The United States Presidency has been the subject of many great films over the years. And many bad ones. We’ve had fictional U.S. Presidents, from Michael Douglas to Harrison Ford to Kevin Kline, but as Southside with You is set to open this weekend, let’s take a look back at films about real former U.S. Presidents. Sadly, Harrison Ford never held down the Oval Office.
Of course, there have been a number of films surrounding presidencies, films like All the President’s Men and JFK. But they are satellite films dealing with controversies, removed from any direct narrative involving the Commander in Chief. Now that I’ve added enough qualifiers, here are some of the best and worst stories of U.S. Presidents, and a couple in between success and failure.
Nixon (1995) – Oliver Stone has examined the presidency all throughout his career, both on and off screen. His 1995 biopic about the paranoia-fueled presidency of Richard Nixon, arguably our most controversial sitting Commander, has somehow fallen to the back of Stone’s filmography over the years. Perhaps it’s due to the fact this followed up his incredible JFK, his unhinged Natural Bon Killers, and many of the editing techniques and camera tricks in those two films are on display here. The Stone aesthetic may have begun wearing thin by the time Anthony Hopkins showed us the darkest sides of Tricky Dick.
But those Stone gimmicks – switching film stock, changing saturation, bouncing back and forth between color and black and white – still fit perfectly here in the context of an erratic and emotional man. And beyond this, Nixon is an absolutely captivating look at a complicated man. Hopkins and Joan Allen (as his wife, Pat), both grabbed Oscar nominations for their work. And even at three hours plus, Nixon hums along with a terrific mix of energy and dread.
Lincoln (2012) – Liam Neeson had originally agreed to star in Steven Spielberg’s biopic about one of our most important presidents. Because, let’s be honest, the guy looks exactly like Abe. But schedules conflicted – I suppose Neeson was already working on another film where he saves his offspring from baddies – and Daniel Day-Lewis stepped in. The rest is history, in more ways than one.
Rather than try and encapsulate the entire presidency of Lincoln, Spielberg focused on the struggles the president had with emancipation in the midst of the Civil War. The cast is awe inspiring, from Day-Lewis (who won the Oscar, of course) to Tommy Lee Jones (nominated) as Thaddeus Stevens, to Sally Field (also nominated) as Abe’s unstable wife, Mary Todd. Spielberg’s narrative is deliberate and patient, and allows room for these tremendous actors to fill the shoes of legends.
Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) – Bill Murray was an interesting choice to play FDR in this strange, offbeat comedy about FDR and his uncomfortable relationship with a distant cousin. Murray looks the part, but Roger Michell’s film never adheres into anything coherent, funny, or memorable. The actors give it their all, but in the end these fell like caricatures of people in American History more than true performances. Definitely the lesser of the 2012 Presidential biopics.
SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN
Frost/Nixon (2008) – Ron Howard’s screen adaptation of Peter Morgan’s stage play has moments of brilliance. In yet another on-screen look at Nixon, this time three years after the Watergate scandal forced him out of office, Frank Langella balances the idiosyncrasies of his subject with the realization that leaning into those tics too much would easily devolve into parody. Yet still, Frost/Nixon never really comes together.
As a stage play, Morgan’s story would be fascinating to sit and watch. The hostile banter between Nixon and David Frost, played here by Michael Sheen, would captivate in person. But the distance created by the cinematic adaptation steals some of the power of these two men sitting and debating one another. It’s a solid film, but too distant at times, the dramatic highpoints weakened by the medium itself.
W. (2008) – At the time of Oliver Stone’s biopic, President Bush was on his way out of office with almost three quarters of the country disapproving of the job he did. And the openly liberal Stone making a movie about “Dubya” definitely felt like it was going to be, on the surface, a blatant skewering of the President’s failures as Commander in Chief. But then, what Stone actually delivered was something down the middle, so much so that it derailed the film.
Of course, there was no need to light up Dubya on his way out, but the movie felt so concerned with staying centered it never materialized dramatically. As Josh Brolin, great in the role, showed us Bush’s early alcoholism, his desire to please his disapproving father, and the way he was pushed around in the Oval Office by his agenda-driven advisors (Richard Dreyfuss as Cheney is especially oily), Stone’s film stays shockingly bland. It’s almost as if he was too aware of his own bias, and worked against this to try and make something appealing to a larger audience. W. would have worked better, at list cinematically, if Stone had taken the gloves off.
Southside with You opens this Friday.