering its big revelation — Nixon confessing — has basically happened already with our current president with Lester Holt, and it didn’t make a lick of difference. The movie, despite its mod fashion and sideburns, doesn’t make you nostalgic for the ’70s; it makes you nostalgic for 2008.
Your basic superhero origin story, except this time the superhero is Abraham Lincoln and his superpower is discovering that he is, in fact, Abraham Lincoln. John Ford directed this courtroom thriller in which young Abe (played by Henry Fonda, who was 34 at the time) defends innocent brothers accused of murder, and the movie actually isn’t that much more ambitious than that: It’s more of a dry run for Perry Mason than Oliver Stone. But as a courtroom thriller, it works, and the basic human decency of Fonda-as-Lincoln would be a model for hundreds of movies about lawyers and decent politicians alike.
Richard Nixon was reportedly a big M*A*S*H fan, but it’s safe to assume that Robert Altman didn’t feel as warmly about him. And yet, with Secret Honor (based on the play by Donald Freed and Arnold M. Stone), the director seemed to understand something elemental about the disgraced president. Played by Philip Baker Hall, Nixon is alone on screen for 90 minutes, roaming around his study recounting his failures and disappointments. It’s tempting to view the ex-president as a stand-in for Altman, who at that point of his career was a commercial pariah who seemingly had lost the plot. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, Secret Honor is an unremittingly bitter and vengeful piece of work — the Nixon we meet doesn’t want our sympathy, but he’s more than willing to lay into his critics, desperately hoping to correct the record. As a piece of cinema, this is an inherently stagy, talky film, but it’s so liberatingly angry that it’s explosive — especially during its blistering final moments.
Cinema has no shortage of movies about monstrously ambitious American men who reach great heights, only to be undone by the same insecurities and failings that fueled their drive in the first place. A lower rung from Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood, Nixon is all the more compelling because of the filmmaker who conceived it. Oliver Stone isn’t the sort of guy you’d picture as a Richard Nixon apologist, but even though he depicts our 37th president as an unsavory, power-hungry man, the JFK auteur also goes out of his way to explain what drove Nixon — namely, a sense of inadequacy that spurred him on throughout his life. Anthony Hopkins doesn’t look so much like Nixon, but he embodies him, and the looming shadow of the Watergate investigation that dominates Nixon’s last third is both riveting and sickening — you can feel the sense of doom slowly enveloping a politician who, at heart, was always a fatalist. You don’t walk away from Nixon with rosy feelings toward Tricky Dick, but you are swamped by the sense of the tragedy of his life — how his ego and anger and ambition could never ever transcend his self-doubt, no matter how much he hoped otherwise.
The genius of Spielberg’s Lincoln — and we do think it’s one of his best films — is that it doesn’t focus on Lincoln the leader, or the orator, or the hero, though it of course also contains all those things. Instead, the movie’s optimism comes from its faith in politics itself, as Lincoln grinds the gears of government to try to fundamentally change the world by cajoling and palm-greasing and, if that doesn’t work, actually appealing to hearts and minds and people’s fundamental goodness. Daniel Day-Lewis’s Lincoln is a massive figure, but he doesn’t play him that way: He is just a guy trying to do what he can, using the materials he has, to do what is right. It’s a movie that believes, truly, in the presidency and what it can achieve. One wonders if Spielberg still feels that way six years later.
Grierson & Leitch write about the movies regularly and host a podcast on film. Follow them on Twitter or visit their site.