In sitting down to write this list, I realized something about myself, something so earth-shattering that I’m sure it must be intrinsic to who I am at my very core: I have no interest in serious movies about the real presidency. Was Lincoln great? Sure. But then, Daniel Day-Lewis is amazing in everything. How about Vice? Did Sam Rockwell do a fantastic job as W? Of course he did; has he ever not done a fantastic job? LBJ was a nice spotlight for Woody Harrelson…and I’m falling asleep just writing about all these.
When I think “best movie presidents” my mind goes straight to Harrison Ford kicking ass on Air Force One. Or Bill Pullman giving a stirring speech on the verge of alien annihilation. So I guess this is my admission that I’m a shallow person. (Or perhaps we all know so much about the actual presidency these days that realistic movies about the men in that office seem like more of the same?) I want to see movie presidents being action heroes or being funny, period. Preferably both at the same time!
So, without further ado:
Harrison Ford, Air Force One
We’d all feel better with Harrison Ford as the president in real life, too. He never fails, that guy. Doesn’t matter what the odds are (never tell him the odds), doesn’t matter if it’s an atomic bomb going off at close range, or a U.S. Marshal hot on his trail. Somehow, Ford will make it work for him, and he’ll look good doing it. He inspires confidence. Even now, in his later years, Ford can kick your ass, my ass, and anybody else’s ass too. Get off his plane!
Kevin Kline, Dave
The actual president in Dave is an asshole. Kevin Kline is good at that. The imposter president is charming, wholesome, and relatable. Kline’s good at that, too. It’s an Everyman in Washington story, a sweet romance, and a wish-fulfillment tale of politics punishing the crooked and rewarding the honest, and it’s funny. I can’t think of a president in my lifetime like Dave (the charming, wholesome version) which is what makes it so much fun to watch this film and dream of a better world.
Michael Douglas, The American President
I harbor an irrational dislike for Michael Douglas, which is probably something I should examine one day when I’ve kicked all my other issues to the curb. Similarly, I irrationally dislike Annette Bening. (I’m SORRY, I said it was irrational!) And it doesn’t matter, because they’re both so good in The American President, written by Aaron Sorkin as a clear precursor to The West Wing, that I forget all my other feelings. There’s a softness to Douglas in the role that’s appealing, and a lovely humanity to the idea of a single president trying to date. It’s almost unthinkable to modern Americans to have a bachelor in the White House, and I don’t want to imagine how the story would go in the 21st century world of dating apps. So I’ll take this romance-with-a-side-of-politics and pretend real presidents are that cute and insecure about their love lives, too.
Jack Lemmon and James Garner, My Fellow Americans
Ever since Idiocracy became too much like reality (or vice-versa), My Fellow Americans has taken its place in my heart as my favorite funny movie about the presidency. (There are four presidents in the film, so Dan Aykroyd and John Heard get a shout-out as well.) Garner and Lemmon, both masterful curmudgeons, are two ex-presidents forced into road-tripping together across the United States. One’s a Democrat, one’s a Republican, and they despise each other. It deserves a place in the pantheon of buddy movies right up there with Planes, Trains & Automobiles–watching these two stars play foul-mouthed former commanders-in-chief is an absolute joy while also tugging at a couple of heartstrings. Of note is Lemmon’s reluctant concession speech and the fact that the 25th Amendment gets a shoutout. Both of these things were played for laughs in 1996, and I think we should work hard to get ourselves back to that state of affairs.
Bill Pullman, Independence Day
True story, I worked on a novelization of Independence Day for kids back before it first came out. That meant I got to read the original script, which featured a lot more of Randy Quaid’s character. Roland Emmerich made the right choices, is what I’m saying. Once we all saw the trailer, with the White House blowing up, it was a must-see movie, and I was pissed that I already knew the whole plot. But even having read it, I was not prepared for the sheer awesomeness of Bill Pullman as President Whitmore. He’s a bland white guy who usually plays nerdy types. Who knew he had it in him? Pullman didn’t necessarily take his stirring “Independence Day” speech seriously. But that didn’t stop him from being exactly what we’d want in a leader if aliens decided to kill us all. Witness his glory:
Terry Crews, Idiocracy
President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho treats the presidency like a reality show version of ancient Rome-meets-Thunderdome. He’s an idiot. But he does want to solve the problems faced by his equally stupid fellow Americans, and by the end of the movie he’s peacefully transitioned the presidency to a smarter, better public servant. It’s harder to laugh than it used to be at the prospect of a deeply ignorant voter base and a president utilizing pro wrestling optics. But I still do laugh at Crews’ antics, and you will, too.
And One for the Ladies: Glenn Close in Air Force One
Today we get our very first woman in the executive, so in honor of Kamala Harris, I give you Glenn Close as Vice President Kathryn Bennett. She doesn’t get to physically throw someone out of a jet after breaking their neck with a cargo strap, but she does have a steely resolve that’s nice to see. We can easily imagine her character sitting down for a bourbon with Harrison Ford’s President Marshall after work–and matching him drink for drink.