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5 Great Movie Presidents Worth Re-Electing

by The Playlist Staff
November 7, 2012 12:03 PM
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Dr. Strangelove
President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) - "Dr. Strangelove"
Everyone remembers the titular Dr. Strangelove, the sinister Nazi-saluting wheelchair-bound scientist, best out of the trio of characters that Peter Sellers plays in Stanley Kubrick's glorious Cold War satire "Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb." But while we adore all three performances (and those of George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and pretty much everyone else involved), our favorite might just been President Merkin Muffley, the put-upon, somewhat hapless leader of the free world who ends up helplessly watching as the world descends into nuclear apocalypse. We don't learn an awful lot about President Muffley in terms of his party affilliation or policies as he's never seen outside the War Room. But Sellers achieves a lot without much backstory, and far from the caricatures displayed elsewhere, it's a rather nuanced take. Muffley is, despite the name, a rather noble and good-hearted type, horrified by the excesses and absurdities of his military. Not that he's entirely immune to them himself: Sellers still brings the funny, most notably in the extended phone call with Dimitri, the USSR premier, which the actor pulls off with a hilarious paternalism ("he went a little funny in the head... and went and did a silly thing"), drawing a picture both of his own character, but of the unseen Soviet leader as well.

President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) - "Nixon"
"Lincoln" aside, there's actually fewer noteworthy biopics of real-life presidents that you might think. TV's provided plenty over the years (HBO's "John Adams" being one of the most noteworthy of late), and there are a few gems out there, like Henry Fonda in John Ford's "Young Mr. Lincoln" and Bruce Greenwood's take on JFK in "Thirteen Days." But probably our favorite take on a real-life commander-in-chief came in Oliver Stone's undervalued masterpiece "Nixon." It could easily have been a more sanctimonious take-down of the infamous and disgraced 37th president, but Stone, with a crack team of collaborators (many of them from “JFK,” inlcuding composer John Williams and cinematographer Robert Richardson) created a richly dense and layered portrait of a weak-willed man with more than a few co-conspirators that were just as ruthless and cutthroat as he was, if not more so. And at its center is Anthony Hopkins’ hypnotic, Oscar-nominated performance as Nixon: sweaty, concerned, able to erupt into furious rages, and always listening to his wife Pat (Joan Allen), who comes off as more than a little Lady Macbeth. Hopkins wasn't the most obvious of choices, but it's a rich and empathetic turn that remains, to date, the actor's last truly great performance.

The American President
President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) - "The American President"
If you like Aaron Sorkin -- particularly his ace political drama “The West Wing” -- you’re likely to be charmed by the screenplay he wrote for Rob Reiner's “The American President” and its romantic, idealistic look at a president, his bid for reelection, and the woman he loves. Michael Douglas stars as President Andrew Shepherd, a widower who narrowly won office after the death of his wife. He meets environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), and their romance rattles the American people, dipping his approval numbers as he begins to campaign for a second term. It does sometimes feel like a dress rehearsal for Sorkin's TV magnum opus, not least thanks to performances from West Wingers Martin Sheen, Anna Deavere Smith and Joshua Malina, and some plot are elements recycled later. And not everyone in the cast can pull of Sorkinese in the way that the likes of Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney would. But still, it's an entertaining, if lightweight picture, and in the shape of Douglas' Shepherd, has a President that, like spiritual successor Jed Bartlett, one can only dream existed in reality: kind, smart as a whip, funny, human and with spectacular rhetorical skills (indeed, the start of this year saw an Australian politician caught red-handed having lifted one of Shepherd's speeches...).

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  • Krazy Joe | November 9, 2012 10:37 AMReply

    "we have another four years of the same one, with President Barack Obama coming through and winning the re-election. And yet even as we start to breathe easy again, another president is turning up, this time in movie theaters."

    Who is breathing easy again? I'm $h!tting my pants in fear of how much more damage he can do with another 4 years! This country is frakked!

  • StephenM | November 7, 2012 10:17 PMReply

    You mentioned it, but I just have to state it louder: Henry Fonda in Young Mr. Lincoln, one of John Ford's greatest masterpieces. It's plot is largely fictionalized, but it offers an incredibly dense and historically accurate analysis of Lincoln as a man and as the myth he would become. Fonda's performance is pefection, and Ford's portrait of backwoods Jacksonian democracy may be our most indelible re-imagining of that era--in film/literature/painting/whatever.

  • D'Artagnan | November 7, 2012 8:26 PMReply

    Harrison Ford as President James Marshall would be my choice.

  • Ian | November 8, 2012 12:00 PM

    When I saw this list that was the first one I thought off. Completely agree with you.

  • MAL | November 7, 2012 2:30 PMReply

    Henry Fonda as The President in Fail-Safe. Hands down the most compelling, measured and intense portrayal of a world leader and the responsibility inherent in the role.

  • AS | November 7, 2012 1:47 PMReply

    Nixon is great, up until the end. In the last 30 minutes, Stone shoots himself in the foot.

  • Chris | November 7, 2012 12:36 PMReply

    I do like Hopkins' performance in "Nixon," but I think Philip Baker Hall made an even better and more fascinating Nixon in Altman's "Secret Honor."

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