Sunday, February 17, 2013

President's Day Movies

In honor of President's Day this week, I thought I would highlight and suggest some movies about our American presidents. Perhaps you may wish to watch one on President's Day. Maybe next year I'll highlight films about fictional presidents, but right now here's some stuff about the real men who held that office. Of course, movies are works of art and fiction so some events are going to be fictionalized, exaggerated or misrepresented, even (especially?) in the documentaries. And obviously not all Presidents have had movies made about them (not much cry for a film about Millard Fillmore). But if you take a look at these films, you'll see the changes in our nation and in the office of President over time. And of course, in the men who held it.

Mostly I'm only including films I've seen or recommend. I'm aware there have been many miniseries over the years about some of these men and other films I have not seen. Probably some I've never heard of. I've tried to keep it mainly to narrative films and not stuffy History Channel pieces. This is just a list of suggestions. For this list I will first give the president, then the name(s) of the film(s) followed by brief discussion.


These television miniseries star Barry Bostwick as our Founding Father. I remember watching this one in high school history class. It's a little dry at times, but Bostwick puts in a good performance and I thought they handled the era pretty well. Now, it's been years and I don't remember it all that well, but I thought it was well done at the time.


This HBO miniseries has everything going for it. If you're into history and haven't seen it, you simply must. John Adams is something of a personal hero, and this sprawling epic from the Boston Massacre through his Presidency does him justice. Paul Giamatti gives a terrific performance. All the supporting players as well; I thought Sarah Polley did great work here. Some episodes are more engaging than others, and the final episode of Adams in retirement is somewhat slow, but on the whole it succeeds. The Adams presidency is covered in episode 6. The attention to period detail is nicely done. I appreciate that it takes into account the daily life of Adams' family as well and what something like a smallpox vaccination involved in those days. It's a bit shocking to remember how primitive medical science was; we are witness to early moments of amputation and mastectomy. There is a bit of nudity scattered throughout but generally in nonsexual contexts and not lingering; it's not Game of Thrones or meant to titilate. A very effective piece all around.

Okay, no movie here. Well, until BLOODY, BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON becomes a movie, I guess I'll have to be content with the stage show. It's an interesting musical though that frames Jackson through modern emo-punk music and sensibilities. Sure to offend some, but it does effectively paint the rise of populism in this country, and it's got some satirical wit. So if you can handle an Andrew Jackson in dark eyeliner,  I suggest checking it out.

Generally I'm trying to pick movies that aren't just biopics or about the man but specifically cover some part of their Presidency. Lincoln has appeared in a number of films about the Civil War, from the early days of cinema. His assassination is a prominent moment in D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation, and Griffith also later did a full biopic. Gregory Peck ably played him in the television minseries The Blue and the Gray. But with Spielberg's recent film out now, I'm going to go a little outside the box and suggest a double-feature.


Famed director John Ford takes a look not at the legend of Lincoln, but at the man as a simple lawyer before the days of the Presidency. Henry Fonda is very good as Lincoln, the story is engaging, and the script maintains some of that Lincoln humor he became famous for. There are very sweet moments in the movie, and you relate to the character as a man, back before the ballots and the beard.

LINCOLN (2012)

After watching a classic look at a younger Lincoln, why not shift to Lincoln in the heat of his Presidency, fighting for emancipation? Spielberg's movie was in development for nearly a decade before he finally settled on a script and an approach. What results is a very good film, though arguably an overhyped film. It's more focused than Amistad was, but it doesn't quite rise to the visceral level of Munich. And while it may not be the best movie of the year, it's definitely a solid look at a time in our history and one of the central figures of that period. Daniel Day-Lewis portrays Lincoln with all the humanity, heart, passion, humor, and awkward dignity that is sure to win him another Oscar. If your idea of drama is important decisions made by people talking, if you loved the tension of 1776, you should certainly enjoy Lincoln. It has taken some flack regarding its historical accuracy recently, but those facts don't alter the whole of the movie as a film or as a look at a defining moment for an American legend.

Can't really recommend any specific titles, but interesting fact that the first President to appear in motion pictures was McKinley. These are old silent newsreel/documentary type short films of course. I'm told one also features the previous president, Grover Cleveland. I'll bet you can see some of these on the internet if you are curious.


Unfortunately, besides archive footage from the period, my favorite president has had no Hollywood features made about him. He was featured in an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, and also toward the end of one of my favorite musicals, Newsies; but in that case, it was when he was mayor of New York City. Rumor has it though that a feature tentatively titled The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt is in development. For awhile Leonardo DiCaprio was attached to star. I hope it turns out well.

WILSON (1944)

I'll say it: Woodrow Wilson is perhaps the President I hate most. He gave us income tax, the United Nations (essentially), involved us unnecessarily in a foreign war (though Roosevelt would have as well), and really began America on the track of international nation building. But I cannot fault this Technicolor biopic. I may not like the man, but the movie is a solid patriotic portrait of him very much of its time. And I'm sure it was no coincidence that Hollywood decided to make a film about the man who led the nation through the first World War when World War II was at its height. It works in its own way as a jingoistic propaganda piece. Perhaps a bit too complimentary of the man for my taste, but not a bad movie overall.

In many movies of the period, FDR was caricatured or appeared in some way. There's a very amusing moment at the end of Babes in Arms that has Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland portraying Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt; a big patriotic finale to that film (it was cut from reissue prints after Roosevelt's death -- the full intact 1938 release is on DVD).

But considering how long he was in office, there aren't many films that really feature his presidency or personal life prominently, certainly not outside the context of the war. I haven't seen Hyde Park on Hudson with Bill Murray which came out last year. But when I think of Roosevelt on film I think of:

ANNIE (1982)
Yes, that musical about the little orphan with the optimistic spirit. She even goes to the White House and sings a rousing chorus of "Tomorrow" with Roosevelt. While this film is of course entirely fictional, I feel like it does represent the spirit of New Deal philosophy and hope for Depression-era America. After all, tomorrow is "only a day away".

A passing mention of this one, which when it deals with Roosevelt does so pretty well. The effects during the attack are well done, but this movie is no Tora! Tora! Tora! and has become something of a joke to many in the years since its release. Trey Parker and Matt Stone shamelessly mocked it in a song for their marionette movie Team America: World Police. Roosevelt is really not the focal point of this movie, but I though Jon Voight's portrayal was pretty good.

TRUMAN (1995)

A TV movie made by HBO, this is a competent look at President Truman and his rise from shy young man to decisive President. Based on the book by David McCullough (like John Adams), it's only flaw is that it is too short. Where John Adams took the time to tell the story over a miniseries, Truman is truncating it to just over two hours. This unfortunately means the films moves at such a clip that some moments don't quite get enough time to breathe. You wonder if there should be perhaps a little more focus on the atomic bomb or Korea. But in the end, it presents Truman as just an honest guy who believes he's right trying to do the best he can. Gary Sinise is very good as Truman, but then I like him in just about anything. There are some very nice small moments with Harry and Bess. There was one scene where he was campaigning for re-election where Truman blamed the Republican Congress for not passing legislation for civil rights and education and several other things and I realized that it sounded exactly like Barack Obama. Truman's a guy I respect though I don't always agree with him. Especially regarding Korea and General MacArthur. This movie is very unsympathetic to MacArthur (he's played by the same guy who was Commandant Spangler on Malcolm in the Middle), but that's fair because the film is focused on Truman. From Truman's perspective, that's who MacArthur was. But personally I think firing him was a huge mistake. And I find it funny that these days Republicans are seen as the war-mongering party thanks to George W. Bush, but it was DEMOCRATS who began this trend of unnecessary foreign wars in the intrest of Democracy. Somehow I never connected Truman to Korea; I always just associated it with McCarthyist paranoia. But it was Democratic presidents who got us into World War I, World War II, Korea and Vietnam. All I'm saying is there's blame on both sides, so let's stop seeing history through partisan rose-colored glasses. ...I've wandered a bit...


If you can get past Kevin Costner's lousy Boston accent, this is a surprisingly thrilling take on perhaps the most important moment of Kennedy's presidency. And I have to mention Stephen Culp, an actor I'm really fond of, who is a perfect Bobby Kennedy.

JFK (1991)

Not really a film about JFK, but about the myth of JFK and to a larger extent about the growth of American conspiracy theory. I couldn't ignore it. And coincidentally it also stars Kevin Costner. While it's of course not entirely factual (nor is it meant to be), it is an extremely well-made look at the aftermath of the Kennedy assassination. For me what it's really about is the shattering of American illusions, and the lengths we will go to to make sense of senseless tragedy.

NIXON (1995)

If I'm gonna have one Oliver Stone movie, why not two? Though Anthony Hopkins may seem an odd choice to play Nixon, he does well enough. And I've chosen this one out of all the possible films I could because it covers the widest range of time, including Nixon as a boy and footage of his actual funeral. It's also sympathetic to Nixon as a man, and doesn't caricature him broadly as a great American villain. The man is very easy to lampoon nowadays, and I thought Stone succeeded in maintaining a human approach to Nixon. It's a bit long and slow in paces, and the editing isn't as tight as in JFK, but still well worth a watch and a good companion piece to the former.


I debated including this, but I decided why not? This is a fictionalized look at the television interviews where Nixon ultimately admitted to some wrongdoing regarding Watergate. There is a good cast here and it's mostly competently directed by Ron Howard. My biggest problem with it is that some of the "talking head"-style documentary approach doesn't fit with the other more linear stuff. The movie was adapted from a stage play, and I get the feeling this was an attempt to get stage monologues into the film medium. It's not entirely successful, but the movie is worth a look.

DICK (1999)

Even though this is fictitious and played for laughs, I had to include it because I just think it's great. The central conceit of the movie is that the Watergate informant Deep Throat was actually two teenage girls who were Nixon's dogwalkers. Keep in mind, this is before Deep Throat's identity was finally revealed.  The film is played entirely for laughs and certainly shouldn't be mistaken for actual history. Yet it does succeed in capturing a spirit of the time. It's fun to see in retrospect that Michelle Williams puts in a very good performance and comes off better than Kirsten Dunst who at the time was the bigger name. Williams has since made a very good name for herself with several recent Oscar nominations, but back then she was just "the other girl on Dawson's Creek". Dan Hedaya does a fantastic impression of Nixon here, and is my favorite screen Nixon. This movie would make a very fun double-feature with All the President's Men.

I'm sort of breaking my own rules here as I don't have any movies about President Carter, but I did want to include a couple from the era of his Presidency that certainly reflect on him as leader.
ARGO (2012)

On of the year's best movies is Ben Affleck's stylized look at the Iran hostage crisis. Yes, the movie is fictionalized and yes the ending is full of manufactured suspense when the actual operation went more smoothly. But that only makes it more engaging as a movie. And once you get past that point about it being a movie, you'll have a good time. But that's not to say Affleck wasn't concerned with the facts of the story. It's his best directing yet, with real attention to the period. I love the clothing and the music and little bits of set dressing. While some of it may be a little too on-the-nose, I really did feel I was in that time. It's one of the biggest events of the Carter administration, and it's a great movie.

MIRACLE (2004)

This film about the "miracle on ice" with the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team is very well-made. And there's a moment in the middle where the film has the coach in his car with the radio on, and it's broadcasting that famous Carter speech. That for me is one of the defining moments of the movie.

41. and 43. GEORGE BUSH and GEORGE W. BUSH
W. (2008)

Oliver Stone's take on George W. Bush may not be as strong as his other two "political" works and part of that is because the man was still in office when he made it. It does paint Cheney as the master manipulator behind Iraq and Afghanistan. It's kind of funny to me watching Richard Dreyfuss do Cheney. The soul of the movie though is a story of a father and son who both just happen to be Presidents. Josh Brolin puts in a very good performance as George W. The movie is neither fawning flattery nor leftist vitriol. I think this surprised some people, coming from Oliver Stone. It doesn't shy away from Bush's alcoholism and it deals respectfully with his religious conversion. I was intrigued when I saw it that it also focused for a good bit on the first Bush Presidency and the Gulf War. The great actor James Cromwell is solid here as George H.W. Bush. And it's weird for me because I have very few memories of Bush's Presidency beyond his re-election campaign. I remember some cartoon caricature, and it's hard now to separate the reality from Dana Carvey's SNL iteration. So Cromwell's take on him was a nice change of pace. For some, W. will always be a joke. During his first term (before 9/11) there was even a Honeymooners-styled sitcom on Comedy Central called That's My Bush! 

While Stone's movie may have benefited more from the perspective of time, I appreciate that he didn't fall back on painting with too broad a brush.

FAHRENHEIT 9/11 (2004)

Contrast that with Michael Moore, who's 2004 "documentary" was made specifically to prevent Bush's re-election. It's a well-manufactured movie. It definitely represents a slice of American history and the polarization in the country. At times, Moore definitely casts too wide a net and that is to the film's detriment. Army recruitment policies aren't Bush's fault, for example. So if his point was propaganda about Bush, I think he should have maintained his focus. And certainly we can argue about some of his points. I don't fault Bush at all for finishing My Pet Goat before leaving the school that day. It's not like he could have prevented the second plane crash. If this was Superman, then yes, we could fault Superman for not stopping the planes. But Bush was just a man trying to avoid panic. Regardless of how ardently Moore attacks him and his administration in the film, there are still moments when he feels sympathetic. Particularly when Bush's presidential motorcade is egged. It must be remembered that Michael Moore is not a liberal; he is an anarchist. The movie is certainly not without its bias, but as an important cultural and historical artifact is worth seeing. But beware of the "truthiness" in it, because Moore is known for bending the truth (or outright lying and staging things) to make a better movie. By his own admission.

2016: OBAMA'S AMERICA (2012)

And it's only fair to include one from the other side. I have yet to see this movie. I almost did the weekend it came out, but I wasn't sure it was going to justify spending the money on it. I do intend to rent it one of these days. Basically, it's a conservative documentary warning of what Obama's administration will do to America over the next four years. It came out over the summer, likely in hopes to influence the election. Of course, if you've never heard of it, that's because Hollywood is still a liberal machine and will more fully promote Michael Moore and his ilk over something like this. I'm not saying the movie is good or bad; again, I haven't seen it. Frankly, I'm sure it includes as much supposition or rhetorical mudslinging as Fahrenheit 9/11 does. But I wanted to include it in this list out of a sense of balance and also because it's really the only theatrical movie so far that I can think of to feature our most recent President. Perhaps when I do see it, I'll update this post.

That's all for now. What are some of your favorite movies about Presidents? Happy viewing, and have a lovely President's Day.

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