Best On-Screen American Presidents

November 5th, 2012 by Ran

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I know why you’re excited today: in ten days Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln is coming out, chronicling the 16th President’s political and personal struggles. On a side note, tomorrow Americans Ohioans are going to elect a president for the United States. According to the polls, someone will definitely win. Will it be Barack Obama? Will it be Mitt Romney? I can’t tell. One thing I do know is that this little girl and most of us will be glad when the elections are over. But, before that, I have a couple of messages for you Americans swing state voters:

1. GO VOTE!

2. Vote for the right guy.

After getting this out of the way let’s get to the serious stuff: electing the best on-screen American president. Up until now, America has elected 44 presidents. Alas, not all of them turned out to be showbiz material (I’m looking at you James K. Polk… what a waste). But what makes a good on-screen president? I have struggled with this question for a whole… couple of hours. Charisma is a good characteristic to have if you want to be on screen. Being historical is another good trait (being a founding father –a plus). Doing something dramatic like declaring a war (or two), abolishing slavery, dropping a nuclear bomb, and such, definitely help make your case. All these traits, plus a good director, are essential if you want to be the greatest American president ever to be seen on screen. And without further ado, here is our countdown:

10. Barack Obama (D) – By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009)

While this probably won’t be considered a cinematic masterpiece, the historic aspect of being the first African American president trumps everything. This documentary starts very early, at a time when this president was clearly an underdog, and traces his meteoric rise to fame. It was a simpler time back then, when the words ‘hope’ and ‘change’ were enough to make us believe. Oh, how naïve we were…

9. John F. Kennedy (D) – The Missiles of October (1974)

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William Devane portrays the 35th president during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Do not be scared by the word ‘docudrama.’ There was a time when it was not such a lowly genre, and this is a great example of an excellent TV movie that deals with one of the tensest times in the history of US foreign relations (and it does it with the appropriate gravitas).

8. Ronald Reagan (R) – Reagan (2011)

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He is the go-to president for Republicans when talking about other Republicans: is he the next Reagan? What would Reagan do here? How will Reagan solve that? And so on. Eugene Jarecki decided to show us how the reality compares to the myth. The result is a captivating and insightful documentary. Although Jarecki is known as a more left-leaning filmmaker, he successfully paints a non-partisan look at the actor-turned-40th-president.

7. George W. Bush (R) – Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay (2008)

If you’re talking about the quantity of films made about one president, I think Bush wins this contest hands down and with good reason. The W. presidency was one of the most eventful in recent US history. From 9/11, through the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, up until the greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression – he definitely was a busy bee. And to think, all of this would never have happened if there was no recount (thanks guys, really). Bush Jr. is kind of the opposite of Reagan, as he is the most ignored president by Republicans. 99.9% of films made about Bush criticized him in one way or another, so I think I should be commended for finding one in which he is portrayed positively. I’m sure he would approve.

6. Franklin D. Roosevelt (D) – Warm Springs (2005)

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This film is more about the person and less about politics. Kenneth Branagh plays FDR, the 32nd president, and possibly the most important American president of the 20th century. His presidency dealt with the Great Depression and World War II, but this film shows his struggles with Polio before he got elected, and how these shaped him as a man. The success of this TV movie lies in the characterization of FDR – larger than life on the one hand, and a flawed human being on the other.

5. John Adams (Federalist) – John Adams (2008)

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There’s something to be said about those uninspiring names for films about presidents, but we’ll leave it to another time. This HBO mini-series chronicles one the most turbulent times in US history, and Adams was right in the thick of it, serving as the first vice president, as the 2nd president, crafting the Declaration of Independence and doing other founding duties. Production values are great and Paul Giamatti gives a great performance.

4. Bill Clinton (D) – The War Room (1993)

While not as historic as the Obama presidential campaign, this documentary following the Clinton campaign of 1992 is definitely more exciting, and cinematically speaking, a better film. A charismatic James Carville and a young, baby-faced George Stephanopoulos help make politics seem as exciting as ever.

3. Dwight D. Eisenhower (R) – Why We Fight (2005)

This film is definitely not about Eisenhower, but his 1961 amazing farewell speech stands at its center. In his speech, Ike warns against the rise of power of the ‘military industrial complex.’ When the speaker is one of the greatest American soldiers, it’s hard not to feel uneasy when looking at all US military conflicts since then. Eugene Jarecki (again) does a thorough job in showing us the politics behind statements like ‘spreading democracy,’ ‘defending freedom’ and such. It’s a definite eye-opener and should be mandatory viewing for everyone.

2. Richard Nixon (R) – Frost/Nixon (2008)

Sometimes things just happen, and you don’t have any control over them. This film is a great testament to that. On the one hand you have post-Watergate Richard Nixon, who chooses Robert Frost as an interviewer thinking he can best him. On the other hand, there’s Frost, a freewheeling guy, who doesn’t seem to know exactly what he’s doing, or what he wants to find out. The surprising result from this great battle of wits is one of the most telling interviews in the history of television.

1. Fictional President (?) – Wag the Dog (1997)

Yes, the best works about American presidents are about fictional ones, and we could do a countdown of fake presidents alone. This cynical tale of a spin-doctor (Robert De Niro) and a Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman) fabricating a fake conflict with Albania in order to cover up a presidential sex scandal, sounds more plausible than ever; with the advancements in technology, the rise of the power of the internet and the (poor) state of journalism and the media today.

So, after watching all of these movies and shows, you can go out and vote. This list couldn’t break the current tie between Democrats and Republicans, so it’s all in your hands now. The world and I are counting on you to make the right choice. Don’t disappoint us!

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