From JFK To Jed Bartlet: A closer look at how Hollywood has treated the US Presidency on film

So it’s President’s Day.  As with any holiday, you should celebrate with a movie, obviously, but which one?

If you’re going to the theater today, then “Lincoln” probably remains your best bet.  After all, not only does it manage to actually raise the 16th U.S. President from the dead via medium/movie star Daniel Day Lewis, but it also does a fantastic job of showing how the power of the Presidency can be used.  There are so many movies about U.S. Presidents that trying to pick from, and so many different types of films, that picking one to enjoy today can be as brutal as your average election season.

Oliver Stone has made a career out of exploring the uses and abuses of power in America, and he may be the only working filmmaker who has made three different films named after U.S. Presidents.  Of the three, I think “JFK” is the best of the bunch, even though it’s not really about the President.  There are few films that have ever done a better job of exploring the elusive nature of truth in the media age or that have dramatized the way we can disappear down a rabbit hole in search of answers where there are none to be found.  It is a film about obsession and the way power is brokered in the post-Eisenhower era, and it is nothing less than dizzying to witness.  Stone has never been more technically exciting to watch than he was at this point in his career, and “JFK” is one of the most amazing theatrical experiences he has ever signed his name to.  I’m quite fond of “Nixon” as well, but that may be because I have been fascinated by Nixon for as long as I’ve been aware of him. 

The Watergate scandal is my first political memory of any kind.  It was on TV and in the air when I was still very young, and it’s hard to imagine what it was like in a pre-Watergate world when people were raised to trust their government and believe in their politicians.  I think Richard Nixon may be the most perfect expression of the American Presidency in human form, and I was amazed at how even-handed and fair Stone’s movie was.  It is easy to make Nixon the butt of jokes and it’s even easier to paint him as a villain, but Stone’s film looked past that and actually tried to understand the ambition that drove him.  I think the least successful of Stone’s Presidential movies is “W.”, and the difference seems pretty clear.  With “Nixon,” Stone had decades worth of perspective that he could draw on in painting his portrait, and the distance of time allowed him a perspective that made for a far more robust film.  Bush was still part of the active media landscape when Stone made “W.”, and it feels like it.  The film is ultimately a cartoon with nothing to add to the conversation that was going on at the time, and it feels like something that was rushed into production simply to harpoon an enemy, not because Stone had something genuine to add to a larger conversation.

Aaron Sorkin seems to have been just as fascinated by the office as Stone over the course of his writing career, and “The West Wing” certainly seems to have dug as deeply as possible into the particular nature of this particular job.  Before that series, though, Sorkin wrote “The American President,” which is a romantic comedy at heart.  You can see where the thought process that led to “The West Wing” began, though, and President Andrew Shepherd seems to be a sort of proto-Jeb Bartlet, the same sort of public speaker, and I think it says a lot about what sort of person Sorkin wishes were the President.  In fact, I think it’s pretty clear from the way people react to Sorkin’s work that there are a whole lot of people who wish there was a President just like Bartlet, someone who managed to speak to everyone across party lines, a populist who managed to unite Americans.  That raises the question… which kind of President do you like to see portrayed in films?  The real ones who actually existed, or the kinds you wish existed?

Since the dawn of cinema, they’ve been making films about various Presidents.  The first George Washington movie was made in 1909, and he’s been interpreted hundreds of times since through various media, including something as recent as the Ubisoft videogame “Assassin’s Creed III.”  Even so, I don’t feel like there’s ever been a great movie about him or a particularly great version of him portrayed onscreen.  Tom Hooper, well-known now for “The King’s Speech” and “Les Miserables,” did a tremendous job on the HBO mini-series “John Adams,” which may be one of my favorite overall pieces about that time frame.  In addition to George Washington and John Adams, Thomas Jefferson appears in the series, making three of our early Presidents appearing in the same piece.  Charlton Heston played Andrew Jackson in a mid-’50s melodrama called “The President’s Lady” and in “The Buccaneer,” but Jackson remains another guy who is somewhat underrepresented onscreen.  Then again, I’ll bet there are more films about him than there are about, say, Millard Fillmore, although that could certainly be rectified in a perfect world.

There are certain Presidents who seem to be portrayed more often than others.  Unsurprisingly, John F. Kennedy remains one of the most popular Presidents for Hollywood to tackle, and that’s due in no small part to the way he indulged in some self-mythologizing during his lifetime.  “PT-109” featured Cliff Robertson playing a younger Kennedy during his time in the Navy.  Along with his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Profiles In Courage,” the film was a major part of him establishing a public persona, and I have no doubt it played into his eventual election as President.  So many actors have slipped on that peculiar Kennedy twist on the New England accent over the years that you could do a piece just on the good and bad portrayals of him as a character.  I’m partial to the way Bruce Greenwood played him in “Thirteen Days,” which also does an excellent job of looking at how the Cuban Missile Crisis unfolded.

Then there’s Abraham Lincoln, who may be the single most often-portrayed President in motion pictures, as well as Franklin D. Roosevelt, another President we’ve seen show up in slightly different form in film after film like last year’s “Hyde Park On Hudson,” where no less than Bill Murray slipped into the wheelchair.  I’ve always loved Chris Elliott’s Showtime comedy special from the late ’80s, “FDR: A One-Man Show,” because it did a great job of pointing out how loose most pieces about Presidents play with facts and dates, and what a ham most actors turn into when given some Presidential meat to chew on.  Some Presidents seem to present irresistible targets for filmmakers, and some just don’t offer any kind of easy handle or obvious story.  It’s weird to say that someone could rise to the position of President of the United States without somehow leaving a big enough life story to support a movie, but that seems to be the case of many of our Presidents.  Maybe there are great films left to be made about Zachary Taylor, Rutherford B. Hayes, Benjamin Harrison or William McKinley, but so far, no one’s figured out a reason to make a film about any of them.

I am also fascinated by the way Hollywood creates fake Presidents.  It seems like we often see fake Presidents who are aspirational, the Presidents we wish we had.  Sorkin’s not the only one who has created a fantasy who remains hard for for the real world to match.  Long before Obama was in the public eye as a viable candidate, Morgan Freeman was saving the world from outerspace meteors.  I like the fake Presidents who are thinly veiled versions of real Presidents, like in “Superman 2” or the Blake Edwards “Pink Panther” movie where Dreyfuss goes crazy and has a death ray machine.  In most cases, the Presidents who show up in those films are functions of plot and little else.  After all, someone has to kneel before Zod.  Someone has to listen to the demands that Emilio Lizardo makes.  Someone has to give the address to comfort the nation before the giant space rock wipes us all out.

There are films that want to use the President to explore more complicated ideas, and I give a filmmaker like Rod Lurie credit for a film like “The Contender” or even his underrated series “Commander In Chief,” because he was obviously interested in the way power is used and in the way it is transferred, as well as what our leaders say about us as the people who elected them.  Sometimes, the Presidency is nothing more than window dressing, like in “Air Force One” or “Absolute Power,” films that are basically just genre exercises wrapped in a new skin.  Hollywood does not seem to handle political complexity well, and as a result, most of the films that have grappled with real-life Presidents come up short or feel like only part of the conversation.  Perhaps there’s something telling in the idea that one of the best films about the Presidency… indeed, one of the best films about the American machine in general… remains Hal Ashby’s brilliant “Being There,” in which one man moves from private gardener to President simply by being a total blank, a screen upon which everyone projects what they want to see.  Ashby got it right, and no matter which President a film deals with, real or imagined, it seems like everyone else just circles that same point in different ways.

Happy President’s Day, folks.  Tell me… who’s your favorite, real or otherwise, and which film do you think has handled this complex office the best?