Top 5 Presidential Films

Written by Joey Simpson October 06, 2012

2012 is proving to be a historic year for the Oval Office. In November, the United States will face one of the most important presidential elections of the last century. President Obama, touting the progressive FDR-influenced, Democratic Party platform, combats the controversial laissez-faire economic strategy of Mitt Romney. It’s been an intriguing preamble thus far, with many divisive opinions and controversial statements from both camps, which provides for an interesting dialogue for the lay voter.

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the public will also be expecting not one, but two new films about the Presidency: Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson”, starring Bill Murray as Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Steven Spielberg’s long-awaited “Lincoln”starring Daniel-Day Lewis. In commemoration of this most historic year for the Presidency, this Top 5 will count down the best five Presidential films!

#5: “Young Mr. Lincoln” (John Ford, 1939)

John Ford directed a vast number of works throughout his lifetime and influenced, by extension, practically every living American director. Even if not every film of his is as legendary (or even that good) as “The Grapes of Wrath” or “The Searchers”, the sheer output of material Ford put out is unbelievable (averaging between 2-5 movies a year).

“Young Mr. Lincoln” unites the pair of Ford and Henry Fonda for this Presidential biopic who would later have a very fruitful career together, although their relationship soured later on. Ford, a veteran, was able to team up with Fonda, a relative novice in Hollywood, in this introspective biography of Lincoln.

As you’ll notice, this film has a sharply different character compared to the rest of those on this list. For one, this is probably the least critical film on this list. We see a pre-Presidential Lincoln as a lawyer in Illinois, righteously defend two wrongly accused men. And when you look back on the films of John Ford, often they sway between the patriotic and the critical.  After all, Ford was employed to direct many Second World War propaganda films.If you are a seasoned John Ford veteran, or simply someone who frequents TCM far too much, I wholly recommend this film.

(NOTE: “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter will NOT be on this list)

#4: “All The President’s Men” (Alan Paluka, 1976)

(SPOILER ALERT) This is the first of two films on this list based off of President Nixon and far and above the least flattering of the two. Set during the Watergate scandal, the film follows journalists Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) as they track the seemingly unimportant Watergate burglaries to one of the worst scandals to affect the U.S. Presidency. The US in the 1970’s produced some truly self-deprecating and political films (Lumet’s “Serpico” and “Network”, Coppola’s “The Conversation”), but “All the President’s Men” takes the cake for trying to tackle the big issue on everyone’s mind: Watergate.

This is the ultimate detective story brought to the screen, following the late-60’s wave of the Truman Capote non-fiction crime novel and Thompson’s gonzo journalism. Bernstein’s and Woodward’s book seemed to single-handedly topple the Nixon administration, so it’s only likely that a film version would have a similar effect. Released only 3 years after Nixon’s resignation, the film set a precedent for the dramatization of real-life political scandals, avoiding any sort of innuendo and nonchalant allusion (like a much better executed “W.”). In a real reversal of fortunes, the noble President is cast as the unstoppable villain, while Hoffman and Redford (both at the absolute top of their games in this film) are the courageous journalists out to expose the leader of their own country.

#3: “JFK” (Oliver Stone, 1991)

Oliver Stone continues his late 80’s, early 90’s political film streak with the grandiose and controversial “JFK”, a dramatization of Jim Garrison’s 1966 investigation of the Kennedy assassination. The issue has become notorious for the obsessive details that some have gone into to prove one motive for Kennedy’s assassination or another. In 1991 Stone’s film revived obsession in the near 30 year old case, who found all too many parallels in the current Republican dynasty of Reagan and Bush (Sr. that is).

As a piece of cinema, it is a marvel. Stone, known for his lack of visual subtlety, goes the full gambit, employing every film school trick in the book: newsreel, transitions from black and white to colour, shaky camera, POV shots etc. “JFK” is pure Stone auteur-ism with a political story that pulses through the film every step of the way. If this film has anything, it’s motive; its frantic pace makes it seem like a clandestine investigation in itself, rather than a Hollywood blockbuster.

Many have criticized Stone for taking too many liberties with Garrison’s research and the actual series of events; for putting a leftist agenda over the facts; and for bolstering his own opinions over the president himself. Even as I write this, I feel strange, since the film deals more with the last minutes of Kennedy over any other part. However, just as Kennedy was much more than his assassination, “JFK”  is much more than a stylized propaganda piece: its unflinching quest for truth on the Cold War’s shining beacon resonates above all else. 

#2: “John Adams” (HBO: Tom Hooper, 2008)

Often overshadowed, but never forgotten, John Adams Sr. made his name as the ideological vision of the American Revolution early in its formulation.His popularity as one of the pre-eminent Founding Fathers led to his first role as George Washington’s vice-president for two terms, then succeeded Washington to become the 2nd President of the nation. However, his many intellectual and political accomplishments are often over-shadowed by both the preceding and succeeding president, Thomas Jefferson. In 2008, the popularity of John Adams experienced a revival due to Tom Hooper’s acclaimed  HBO  mini-series.

Paul Giamatti plays the eponymous president with the textbook devotion to the role we’ve come to expect from Giamatti in recent memory. The series follows Adams’ political life, from his successful defense of a British Officer after the Boston Massacre to his post-Presidency retirement and death. What the series presents is Adams in the midst of one of the most difficult administrations in the history of the Presidency. Constantly opposed by his own party and the opposition, the series shows the emotional stress of the president and Adams’ gut-wrenching perseverance. The series focuses on one of the most volatile eras in the United States and gives due credit to Adams for his role in laying the foundations for the United States.

#1: “Frost/Nixon” (Ron Howard, 2008)

This film actually began as a British play that ran from 2006-07. It proved so successful that it was translated to the screen. Playwright Peter Morgan (a veteran screenwriter in his own right, known for 2005’s The Queen” and 2006’s “The Last King of Scotland”) was brought on to write the screenplay, with actual leads Michael Sheen and Frank Langella reprising their roles as talk show host David Frost and disgraced former-President Richard Nixon. Ron Howard helms the project as director, creating one of the best entries into his filmography since “Apollo 13”.

The film, set during the famed Nixon interviews of 1977 deserves its acclaim because of the very human dimensions it espouses to its two leads, despite the mythology surrounding both of them. As the two prepare and conduct the interviews, we are shown two very different but equally complicated characters, each caught up in an ideological battle to the death. Nixon (played by Langella in an Academy Award nominated performance), though portrayed as the villain, is dignified and confident; a far cry from the lampooned rendition we are accustomed to as Earth’s President on “Futurama”. Meanwhile Michael Sheen gives Frost a fitting coolness necessary for the playboy TV star, while still able to convey an inner insecurity bubbling beneath the surface. The two play off of each other excellently, giving a rendition of the controversial President that is both complex and haunting.

While not the best of Presidents, “Frost/Nixon” gives us the ultimate presidential portrait: unrelenting, complicated, and ultimately humbling.


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