We’ve been thinking about presidents on film a lot lately – the good ones, the bad ones, the ones you wish were real. There have been many cinematic commanders-in-chief but only a few we come back to often. These are some of the best, the leaders of the free world who we remember for better or for worse.
Whether saving us from aliens, dooming us to nuclear armageddon or just trying to keep America together, these are the presidents worth re-watching.
President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) – Independence Day
Regardless of how you feel about the 1996 blockbuster Independence Day, it features one of the best fictional presidents in movie history. Bill Pullman kills it as President Thomas Whitmore. Whitmore not only rallies the troops with an incredible speech, he also fights alongside the military. A former fighter pilot, the POTUS climbs in a plane and helps shoot down the attacking alien forces.
Pullman injects heart into a movie that’s otherwise all bluster. Will Smith’s character is charming but basically feels like the Fresh Prince of alien fighting. Jeff Goldblum basically plays his character from the Jurassic Park movies again, except this time it’s invaders from outer space instead of dinosaurs he has to be snarky about. Pullman’s Whitmore gives a damn, both about his nation and the world. Killing him off in the sequel is just one of its many travesties – without President Whitmore, an Independence Day film lacks its soul. [Danielle Ryan]
Lex Luthor – Superman/Batman: Public Enemies
A man with immeasurable intellect, Lex Luthor is one of the most iconic villains to walk the pages of comics. Superman’s greatest enemy, Lex has appeared not just in comics but also on the big screen. But did you know that in one of those cinematic appearances he was the elected President of the United States of America? That’s right, voiced by Clancy Brown in Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Lex Luthor is the leader of the United States. A 2009 animated film, the plot focuses on Lex having been elected President during a severe nationwide economic depression. He turns the country around, bringing back a thriving economy.
However, he hasn’t changed his ways. When a massive Kryptonite meteor is on a path to destroy Earth, Luthor attempts to form a pact with Superman to destroy the meteor. But the pact is a trick and he later frames Superman for the murder of the villain Metallo. With the public convinced Superman and Batman have turned rogue, the two heroes must find a way to expose Lex for the traitor he is. Without spoiling any more of the plot line, this 67-minute film can give you a good idea of what happens when the wrong man is put in the Oval Office. [Joseph Wilbur]
Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) – Dave
Usually, presidents on film want to exercise extreme power or save the world from destruction but sometimes they just want to do good. Dave Kovic isn’t a typical president – he impersonates our chief executive when the real president Bill Mitchell goes into a coma. Despite the bizarre situation, Kovic uses the opportunity to make America better. He’s a decent guy, a man with heart and soul and true kindness. You see him try his hardest and not lose his morals and wish he was really running our country. Surrounded by scheming insiders with ulterior motives, Dave remains above it all and holds to his ideals. What more could you want from someone running the free world?
Ivan Reitman’s Dave is a mostly light-hearted film but it’s got a lot of real truth at its core. We don’t trust our politicians. We don’t see them as real people with compassion and concern for our well-being. Dave acknowledges that and promises it could be better. It’s a comedy, sure, but it’s also a plea for a political environment that doesn’t make us feel dirty and forgotten. [Brandon Marcus]
Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews) – Idiocracy
If America is going to have a loud, arrogant, hyper-patriotic former wrestler as its president, it should go all in with Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. Sure, President Camacho (Terry Crews) is the dumbest commander-in-chief on this list. However, he’s also the most entertaining and inspiring. Well, for those of us who like watching a marathon of Ow! My Balls!
Besides, who wouldn’t want to watch a State of the Union where an M60 machine gun is used to silence critics? Don’t you want the presidential motorcade to be led by an enormous motorcycle? And for all his flamboyance and stupidity, Camacho really does care about the country. He isn’t driven by ego or self-righteousness. He truly wants to make America great again by solving the agricultural problems his society is facing and isn’t in this game for himself.
Considering how the 2016 election is looking, President Camacho might not be too unrealistic of a candidate in a few decades. As enjoyable as he is to watch, let’s hope he remains in the world of fiction. [Drew Dietsch]
Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) – The American President
Rarely is there a character who can draw attention to our ugliness as a society without getting ugly himself. Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is one such character. The widower president from Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin’s POTUS-focused romantic comedy is gentlemanly, patient, and prudent to a fault. It’s easy to see why Annette Benning’s Sydney Ellen Wade falls for him as quickly as he falls for her. He has so many virtues, I’m going to have to start a whole new paragraph to talk about them.
The best thing about Andrew Shepherd is that he treats his inferiors with patience and respect. He never belittles their priorities or concerns, even when he disagrees with them. He doesn’t rise to the bait of character assassination, either. His chief political rival, the conniving and smarmy Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), goes on a smear campaign against him and the woman he loves. In an era where insults can be fired off to a global audience at the speed of 140 characters a minute, his slow temper is a welcome relief.
If you’ve already seen The American President, you know that the strongest moment in the film is President Shepherd’s final speech to the White House press corps. He’s been surrounded by people primarily concerned with his image and re-electability, and as a result, he makes some compromises that cost him an important win for the environment and the love of his dear Sydney. When he vociferously defends the bill, and his belle, political convenience gives way to brave statecraft. He is less concerned with being reelected than he is with doing the right thing. His conduct demonstrates, refreshingly, that it’s possible to be a man of principle in politics. His name is Andrew Shepherd, and he is the president. [Robert Mitchell]
Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman) – The Butler
Alan Rickman’s portrayal of Ronald Reagan in The Butler is excellent. Alan Rickman was playing someone who was the same age he would be when he died. Being an actor who only started acting at the age of 40, he takes on the role very well. Ronald Reagan was loved by the population when he was president and so Alan Rickman took on this role with great gusto and portrayed the man as he was seen. He talks very kindly to Cecil, the main character and shows genuine compassion towards the man’s struggle. Alan Rickman retains his original voice but adds an American twang. Ronald Reagan was a well-loved man and so was Alan Rickman. Rest in peace, Alan Rickman. [Kitty Bates]
President Muffley (Peter Sellers) – Dr. Strangelove
Peter Sellers was one of cinema’s best chameleons. After playing multiple roles in 1959’s cold war satire The Mouse That Roared, Stanley Kubrick cast him Dr. Strangelove to fulfill a similar purpose. In the film, Sellers plays the eponymous doctor (a wheelchair-bound ex-Nazi), an RAF Captain, and the President of the United States. Summoned to the War Room to prevent nuclear war, President Merkin Muffley shows his true colors.
Muffley is an impotent and dim-witted pushover. The poor guy is well-intentioned but is so meek he can barely hold a phone conversation. Whenever he calls Soviet premier Dimitri Kissov to negotiate a solution, Kubrick made the brilliant decision to stay on Muffley’s side of the conversations. He sputters helplessly, trying to deliver apocalyptically bad news in the most pleasant way he can. Sellers was a master of cringe humor, making a perfect fool of himself in the role. Muffley may not be Sellers’s most memorable character, but he is the most hilariously understated. [Travis Newton]