My Fictional Americans: The Best Presidents On Film

Tom Nicholson
·5-min read
Photo credit: -
Photo credit: -

From Esquire

For many years, in films, movie presidents were always white men of a certain vintage. In fact, the presidential type was so specific that a lot of the time they were literally the same white men of a certain vintage: Roy Scheider played three separate fictional presidents in a three-year span, in Executive Target, The Peacekeeper and Chain of Command; Henry Fonda had a couple of terms, as have Gene Hackman and Morgan Freeman. Quite how Tom Hanks has avoided playing the president thus far is anyone's guess. He's the platonic ideal.

While mildly fictionalised portrayals of real presidents tend to leverage a very broad retrospective view of their legacy when they pop up (Lincoln, JFK, Washington = good; Nixon = evil; Bush Jr = dumb), the fictional president has a different role.

If the fictional president pops up at the end, he tends to be an ultimate arbiter of whether the nation smiles on or condemns the actions of a protagonist, especially if they've bent a few rules in order to get the god damn job done. Like a benign Roman emperor, they can bless the heroes' efforts and thank them on behalf of a grateful people, while never giving any indication of their political affiliation.

If he's around a bit longer, it's usually to wrestle with an existential threat – asteroids, aliens, nukes, sharknadoes – which forces him to ask fundamental questions of what America ought to be. Generally that means a pragmatic but principled stand which allows screenwriters to channel a little Aaron Sorkin and polish their president's American flag lapel badge.

The President in Fail-Safe (1964)

As one of Hollywood's all-time good guys, Fonda embodies the pragmatic but principled archetype during his time in office. There's an enormous cock-up at the Strategic Air Command when a false alarm says a Russian nuclear bomber is going to destroy New York, but an American bomber crew is still dispatched to sort out Moscow. Unable to call them back, Fonda's president has to work out how to stop millions of people being murdered.

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President Tom Beck in Deep Impact (1998)

As discussed, nothing makes a filmic president look more presidential than existential peril. Fonda returned as president in Meteor (1979) during the last hurrah of the disaster pic, and Morgan Freeman had to narrate Earth through a similar predicament as President Beck. There aren't many people who could make you feel like being atomised by a giant space rock might actually be a character building experience, but Freeman's Beck manages it.

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President James Marshall in Air Force One (1997)

Emphasis on the 'force' here. Harrison Ford is part Jack Ryan and part 1992-vintage Bill Clinton as the popular Prez Marshall, a Vietnam veteran who has to go all Rolling Thunder on some terrorists who nick his motor mid-flight. Gary Oldman's post-Soviet terrorist wants to set off a new Cold War with some stolen nukes, but Marshall smacks everyone about in the time-honoured presidential fashion. If you've ever wondered what John McClane would be like in elected office, here you go.

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President Merkin Muffley in Dr Strangelove (1964)

Despite how memorable Dr Strangelove himself is, Peter Sellers spent most of the film as the nearly impotent President Muffley. Unable to prevent fighting in the war room, he's a pathetic figure, played straighter than most of Sellers' other characters. Notwithstanding his inability to prevent the end of all life on Earth, you can imagine him holding things together in a very uncontroversial, Jimmy Carter-ish kind of way. Originally Sellers was going to play him with a heavy cold, but discovered he'd made Muffley too hilarious so rained it in. And fair enough: this portrayal is so far the only time an actor playing a fictional president has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar.

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President Charlotte Field in Long Shot (2019)

Women don't tend to get much of a look-in at the presidency on film, unless it's as part of a generalised sci-fi futureshock sequence, but Charlize Theron managed to break the glass ceiling in this engaging and inventive rom-com. (Yes, Seth Rogen plays an unaccountably alluring schlub. That's not the inventive bit.) Theron's Secretary of State Field has a tilt at the top job, but she thinks she needs to get some better gags. So in comes Rogen's prickly journalist Fred, formerly her ward as a babysitter, to punch up her speeches. That's not the only sense in which he's punching up here. She – spoilers – does become President Field, and having rediscovered her sense of fun you suspect she'd be an extremely sound leader of the free world.

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President Palma in Geostorm (2017)

Look, I'm not saying a president who uses weather-disrupting equipment (called, improbably, Dutch Boy) to loose tornadoes, floods, ice storms and other deeply upsetting events across the entire world is a good president. I'm not saying Andy Garcia plays the president well. I'm not saying Geostorm is a good film. It is ludicrously, operatically, eardrum-perforatingly dumb. What I am saying, though, is that Geostorm's President Palma is the absolute apogee of the grey movie president, a man of supreme plot importance but so unremarkable and dull you'd only know he was president because everyone kept calling him Mr President. As long as he's wearing that tiny American flag lapel badge, he's the most important man on Earth.

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