Since Election Day is finally upon us tomorrow, I thought it was only fitting to turn the PFR penchant for occasional list-making into a chance to survey the rich history of fictional Presidents of the United States portrayed in movies and television. We as a country have a tendency towards telling stories about presidents, some celebratory, some satirical, and usually with a dose of wish-fulfillment; if we cannot have the president we want, we can at least write one into being who fits the mold we wish our politicians would fit into. With that in mind, I dug back through some of the most memorable portrayals of fictional presidents and put together a list of my ten favorites.
A couple points of order on this list: I have excluded any performances that bring to life real-life presidents. Yes, those portrayals are inherently fictitious because it’s not a documentary, but I thought this list would be more interesting without three separate portrayals of Abraham Lincoln to sift through. Also, the order is not a comment on who I necessarily think gave the best performance or played the president with the most qualities to be emulated, but rather reflects my personal enjoyment of their performances and seeming impact on pop culture.
10. President Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) – Dave (1993)
The set-up for Dave is preposterous, focusing on an incapacitated president whose staff hires an actor named Dave (Kline) who has a side gig impersonating the president to step in and portray the man in real life. Once you suspend your disbelief enough to accept the doppelganger of it all, you are treated to Kline’s fabulous performance, as a man with no business being president and nonetheless finds a way to assume the position and add more than a few worthy ideas during his short time in government. Dave as President Mitchell is not a man I would ever actually want in the White House, but the performance is endlessly lovable, and earns him a spot on this list for sheer entertainment value.
9. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) – Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Dr. Strangelove is one of the most accomplished satires of all time, full stop. This is in no small part due to the multiple performances that Peter Sellers turns in during the film. One of the shorter performances is that of President Merkin Muffley, but in just a few scenes, Sellers delivers a wonderful take-down of the ineffectual and image-obsessed Midwestern politician. Even as the end of the world is imminent because of impending nuclear impacts, Muffley obfuscates and tries to downplay the situation on a phone call with the Russian President, calling the nuclear launches “a silly thing.” Dr. Strangelove is a biting indictment of the nuclear arms race and the failures of our leaders to actually retain control, and Sellers uses his presidential turn to send that point home.
8. President Beck (Morgan Freeman) – Deep Impact (1998)
Morgan Freeman has played the Speaker of the House, the Chief Justice of the United States, Nelson Mandela, and God. He possesses a gravitas and control of the screen that is a sight to behold, so it should come as no surprise that when he played President Beck (Freeman) in Deep Impact, the performance held all the markers of what has made Freeman such a star. Staring down the end of the world, Beck retains a calm and logical approach, putting trust in those who can enact a plan to stop a meteor from obliterating the planet. Beck is not a main character, but Freeman emanates presidential charisma and power in his scenes, and gives a true banger of a final speech that hits all the right notes to make you believe in him and his vision.
7. President James Sawyer (Jamie Foxx) – White House Down (2013)
For some reason, we love to put presidents in danger in our stories, and White House Down takes that to a new level by effectively proposing the question, ‘what would it be like if we made Die Hard (1988) but in the White House?’ The answer is that you end up with a heartfelt and comedy action film that is much better than it has any right to be. Much of this is due to Jamie Foxx’s performance as President James Sawyer. He nails the presidential gravitas needed for the role, but also succeeds in making Sawyer’s evolution from “nervous guy not used to this kind of violence” into “committed action hero firing machine guns and rocket launchers” believable, or as close to it as we can get. He delivers the one-liners, sells the stunts, and makes the case that presidents can be as good at politicking as kicking ass.
6. President Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) – House of Cards (2013-2018)
From the beginning, House of Cards was about indulging the darkest corners of political machinations, turning Washington D.C. into a soapy and deadly game. My favorite player of this game was Robin Wright’s Lady MacBeth-esque performance as Claire Underwood. Francis (Kevin Spacey) may have been the focus, but Claire was always the more interesting figure, as she grappled with the lines between power and morality, often coming close to making the ‘right’ call, only to fall back into the darkness. We are only treated to a short period of her time as president in the final season, but what she achieves in that time brings Claire’s powers to bear on the Executive Branch in chilling ways that one cannot help but be in awe of. She is ruthless, she is amoral, and she also gets shit done.
5. President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) – Veep (2012-2019)
Where would we be in the world of pop culture without Julia Louis-Dreyfus? The woman is a comedic legend, and so it only charts that her time playing Selina Meyer as she navigates from Vice President to President would be overflowing with the brand of caustic and unforgettable humor that she has long been known for. Meyer is a terrible leader, but a fabulous politician in the way that she latches on to power and finds ways to retain it, even as all of her failings meant those around her should have it taken far far away from her grasp. President Meyer is not a blueprint for any kind of president I would hope to see, though there are a number of narcissism and policy execution parallels to be made with the current administration, but the entertainment value of watching her insult her way through Washington D.C. is truly a joy all its own.
4. President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) – The American President (1995)
Let’s get one thing out of the way: in the real world, no sitting President of the United States should ever date a lobbyist. End of story. That does not mean, however, that I rooted against the blossoming love between President Andrew Shepherd (Douglas) and Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Benning). On the contrary, I was, and remain, fully invested in their relationship. That is in great part because of the work Douglas does in bringing Shepherd to life. The American President marked screenwriter Aaron Sorkin’s (more on him later) first foray into writing about politics, and he crafted Shepherd as a man dealing with political and personal crises that overlapped and intersected in ways that forced him to reckon with his own failings, and those of the system he works in. Shepherd is a politician to believe in, to root for, and that is because Douglas takes Sorkin’s words and brings them to rousing life. Plus, in what I would argue is the greatest political speech ever written for and delivered in a movie, Shepherd finishes The American President by committing to a huge plan to combat climate change. It may be wish fulfillment, but it is nice to see.
3. President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) – 24 (2001-2010)
24 was one of the most popular shows on network television during its run and, as a result, operated in that sought after sphere of shifting television norms as other networks scrambled to replicate the success. This also means that 24 had an outsize influence on pop culture writ large, and while Kiefer Sutherland may have been the star of the show, Dennis Haysbert’s performance as President David Palmer has remained one of its most lasting influences. Haysbert portrayed Palmer as a bitingly intelligent, remarkably straightforward, and complex political figure. He also happened to be the first Black man to play the President of the United States for any extended period of time on television. As a result, pop culture scholars have put forward “The Palmer Effect,” a cultural theory that posits Palmer’s place on the show helped convince Americans that a Black man could be president. Some believe it played a part in the (at least perceived) cultural shift that led up to President Barack Obama’s successful campaign. Regardless of whether or not this is provable, Haysbert’s performance stands on its own as a body of work to be envied. He turned Palmer into a flawed statesman who a country fell in love with.
2. President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) – Air Force One (1997)
A second entry in the ‘President-turned-action-hero’ genre, Air Force One is no doubt the blueprint that White House Down and Jamie Foxx turned to when conceiving that film. But, they were never going to eclipse it. Harrison Ford as President James Marshall in this movie, which is admittedly just the end of the thought experiment ‘what if we made Die Hard on a plane,’ is another entry in his arguably incomparable run of action heroes. As a president with military experience, Marshall has plot scaffolding for his believability in the role, as well as our preconceived expectations of what Han Solo…I mean Indiana Jones…I mean Ford is capable of. Ford plays Marshall as a tactician who is driven as much by his love of country as his love for his family. As a character, Marshall is a foreign policy wonk who knows when to defer to those around him with more information, and as such we are treated to the joy of watching Glenn Close steal scenes as Vice President Kathryn Bennett. Plus, Ford as Marshall delivers one of my most beloved badass one-liners in action movie history: “Get off my plane.” Mic dropped.
1. President Josiah ‘Jed’ Bartlet (Martin Sheen) – The West Wing (1999-2006)
I have watched the entirety of The West Wing no fewer than six times. I say that both with pride, and with the recognition that it means I probably have an obsessive personality I should get a handle on. Nonetheless, the reason for my constant return to this show is because of the unassailable writing, acting, and directing that characterizes it, especially in its first four seasons (before Aaron Sorkin left the show for anyone who’s wondering). While I could get on a soap box and espouse the power of any character on this show, we are here to talk about presidents, and so I will limit myself to Martin Sheen’s titanic work bringing Sorkin’s remarkable writing to life as President Josiah Bartlet. An Irish-Catholic, Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist, with a penchant for obscure historical facts and Notre Dame football, Bartlet is the passionate and challenging core of an equally complex show. He is eloquent and blisteringly smart, but he is also hounded by his ego and a childhood spent feeling undervalued by his demeaning father. Over seven seasons of television, we are treated to the arc of a president who must manage re-election, a personal health crisis, his relationship to his family, and the daily emergencies, both foreign and domestic, that come with leading the United States. He is passionate, lovable, frustratingly stubborn, and a completely fleshed out human being. It is his imperfections married with his victories, both personal and political, that make Bartlet the gold standard for fictional presidents. Sheen is as comfortable in his performance delivering a vast speech on the tenets of American citizenship as he is pulling pranks on the White House staff, and I love every minute of his screen time as a result. So, to quote the man himself, what’s next?