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When Our (Fictional) Presidents Are Tested by Their Moments | Press "Enter" to skip to content

When Our (Fictional) Presidents Are Tested by Their Moments

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Calm authority, an effortless intimacy with the facts, an empathy that’s felt, not merely read off a page: When the American president becomes comforter-in-chief by dint of a national crisis, it’s the toughest part of the gig.

As millions of homebound viewers tune into daily coronavirus briefings, who can blame anyone for wanting to return to the leaders from our movies or TV? (No doubt having a screenwriter or two helps.) Setting aside performances based on actual White House occupants (sorry, Daniel Day-Lewis in “Lincoln”), we prioritized big, bold conceptions — including some wonderful weasels — and arrived at 10 picks, roughly in order of best to worst.

1998

He’s got an easy way with a teleprompter and a voice that could soothe a population facing down an extinction-level event. Freeman’s President Tom Beck is everything you want in a leader when a planet-killing comet is hurtling toward Earth. Never mind that Beck hid this catastrophic news from the world for months, along with the secret U.S.-Russian countermeasure, a nuke-laden interceptor called the Messiah. “There will be no hoarding, there will be no sudden profiteering,” Beck tells his flock, and you actually believe the words will stick. His prayer is sincere. The man knows his Bible quotes.

Available to rent or buy on Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

1997

Here is the president as “Die Hard” action hero (and maybe that’s just what your quarantine binge needs). James Marshall — President Trump’s favorite onscreen POTUS — is no ordinary commander-in-chief. He speaks Russian fluently, served in Vietnam with uncommon valor and knows his way around an airplane’s cargo hold — useful for when foreign hijackers make their move after takeoff. Shout all you want, Gary Oldman, but you’re about to get booted mid-flight. Ford’s non-growly scenes before the terrorist siege reveal a family man and college-football fanatic. He’s decisive. If only every national emergency were this clear-cut.

Available to stream on Fubo, and to rent or buy on Amazon, Fandango Now, Flix Fling, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

1999-2006

A show that turned the presidency into a running conversation (and even developed its own piece of grammar, the walk-and-talk, to extend those chats), Aaron Sorkin’s weekly drama did more to ennoble the inner lives of elected officials than most elected officials. Sheen’s complex commitment to the role of Josiah “Jed” Bartlet, a two-term Democrat, is the emotional anchor. While the material definitely skews leftward, there’s no party affiliation to its intellect and fierceness of feeling. Bartlet has too many high points to name, but his weaker moments of shaken faith are the show’s most lasting — that and a piece of strategy scribbled on a pad: “Let Bartlet be Bartlet.”

Available to stream on Netflix, or to buy on Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

2000

Bridges’s Clintonesque Jackson Evans is a president of big appetites — a gobbler of oatmeal cookies, a slurper of wine, a smooth talker, a screamer on occasion. Sweatshirt-clad and hyperverbal, he falls in the likable column, mainly for channeling his passions when it counts. During the scandal-tarred confirmation hearings of his vice-presidential nominee (Joan Allen), he goes all in, relishing the gamesmanship and taking on Congress in a confrontation that’s one of the most galvanizing final speeches of a political movie. “A woman will serve in the highest level of the Executive, simple as that,” Evans declares.

Available to buy or rent on Amazon, Google Play and Vudu.

2006

In the dumbed-down, trash-clogged America of 2505, the electorate is beguiled by a five-time wrestling champ and ex-porn star who ascends to the highest office in the land. (Note for posterity: The director and co-writer Mike Judge meant this as unthinkable satire.) President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho is a man of his day. As played by Crews with a James Brown-level amount of physical bounce, he electrifies the film, outshining everyone around him. Is he an idiot, though? Give Camacho credit: When facing a mass agricultural crisis involving the watering of crops with a sports drink, he puts the smartest person in charge (Luke Wilson) and heeds the results of science.

Available to stream on Max Go or Amazon, or to buy or rent on Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes or Vudu.

2012-19

Constantly aggrieved at snubs both real and imagined (“She’s gone full-metal Nixon,” whispers an aide), Selina Meyer is, at root, a No. 2. It makes her potentially unsuited to this list. But she does fail upward, making it to the Oval Office via accidental fortune in the form of a resignation. Louis-Dreyfus’s multi-season portrayal is consistently sharp, traipsing into uncharted realms of awkwardness even when the show’s overall narrative wobbles. As president, though, Meyer gets low grades: sneaky slush-fund improprieties, wild swivels on issues, voter suppression, even a war crime involving a drone strike and a dead elephant.

Available to stream on HBO Now, HBO Go and Amazon Prime; or to buy on Amazon, FandagoNow, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

1964

Sellers’s dithering President Merkin Muffley — he of the nasal Midwestern accent and no spine — is one of the actor’s subtler achievements. High-minded to a fault (the liberal politician Adlai Stevenson was an influence), the character represents the director Stanley Kubrick’s flintiest bit of commentary: Niceties and manners won’t matter when a rogue Air Force general orders a nuclear attack and the doomsday clock ticks down. Listen to how Muffley minces around the Soviet premier’s bruised ego during a cringe-worthy hotline call (“Of course, it’s a friendly call!”), or how he openly worries about his ultimate place in history. He’s also the one who insists, immortally, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here — this is the War Room.”

Available to stream on the Criterion Channel and Crackle, or to buy or rent on Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

1964

The director Sidney Lumet’s grittier films (“Serpico,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” “Prince of the City”) were still on the horizon when he spearheaded this Cold War thriller, a bunker-to-bomber race against time that, for all its visual panache, couldn’t avoid comparisons with the slyer “Dr. Strangelove,” released only months earlier.

Regardless, Fonda brings dignity to his nameless world leader sweating out the seconds. Shielding his face in shame, he orders the unimaginable and takes full responsibility. The film has a near-cosmic sense of sacrifice; it exists in a political space where idealism is a president’s main weapon.

Available to stream on the Criterion Channel, or to buy or rent on Amazon, FandangoNow, Google Play and Vudu.

1981

Pleasence lent an icy gravity to John Carpenter’s “Halloween” as a heroic psychiatrist, an atypical role for a man often cast as the heavy. For this film, their second collaboration (written by Carpenter as an oblique response to Watergate), he’s back to being a worm, if an immensely watchable one. Converting Manhattan into a maximum-security prison may have been this guy’s idea to begin with, or so it’s implied by the terrorists taking down Air Force One. The way Pleasence’s aloof, unnamed head of state haltingly says goodbye to his staff as his emergency pod’s door slides shut (“God save me … and watch over you all”) speaks volumes. Later, we’ll watch him brandish a machine gun and give Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken the cold shoulder.

Available to stream on IMDb TV, CBS All Access and Shudder; to rent on Amazon; or to rent or buy on Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes and Vudu.

1970

After placing the nation’s nuclear arsenal in the hands of a passionless supercomputer programmed to never act rashly, an American president looks on aghast as the artificial intelligence locates a sister system in Russia. Together, the two mainframes become increasingly willful.

A dated but fun piece of fearmongering, the film was forgotten in the long shadow of the similar “2001: A Space Odyssey,” but Pinsent (better known for his performance opposite Julie Christie in the 2006 “Away From Her”) is indelible: a charming POTUS of Kennedy-esque swagger who’s often accessorized with a cocktail glass. He’s eventually reduced to being a bit player in his own administration — and an unwitting betrayer of the human race.

Available to stream on Hoopla.


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