There has been no shortage of films either about or involving presidents of the United States, be they fictional or true to life. And just like the chief executives themselves, movies about presidents have ranged from the good to the not-so-good. Here are some of our favorite presidential movies to watch over this long weekend.
All the President’s Men
“Follow the money.” It’s the key phrase uttered by Deep Throat (played by the recently deceased Hal Holbrook) and one that’s still true today as Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) trace the Watergate break-in all they way to the Nixon White House. Packed with a cast of heavy hitters, it follows the last great Constitutional crisis in the U.S., and made darkened parking garages famous.
Lincoln is one of Steven Spielberg’s best movies in years (and arguably would have been the best Spielberg movie if only the director had ended it, say, 5 to 10 minutes earlier than he did). The movie centers around the arm-twisting and strategizing that went into getting the 13th Amendment passed by Congress, and it features a number of impressive performances from the likes of James Spader, Tommy Lee Jones and Sally Field. But towering over everyone is Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln, disappearing into the role as the 16th president and deservedly winning yet another Best Actor Oscar. There’s no better treat on Lincoln’s birthday than to watch the best performance of Lincoln ever on film.
Air Force One
“Get off my plane!” It’s Die Hard on an airplane as President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) single-handedly fights off Russian terrorists led by Gary Oldman and his accent, who have taken over the eponymous aircraft. Directed by Wolfgang Petersen, it also stars Glenn Close as the Vice President, William H. Macy, and Jurgen Prochnow, the latter of whom starred in Peterson’s WWII submarine epic Das Boot.
The American President
This 1995 movie about a widowed president finding love and conflict served as a warm-up for Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing. (In fact, there’s a few lines of recycled dialogue in the TV series). President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) falls in love with Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), a political consultant, but as their passion heats up, so too do his enemies, led by Senator Rumson (Richard Dreyfus). As can be expected with a Sorkin script, the movie is packed with witty, fast-paced dialogue and a Big Speech at the end.
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This satire, released in 2006, imagined what the world would look like if we no longer valued intelligence and science. Directed by Mike Judge (Office Space, Beavis and Butthead), it’s the story of Private Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson), a perfectly average guy who is cryogenically frozen but forgotten about for 500 years. He thaws out into a country that’s become impossibly stupid — he’s now the smartest man alive — and run by President Camacho (Terry Crews), who really hams it up with wild outbursts and judgments. But that can’t happen here, right?
Seven Days in May
An Air Force general decides that the president is being too soft on Russia and decides to do something about it — that something being an elaborate coup. Only a Marine Corps colonel and an inner circle of the president’s trusted advisors can put a stop to the coup unfolding, and that’s what keeps Seven Days in May simmering from start to finish. While not as loved as director John Frankenheimer’s other 1960s political thriller (The Manchurian Candidate), this is still a tension-filled movie that reunites Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas — this time on opposite sides of the divide. And if this movie about a potential insurrection against the government unnerves you, just keep reminding yourself that it’s just a work of fiction.
Southside With You
Tag along on the first date of Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson in 1989 as they go the the art museum, have a picnic along the lake, and have some ice cream along the way to a community meeting. The give-and-take between the excellent leads (Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers) is both playful but touches on more serious issues that they would go on to address as President and First Lady.
Look, there’s a lot of hours in Presidents Day, so why not spend them binging all seven episodes of John Adams, the best miniseries ever about a one-term president. Of course, the 2008 miniseries based on David McCullough’s book packs in a lot of history, from the Boston Massacre to the American Revolution to Adams’ tumultuous four years in office. At the end of the day, it’s the performances — Paul Giamatti as John, Laura Linney as Abigail — that elevate John Adams and make this a miniseries worth revisiting.
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You won’t find any president at the heart of Suddenly — just Frank Sinatra playing against type in one of the better performances of his acting career. Sinatra plays a remorseless killer who’s been contracted to assassinate the president during a whistle-stop visit to a small California town. The tension builds throughout the film’s tight 77-minute runtime as the family Sinatra’s taken hostage tries to stop him.
All the Way
If you only think of Breaking Bad when you think of Bryan Cranston, check out All the Way in which he recreates his stage performance as Lyndon Johnson in a movie that centers around the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Equal parts charming, bullying, and bombastic, Cranston’s LBJ is the center of every scene that he appears in. Yet, even though this is the Bryan Cranston show, Anthony Mackie’s turn as Martin Luther King Jr. also impresses.
Even if they’re good or bad, most presidents on film are portrayed as strong leader-types. Peter Sellers’ President Merkin Muffley is the exact opposite: timid and nervous, which leads to disastrous consequences in Stanley Kubrick’s dark comedy from 1964. While Sellers’ performance as the President is outshone by George C. Scott, Slim Pickens — and even Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove — President Muffley does get to say the iconic line, “Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room!”
Once you get past Kevin Costner’s ridiculous Bahstan accent, you get a very capable Bruce Greenwood as President Kennedy as he seeks a peaceful end to the Cuban Missile Crisis. While there’s plenty of tension regarding the Soviet intentions, much of the drama revolves around Kennedy’s cabinet as they try to determine the best course of action. Available on Prime Video.
A heartwarming tale of an employment-agency director (Kevin Kline) who moonlights as a Presidential look-alike, Dave is pressed into service when the actual President falls into a coma while having an affair. Dave, however, is a lot nicer than the real President, so when he tries to start effecting change, he runs into trouble with the President’s co-conspirators (a glowering Frank Langella). Also starring Sigourney Weaver, Ving Rhames, Charles Grodin, and Ben Kingsley in a surprisingly small role.
Watching a tell-all interview with a politician seems yawn-inducing today, but in 1977, America was riveted by the sit-down between the infamous, impeached former President Richard Nixon and British journalist David Frost. Director Ron Howard and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Crown) present the interview and the accompanying behind-the-scenes machinations almost like a thriller, a tense cat-and-mouse game where the roles are constantly switching between the two leads. Michael Sheen is excellent as Frost, but Frank Langella truly deserved his Oscar nomination for his magnetic performance as the disgraced president. His Nixon is not the out-and-out villain you might expect.
White House Down
This 2013 movie — about terrorists taking over the White House — was released the same year as Olympus Has Fallen, which has a nearly identical premise. The reason this Die-Hard-in-the-Oval-Office flick made the list is that it's aware it’s preposterous. Channing Tatum plays a Capitol police officer who helps protect the President (Jamie Foxx) when it’s invaded by paramilitary types led by a corrupt head of the Secret Service (James Woods). This movie was a lot more enjoyable before actual Capitol police officers had to protect actual elected officials from actual armed terrorists storming actual government buildings.
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