American Presidents On Screen

Image for American Presidents On Screen

This week sees the release of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in which a fresh-faced Abe (Benjamin Walker) takes time out from Emancipation Proclamations, Gettysburg Addresses and wearing a stovepipe hat to slaughter the blood-craving undead. In the near future Bill Murray’s Franklin D. Roosevelt will also make his onscreen bow in Hyde Park On Hudson. The two films got us thinking: which other American presidents have made an impression on the big screen, and who played ‘em? Here’s a gallery for your reference…

Star: Terry Layman
Film: The Patriot (2000)

Now that Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln has wrapped, that surely leaves George Washington next in line for the Serious Biopic treatment and, frankly, about time. The great man deserves more than a cameo in Al Pacino’s Revolution and a walk-on part in this Roland Emmerich historical hogwash drama, not least because he spent an entire winter outdoors. Seriously, who does that? Ignoring his famous hardiness and overlooking troublesome things like facts – the film does, after all – we will say that at least The Patriot doesn’t have Cary Grant crawling up his nostril like North By Northwest.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Historical accuracy came a distant second to A-list casting.

Star: Paul Giamatti
Show: John Adams (2008)

Paul Giamatti has never been better than in HBO’s revolutionary (in every sense) miniseries – and he’s been really, really good in lots of things. Here he’s another lawyer-turned-President, but unlike, say, Young Mr. Lincoln, this future prez cuts his teeth reluctantly defending his enemies. Now yes, strictly this is TV not film, but there’s no question that this is the definitive portrayals of Adams.

What it tells us about the time it was made: That modern TV could make historical dramas with real meat. Also, that Paul Giamatti should be President.

Star: Nick Nolte
Film: Jefferson In Paris (1995)

Romance not politics is the focus of Merchant Ivory’s intelligent but inert Thomas Jefferson origin story. Sent to Paris as ambassador, Nick Nolte’s wig-wearing diplomat conducts furtive flings with Maria Cosway (Greta Scacchi) and his slave Sally Hemmings (Thandie Newton), the latter more significant for influencing the future President’s hostile stance to slavery. Nolte may not be the first name that springs to mind to play a discreet, genteel type – drunkenly growling Moby Dick or soberly growling at Eddie Murphy is more his heartland – but he shows his versatility here on less abrasive terrain.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Jefferson is held in high esteem. Also, Hollywood could make a film set in Paris without blowing up the Eiffel Tower.

Star: Burgess Meredith
Film: Magnificent Doll (1946)

US president number four James Madison appears in Frank Borzage’s film, played by future Rocky trainer and Batman villain Burgess Meredith. The fact that his move from President to Penguin was a step up tells you everything you need to know about this daft romance. He tussles with David Niven for the love of Southern belle Ginger Rogers. History is the loser.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Back in the post-war years, people like their history served in a vat of romance.

Star: Charles Waldron
Film: The Monroe Doctrine (1939)

Normally we’d steer clear of any film with the words ‘doctrine’, ‘ committee’ or ‘consensus’ in the title (although a film called ‘The Millard Fillmore Plebescite’ would surely be worth a look) but short flick The Monroe Doctrine is one of the very few chances to catch James ‘The Indoctrinator’ Monroe, Founding Father, war hero, non-interventionist and friend of Thomas Jefferson.

What it tells us about the time it was made: That many Americans didn’t want to get involved in a European war in 1939.

Star: Anthony Hopkins
Film: Amistad (1997)

Between Adams and Nixon, it’s two presidents and two Oscar nods for Anthony Hopkins. This one, the older of the two in historical terms at least, not just has a much cooler middle name (Quincy surely trumps Milhous) but a much more gilded White House record too. In Steven Spielberg’s slavery epic, Adams fights the abolitionist cause as an old man who’s still capable of opening a giant can of legalese when required.

What it tells us about the time it was made: With Clinton in the White House, America was in the mood to celebrate its civil rights breakthroughs.

Star: Charlton Heston
Film: The Buccaneer (1958)

Charlton Heston played Andrew Jackson twice, once in 1953’s The President’s Lady and again in this Cecil B. DeMille-shaped slice of historical hokum. Second time out there’s less smooching and more shooting, with the future head of state battling the British for New Orleans in the war of 1812. Yul Brynner’s titular pirate gets the lion’s share of the screentime, however, so you probably won’t learn an awful lot about Jackson – America’s seventh president, by the by – except that he was a pugnacious chap and looked a bit like the guy from Planet Of The Apes.

What it tells us about the time it was made: With the Cold War raging and another general, Dwight Eisenhower, in the Oval Office, America held its military men in high esteem.

Star: Nigel Hawthorne
Film: Amistad (1997)

Kinda like The Avengers for US presidents – except that there’s only two Avengers and they’re on, erm, different sides – Amistad ‘assembles’ Presidents Van Buren and Adams in a real-life courtroom tussle over one of the slave trade’s murkiest incidents. Nigel Hawthorne’s Martin Van Buren was the occupant of the White House at the time of the Amistad incident so technically he’s top dog, but then he’s sharing the screen with Anthony Hopkins’ John Quincy Adams who’s (a) the more interesting president and (b) Odin. Chalk that as a win for Adams.

What it tells us about the time it was made: That Hollywood was so in love with the courtroom drama that even Presidents had to answer the summons.

Star: Addison Richards
Film: The Oregon Trail (1959)

Only those with an intimate knowledge of US history could give chapter and verse on James Polk’s presidency, and watching this Western probably won’t help. It’s like that episode of Simpsons where the early settlers of Springfield trade their guns for corn with the Indians, who promptly shoot them and take the corn back – only not as funny. Addison Richards’s president hangs around the White House, keeping away from the titular trail itself. Too dusty, we’re guessing. Wise man.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Westerns were hot, hot, hot.

Star: Henry Fonda
Film: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

With John Ford behind the camera, an Oscar-nominated script and a print residing in the Library of Congress, this Lincoln film is two bajillion per cent more venerable and accurate than Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. Henry Fonda’s young Abe is an industrious Illinois lawyer who takes his first steps towards the White House when he successfully defends two wrongly-accused men charged with murder. No, neither of them are vampires. The judge exonerates them. He’s not a vampire either.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Vampires weren’t such a big deal in the ‘30s.

Star: Kevin Kline
Film: Wild Wild West (1999)

Of all Ulysses S. Grant’s 36 appearances on screen, from The Birth Of A Nation (hmm) to Jonah Hex (oh dear), Kevin Kline’s is definitely not the most historically accurate. In fact, Wild Wild West is to US history what Sharktopus is to marine biology. If you’re looking for truth and facts and knowledge check out one of the other 33 versions. BUT if you’re looking for presidents who look like Kevin Kline with a pillow up his shirt, you’ve come to the right place.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Hollywood preferred giant clanking things to boring old history books. Cinemagoers, it’s safe to say, didn’t.

Star: Francis Sayles
Film: The Night Riders (1939)

One of four US presidents to be assassinated, James A. Garfield’s administration only lasted a handful of months. He’s only made a couple of big screen appearances, one a brief cameo in this John Wayne Western. Despite his military background – he fought with Ulysses S. Grant in the Civil War – at no point does he get to man a Gatling gun or leap from a horse. Denied!

What it tells us about the time it was made: That the president – Roosevelt at the time – was a righteous dude and people should listen to what he had to say.

Star: Daniel Burnley
Film: The Adventures Of Ociee Nash (2003)

This take on President McKinley’s (Daniel Burnley) eventful administration focuses more on his exchanges with the adorably precocious Ociee Nash than, say, his stance on the gold standard, the war with Spain or his eventual assassination. If you’d like more on US tariff policies in the early 20th century, this probably isn’t the place to look. Not recommended for anyone about to sit SATS or higher.

What it tells us about the time it was made: That post-Forrest Gump, any film could be improved by inserting the odd president (although preferably the famous ones).

Star: Robin Williams
Film: Night At The Museum (2006)

Cinema’s second most awesome ‘Theodore’ (after Ted Theodore Logan, natch) is also one of its more amusing presidential salutes. Night At The Museum’s waxwork Teddy (Robin Williams) isn’t quite the Rough-Riding, big-stick-carrying alpha prez of the history books, but, hey, this is for kids, and he does hit the “bluff” and “inspiring” categories pretty well. And it would have been weird if he’d invaded Cuba or decimated the Native Americans.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Hollywood had remembered that history could be fun. Especially when you made it much smaller.

Star: Frank Forsyth
Film: Oh! What A Lovely War (1969)

Aside from receiving that greatest of small-screen honours, an appearance in Young Indy, Woodrow Wilson popped up fairly regularly from the silent era to Richard Attenborough’s satirical musical in 1969. English actor Frank Forsyth joined a cast that included just about anyone holding an Equity card to cameo as the US wartime president sending the Doughboys off to the trenches.

What it tells us about the time it was made: History beat to a subversive drum in the late ‘60s. Also, despite what the US constitution says, you don’t have to be American to be President in the movies. There’s hope for Schwarzenegger yet.

Star: Jon Voight
Film: Pearl Harbor (2001)

The list of actors to play this great wartime (and peacetime) leader is long and illustrious. Ralph Bellamy, Charlton Heston and Kenneth Branagh have all played the man – though sadly none in a film called ‘D.’ - and Bill Murray will soon join them in Hyde Park On Hudson. So we won’t linger too long on Voight’s cameo in Pearl Harbor, except to point out that he nails the gravelly voice and that the prosthetics are pretty decent too. He also gets to launch bombers – and in a Michael Bay film, there is no greater honour.

What it tells us about the time it was made: “Wooo-hoo! BOOM!!” Sorry, what was the question again? Our ears are ringing.

Star: Ed Flanders
Film: MacArthur (1977)

Although HBO has given Harry Truman a Gary Sinise-shaped biopic, this twice-wartime president hasn’t seen much active duty on the big screen. He pops up in Flags Of Our Fathers, played by an superbly made-up David Patrick Kelly, while Ed Flanders’s dons the specs in Gregory Peck’s MacArthur biopic as a leader trying to rein in the general glory-hunting tendencies.

What it tells us about the time it was made: America was ready to re-evaluate its military heroes after Vietnam.

Star: Bruce Greenwood
Film: Thirteen Days (2000)

One of the most convincing screen presidents, Bruce Greenwood’s JFK is so uncanny in his pure Kennedy-ness that we’re assuming the ‘F’ stands for “facsimile” - or, er, “fenomenal”. Either way, the Canadian actor deftly portrays a man backed into the tightest of corners by the Cuban Missile Crisis and Soviet jiggery-pokery. But do those pesky Commies intend to blow up America or are they just there for the cigars and rum? Greenwood’s take shows a man who occasionally flares under the pressure of figuring it out, but who never loses his critical faculties – or his cool.

What it tells us about the time it was made: That we were really happy that the Cold War was over and we wouldn’t all be nuked after all (probably).

Star: Donald Moffat
Film: The Right Stuff (1983)

Best known for pioneering the Great Society and wearing outlandish hats, Lyndon Johnson shows his weasely side in Philip Kaufman’s astronaut epic. He’s the story’s villain – in so far as it has one – popping up every once in a while to bask in the glory reflecting off John Glenn and co’s shiny spacesuits. British actor Donald Moffat does a sterling job with his Texan drawl and belligerent mannerisms.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Adopt Voiceover Man voice “It was a time for heroes...”

Star: Anthony Hopkins
Film: Nixon (1995)

In Oliver Stone’s unsparing biopic, Anthony Hopkins’ Tricky Dicky is God’s lonely president, a bitter man who’s consumed by rage at himself, his colleagues and, as he sees it, his sheer dumb luck. If the resemblance between actor and president is loose at best, Hopkins perfects Nixon’s slippery mannerisms and embodies his post-Watergate angst. He also does an uncanny line in muttering darkly and saying “cocksucker” a lot. We reckon that’s what won him an Oscar nomination.

What it tells us about the time it was made: Despite that cameo in Watchmen, Nixon hadn’t got much more popular in 20 years.

Star: Frank Langella
Film: Frost/Nixon (2008)

This warts-and-all depiction of Richard Nixon made a refreshing change, because, Oliver Stone’s chunky biopic apart, we’d only ever seen the warts before. Frank Langella’s Tricky Dicky is slippery, sure, but there are also moments of humanity, humility even, especially when his interrogator David Frost (Michael Sheen) draws that Watergate cover-up confession out of him like poison from a well. Langella showed Nixon’s wily humour and scored an Oscar nod for his troubles.

What it tells us about the time it was made: That with George Bush in power, Richard Nixon didn’t seem quite so bad anymore.

Star: Ed Beheler
Film: Hot Shots! Part Deux (1993)

Poor Jimmy Carter. George W. Bush can’t read The Pet Goat the right way around and he gets the Oliver Stone treatment; Carter has an IQ the size of Saturn and he turns up briefly in Hot Shots! Part Deux. Still, we’re sure he takes comfort in Dan Aykroyd’s regular Saturday Night Live impersonations and the knowledge that he gets an indirect mention in romantic weepie Dear John, what with its heroes building a Habitat for Humanity house.

What it tells us about the time it was made: No-one liked a smartypants.

Star: Fred Ward
Film: Farewell (2009)

While we wait for a big film about the time Ronald Reagan pretended to nuke Moscow or a rom-com where he falls for Mikhail Gorbachev, we have a few cameos by Ronnie impersonator Jay Koch to go on and one physically unconvincing turn by Fred Ward. Surely there should be more of a record of Ronald Reagan on screen? Imagine if he’d appeared in some movies...

What it tells us about the time it was made: That people still loved the Gipper.

Star: James Cromwell
Film: W. (2008)

George Bush Sr. is seen as more staid and conversative than his homespun offspring, not to mention a lot less polarising, and James Cromwell’s version, gaunt and grave, is suitably disapproving of ‘Junior’ during his son’s Footloose phase. As Junior/Senior pairings go, this one is a lot less fun that Indiana Jones And The Last Crusade, but it’s a good portrayal, and a little weightier than the one in The Naked Gun 2 ½ .

What it tells us about the time it was made: It was dawning on people that the apple didn’t always fall that close to the tree.

Star: Josh Brolin
Film: W. (2008)

Josh Brolin excels as Dubya in this stolid biopic by Oliver Stone. It’s surprisingly bloodless, especially from the man who once posited that JFK’s assassination was the combined work of the Soviets, the Mafia, the Illuminati, space aliens and a group of rogue Fraggles, but that shouldn’t detract from Brolin’s turn. He nails Bush’s aw-shucks charm and permanent air of befuddlement, and looks more than a bit like him too.

What it tells us about the time it was made: That with Bush still in office, it was probably too soon to be making a film about him.

Star: Dennis Quaid
TV Show: The Special Relationship (2010)

Dennis Quaid binged on McDonalds to gain the 35lb he needed to play Bill Clinton – in your face Slobodan! – but all those Filets-O-Fish didn’t help with the Arkanas straitjacket he struggles into in the third part of Peter Morgan’s Tony Blair trilogy. While Michael Sheen nails Blair’s every tic and mannerism, Quaid gives the Madame Tussauds Clinton: a performance so mannered it deserves to be impeached. It’s not all bad, though. He does get to utter the Seagal-like words “Losing is not an option!” at one point.

What it tells us about the time it was made: That even HBO weren’t immune to the odd flop.