Real and fictional presidents have graced or disgraced the silver screen for its entire existence, encompassing half the history of America. Interestingly, our greatest modern president was a movie star for almost 30 years. Ronald Reagan was an undervalued actor, often better than his films, though he made some excellent ones: Knute Rockne, All-American (1940), Kings Row (1942, where he screamed a line that became the title of his autobiography, “Where’s the rest of me?!”), Desperate Journey (1942), The Voice of the Turtle (1947), and Storm Warning (1951). Yet Reagan never played a politician before becoming a real one as the two-term governor of California (1966-1974) and then president of the United States (1980-1988). But plenty of other actors have portrayed the chief executive, good and bad. As a late Presidents’ Day offering, here are the top 10 best films featuring an American president, either fictional or historic, in chronological order. The list excludes movies about actual presidents before they became president, such as John Ford’s stirring Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and the mediocre PT 109 (1963, with Cliff Robertson as JFK). Astonishingly, the first three gems on the list came out the same year, 1964, at the height of the Cold War. And two of them, Fail Safe and Dr. Strangelove, feature the identical premise of a rogue American nuclear bomber on a destructive flight into Russia.
A highbrow yet gripping thriller about a celebrity general’s military coup against the dovish president. Perfection all around, with legendary co-stars Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as the traitorous general and his alarmed aide de camp, matched by fellow legends Fredric March as the president and Ava Gardner as Lancaster’s former mistress. It’s a tribute to the great Rod Serling’s writing skill that he presents an intellectually valid case for the coup. Master thriller director John Frankenheimer proves himself yet again.
Only Stanley Kubrick could turn the threat of nuclear Armageddon into one of the funniest comedies of all time, despite or because of his normal pessimistic vision. Kubrick depicts the U.S.-Soviet strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) as the ultimate tragifarce, with Peter Sellers at his most brilliant in three roles, including the president. George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden, and Slim Pickens give Sellers a rare comic challenge and the audience a guilty delight.
It’s the deadly serious counterpart to Dr. Strangelove, as President Henry Fonda and his Cabinet race the Doomsday Clock to thwart an American bomber from nuking Moscow. Chilling from frightening start to shocking finish in the sure hands of director Sidney Lumet. Pre-famous Walter Matthau and Larry Hagman, superb as Fonda’s Russian translator, exhibit the talent that soon made them screen stars.
Writer-director John Milius’ magnificent ’70s swashbuckler was inspired by the true story of a kidnapped American in 1904 Tangier and President Theodore Roosevelt’s attempt to rescue him from an Arab warlord. Milius wisely changed the male victim to the gorgeous Candice Bergen and Arab ruffian Raisuli to a beyond dashing Sean Connery. But Brian Keith practically steals the picture as a colorful President Teddy.
The film adaptation of Jerzy Kosinski’s satirical novel about a mentally feeble ex-gardener who becomes a presidential adviser suffers from ’70s filmmaking but still delivers, thanks to rare yet effective underplaying by star Peter Sellers. Sellers lets the Washington, D.C., luminaries, played by Melvyn Douglas and Shirley MacLaine, as well as Jack Warden as the president, rise to the challenge.
One of the best superhero movies ever made also has one of the most disturbing scenes on film — the president (a typically commanding E.G. Marshall) kneeling before Kryptonian supervillain Zod (Terence Stamp) to save the Earth. The terrific ending has Superman (Christopher Reeve) restore the U.S. flag and American pride to the White House. We could sure use him today.
A charming romantic comedy about the president in love hits all the cute marks in director Rob Reiner’s (When Harry Met Sally) wheelhouse. Widower Michael Douglas courts environmental (of course) lobbyist Annette Benning, enduring moral character jabs from Newt Gingrich-like Republican Sen. Richard Dreyfuss, then lets him have it in a typical liberal fantasy speech from screenwriter Aaron Sorkin.
Fun, exciting sci-fi spectacle about the USA taking on a brutish alien invasion. Heroic ex-fighter pilot president Bill Pullman rallies the fearful people for a last stand with a more rousing speech than The American President’s. It’s another old-fashioned, patriotic, manly picture modern Hollywood would never make, as proven by the woke 2016 sequel flop, Independence Day: Resurgence.
At the top of the pyramid of manly, patriotic movies Hollywoke would never make is this pre-9/11 action thriller about macho president Harrison Ford going all John McLane against Russian terrorists who have skyjacked Air Force One. The film ends with Ford physically kicking villain Gary Oldman’s ass, and telling him to “Get off my plane!”
A lovely, complex ode to the greatest president of the 19th century and his struggle to emancipate the slaves. Daniel Day-Lewis delivers a wonderful performance as Abraham Lincoln, aided by an impressive supporting cast. Steven Spielberg’s full cinematic skill is on display, minus any of his usual annoying tropes and messages. The perfect film for Presidents’ Day about half the inspiration for the holiday.