Well, after about 24 hours of feeling nauseous, anxious and genuinely panicky, we have a new President of the United States. Or more accurately, we have another four years of the same one, with President Barack Obama coming through and winning the re-election. And yet even as we start to breathe easy again, another president is turning up, this time in movie theaters.
Friday sees the release of Steven Spielberg‘s “Lincoln,” the director’s biopic of the 16th (and arguably greatest) President of the United States, with Daniel Day-Lewis starring in the title role. Generally deemed to be a major awards contender, the film’s been cannily timed to go into limited release barely 48 hours after the results of the election were in. So, with a perfect storm of presidency hitting, it seemed like a good time to pick out five of our all-time favorite movie presidents. Some are real, some are entirely fictional, some are in great movies, some are in mediocre movies, but all are pretty compelling and entertaining in very different ways. Check out our picks below, and let us know who’d get your vote in the comments section below.
President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crews) – “Idiocracy”
Like its predecessor “Office Space,” Mike Judge‘s satire “Idiocracy” failed to find any kind of theatrical audience after essentially being buried by 20th Century Fox. But over time, the uneven but fitfully brilliant comedy from the “King Of The Hill” creator has, like Judge’s feature debut, found a cult audience on DVD and video. And one of its most enduring figures (as shown by a recent series of Funny Or Die videos that brought the character back) is Terry Crews‘ President Camacho. After being accidentally frozen for 500 years, army librarian Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) wakes in a world where the average IQ has plummeted. Now the smartest man in the world, he’s taken to the White House, where he meets Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, five-time Ultimate Smackdown champion, porn superstar and President of the United States. Permanently bedecked in an American flag, riding the world’s most ridiculous motorcycle, and using automatic weaponry to silence his critics, he is, in the hands of former NFL player turned underrated comic actor Crews, a creature of pure libido and testosterone. A mix of preacher, wrestler and absolute dummy, it’s a raucous performance, and we have to confess that were Camacho running for real, we’d be half inclined to vote for him.
President Judd Hammond (Walter Huston) – “Gabriel Over The White House” (1933)
A corrupt president gets into a car accident, believes he’s been visited by the Angel Gabriel, and becomes a totalitarian dictator who’s able to arrest and execute people at will. He’s the bad guy, right? Some villainous type eventually taken down by the hero? Not in Gregory La Cava‘s “Gabriel Over The White House,” one of the most out-there political films ever made, a one-of-a-kind advocation of benevolent fascism that would give the Tea Party a collective heart attack if made today. Backed by William Randolph Hearst, and timed to the election of (and approved by) Franklin Roosevelt, it stars Walter Huston as President Judd Hammond, a corrupt president who sees the light, gets rid of most of his cabinet, dissolves Congress when they impeach him and goes about tackling the depression, nationalizing the alcohol trade and executing the gangsters that have become the scourge of the country. Finally, he uses a new secret weapon to blackmail the world into peace, and is eventually acclaimed as a hero. It’s an unashamed piece of liberal propaganda, but a disturbing one. The imagery, particularly that of Hammond’s secret police, borders on fascistic (bear in mind, this is the same year that Hitler came to power). It’s like a reactionary, militant version of “The West Wing,” but really it’s just an interesting time capsule/bonkers curio, led by a very strong performance from Huston (only a few years after taking the title role of another president, in D.W. Griffith‘s “Abraham Lincoln“).
President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) – “Dr. Strangelove”
Everyone remembers the titular Dr. Strangelove, the sinister Nazi-saluting wheelchair-bound scientist, best out of the trio of characters that Peter Sellers plays in Stanley Kubrick‘s glorious Cold War satire “Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb.” But while we adore all three performances (and those of George C. Scott, Sterling Hayden and pretty much everyone else involved), our favorite might just been President Merkin Muffley, the put-upon, somewhat hapless leader of the free world who ends up helplessly watching as the world descends into nuclear apocalypse. We don’t learn an awful lot about President Muffley in terms of his party affilliation or policies as he’s never seen outside the War Room. But Sellers achieves a lot without much backstory, and far from the caricatures displayed elsewhere, it’s a rather nuanced take. Muffley is, despite the name, a rather noble and good-hearted type, horrified by the excesses and absurdities of his military. Not that he’s entirely immune to them himself: Sellers still brings the funny, most notably in the extended phone call with Dimitri, the USSR premier, which the actor pulls off with a hilarious paternalism (“he went a little funny in the head… and went and did a silly thing”), drawing a picture both of his own character, but of the unseen Soviet leader as well.
President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) – “Nixon”
“Lincoln” aside, there’s actually fewer noteworthy biopics of real-life presidents that you might think. TV’s provided plenty over the years (HBO‘s “John Adams” being one of the most noteworthy of late), and there are a few gems out there, like Henry Fonda in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” and Bruce Greenwood‘s take on JFK in “Thirteen Days.” But probably our favorite take on a real-life commander-in-chief came in Oliver Stone‘s undervalued masterpiece “Nixon.” It could easily have been a more sanctimonious take-down of the infamous and disgraced 37th president, but Stone, with a crack team of collaborators (many of them from “JFK,” inlcuding composer John Williams and cinematographer Robert Richardson) created a richly dense and layered portrait of a weak-willed man with more than a few co-conspirators that were just as ruthless and cutthroat as he was, if not more so. And at its center is Anthony Hopkins’ hypnotic, Oscar-nominated performance as Nixon: sweaty, concerned, able to erupt into furious rages, and always listening to his wife Pat (Joan Allen), who comes off as more than a little Lady Macbeth. Hopkins wasn’t the most obvious of choices, but it’s a rich and empathetic turn that remains, to date, the actor’s last truly great performance.
President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) – “The American President”
If you like Aaron Sorkin — particularly his ace political drama “The West Wing” — you’re likely to be charmed by the screenplay he wrote for Rob Reiner‘s “The American President” and its romantic, idealistic look at a president, his bid for reelection, and the woman he loves. Michael Douglas stars as President Andrew Shepherd, a widower who narrowly won office after the death of his wife. He meets environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), and their romance rattles the American people, dipping his approval numbers as he begins to campaign for a second term. It does sometimes feel like a dress rehearsal for Sorkin’s TV magnum opus, not least thanks to performances from West Wingers Martin Sheen, Anna Deavere Smith and Joshua Malina, and some plot are elements recycled later. And not everyone in the cast can pull of Sorkinese in the way that the likes of Bradley Whitford and Allison Janney would. But still, it’s an entertaining, if lightweight picture, and in the shape of Douglas’ Shepherd, has a President that, like spiritual successor Jed Bartlett, one can only dream existed in reality: kind, smart as a whip, funny, human and with spectacular rhetorical skills (indeed, the start of this year saw an Australian politician caught red-handed having lifted one of Shepherd’s speeches…).