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A Top 10 Listing Feature
American Dream Leaders:
Ten Best Fictional Presidents In Movies & TV
by Christopher Geary

Doesn't every American actor want to 'rule' the supposedly free world and portray the US President in a movie or TV show? To keep this top 10 listing more interesting than just critical assessment of how accurately Hollywood can imitate top historical figures (which actor achieved the best portrayal of Abraham Lincoln?), or any recent modern icon, like JFK or Nixon, this article considers only fictional presidents. So what makes a great movie POTUS? Is it the charisma of ultimate power; one rousing speech about freedom, social progress, and tolerance (something often absent from the real politics of today); a characterisation of astute intellectual and philosophical savvy, or perhaps some other exceptional human quality that is much harder to identify or define? And, consider this: why do actual politicians rarely match up to their fictional substitutes?

Henry Fonda
Just after the Cuban missile crisis - dramatised by Roger Donaldson's excellent movie Thirteen Days (2000) - Sidney Lumet directed Henry Fonda in a nuclear chiller titled Fail-Safe (1964), based on a thriller novel that was first published in 1962. Fonda was the quintessential American actor of his era, a genuine thespian for a time dominated by movie stars like John Wayne, Fonda's political opposite. As the nameless president in Fail-Safe, there can be no doubt of the sincerity that Fonda brings to his iconic role as the statesman and commander-in-chief who must overcome conflicting emotions in a desperate crisis, to drop atomic bombs on his own country, appease the accidentally nuked Russians, and so avoid the global catastrophe of WW3. It's a highly memorable performance in such an extraordinarily intense drama, and Fonda wrings every ounce of credibility from the picture's sci-fi scenario and its antiwar propaganda.

Fonda also played another un-named US president in Ronald Neame's disaster movie Meteor (1979). Richard Dreyfuss took the same nameless and thankless role in the TV remake Fail Safe (2000), a tribute movie and period drama that maintains the original's appealing speculative-fiction affect.

Peter Sellers
The book, Fail-Safe, was, reportedly, part-plagiarised from Peter George's 1958 novel Red Alert (aka: Two Hours To Doom by Peter Bryant), and alongside Lumet's sombre movie version - it also formed the basis for Stanley Kubrick's black comedy of absurd madness, Dr Strangelove (1964). Concerned with expressing the Cold War's hilarious insanities of the MAD (mutually assured destruction) idea, Kubrick's distinctive views upon otherwise grim antiwar themes become a celebration of eccentricity and nuclear mayhem, as the talented Peter Sellers gets to grips with three roles, including that of Merkin Muffley - uncrowned king of comedic presidents: "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here! This is the War Room" - a perfect characterisation of the US president as the world's top figurehead with an empty head, whose stuttering and one-sided telephone conversation with his Russian counterpart still remains very funny - like an unofficial Monty Python sketch.

A notable variation of Dr Strangelove is the British movie Whoops Apocalypse (1988), which featured Loretta Swit as the spoofy president. Curiously, the spooky Dr Strangelove was matched in its wry amusements by the quirkily eerie prophesy made during In Like Flint (1967), a spy-fi comedy adventure in which James Coburn's hero remarks upon the absurdity of 'an actor in the White House', a farce that was realised in the 1980s when Ronald Reagan became the 40th president. Coburn was also great in The President's Analyst (1967), and its fun to speculate what kind of harsh satire a movie based on Reagan's final year in office would be like. As Oliver Stone has noted, in his epic documentary series The Untold History Of The United States, Reagan left the White House behaving - very sadly - like "a befuddled old man."

Hal Holbrook
After presidents played by Fonda and Sellers each struggled with a global crisis that spiralled beyond their control, Hal Holbrook's Adam Scott finds himself under direct personal threat in The Kidnapping Of The President (1980), a sensational thriller set in Canada, which sees the US secret service (led by William Shatner) failing to protect their primary. The troubling situation is all the more embarrassing for security agents and the president because the American leader is held captive in plain sight, locked in an armoured van that is wired to explosives. An audacious terrorist act is complicated further by US tactical efforts by Shatner's men that compromise the rescue attempts. Holbrook's performance is excellent throughout the movie.

Donald Pleasence
From a president who's captured by daring enemies to one that's just lost... POTUS in John Carpenter's sci-fi thriller Escape From New York (1981) is portrayed by Donald Pleasence, an ultimately cynical politico who presides over a fractured country almost ruined by escalating crime. While attempting a rescue, the lone hero (Kurt Russell) is faced with the president's true nature: a man who shoots and mocks his black enemy, the self-styled 'Duke of New York' (Isaac Hayes). This slick adventure movie presents a pessimistic future that's on the verge of a complete global dystopia, and Pleasence's desperate president seems unable to resist an impending American catastrophe. In a world where one man could really make a difference, this actioner shows that it's not 'the most powerful man in the world' who can - or will - do the right thing.

In the comicbook style sequel, Escape From L.A. (1996), Cliff Robertson plays the president who's cursed with a very rebellious daughter named Utopia.

Michael Douglas
Ronny Cox has played different presidents in three movies; sci-fi comedy Martians Go Home (1989), comicbook style adventure Captain America (1990), and crime drama Murder At 1600 (1997) about a homicide at the White House. Each of these roles was just background or supporting character, but popular Hollywood superstar Michael Douglas managed a screen first by playing his lead role of Andrew Shepherd as very much the central character in witty rom-com drama The American President (1995).

Shepherd is a widower who falls in love with a lobbyist (Annette Bening). This is an entertaining movie about the problems of a charming man who is viewed as the most powerful person in the world but the daily responsibilities his job, always in the public eye, causes a peculiar and very often amusing set of difficulties for him when it comes to wanting a change in his private life.

Bill Pullman
Although Independence Day (1996) is basically just an unofficial War Of The Worlds remake, it's a lively sci-fi blockbuster with a leading performance by Bill Pullman who centres his role as President Tom Whitmore on his defiant 4th of July speech, happily misquoting and paraphrasing Dylan Thomas: "We will not go quietly into the night! We will not vanish without a fight!" This speech is more than just a glorified pep talk for the American counter-strike forces preparing to launch from Area 51. It's not simply a statement of vengeful intent, echoing Gulf War veteran Whitmore's earlier comment: "Let's nuke the bastards." And, even in summary, the dramatic monologue is far better than just a call to arms for mankind as the whole planet under attack by aliens. Most importantly, the President asserts: "We can't be consumed by our petty differences anymore. We will be united in our common interests." It's a humanitarian message that is more relevant in today's world (and never mind tomorrow's hell) than ever.

Harrison Ford
As President Jim Marshall in Air Force One (1997), Harrison Ford scores a big screen first by playing POTUS as a typical action hero, one fighting Russian terrorists (led by Gary Oldman in ultra-scary mode) that hi-jack the presidential jet. This is a standard plot for a crowd-pleasing thriller, but the likeable Ford is a compelling performer as a 'President Hollywood' character. A Vietnam veteran, Jim kills only reluctantly, but he can do so with his bare hands, yet he talks like a pacifist hard-liner who inspires great loyalty from his supporters, such as Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close).

Ford plays an all-American superhero who manages to facilitate the escape of many hostages from the customised Boeing 747 aircraft, although the finale's rescue of the First Family is achieved by a military team using another plane. A pilot himself, Ford is also convincing in his combat flying scenes for the movie's climax.

Morgan Freeman
Although he's by no means the first to portray a black president (that was James Earl Jones in The Man, 1972), Morgan Freeman's Tom Beck, in sci-fi disaster movie Deep Impact (1998), is a source of wisdom, and winningly sympathetic as the world leader facing the possible destruction of planet Earth from a collision with a comet. Released alongside Michael Bay's action-packed Armageddon, Mimi Leder's sombre SF drama is rather more intriguing than its swaggeringly populist rival. This is partly due to the TV journalist (a character sympathetically played by Téa Leoni), who uncovers official secrets about the comet, but it's Freeman's President Beck who holds the main cast of this doomsday scenario together. His distinctive voice and quiet mannerisms can and have been wholly misused in other movies, but Freeman's performance here is superb and perfectly in keeping with the realistic treatment of such a sensational sci-fi plot.

Dennis Haysbert
I have not seen TV drama series The West Wing (1999-2006), which starred Martin Sheen as President 'Jed' Bartlet, but with over 150 episodes spanning seven years, it must have seemed like its carefully crafted insiders' story of the White House would never end. Of course, long-running TV shows have the benefit of drawing viewers in with extremely detailed character studies, created by talented actors, but Sheen was already a Hollywood star when he was cast in The West Wing, so that show was in a safe pair of hands right from the start.

Far more impressive, I think, is when a comparatively unknown actor manages to make his mark on a TV series with such a strong character-arc, and commitment to an engaging performance, that he apparently influences real-world politics. It's impossible to say whether Dennis Haysbert's likeable portrayal of David Palmer in TV show 24 (2001-7) actually did increase Barack Obama's election chances before he entered the White House in 2009 but, as mechanisms of social change were obviously ticking away in the media background, we saw Palmer rise from senator to president - for season two of 24 (and he stayed in office for a two-year term), so many Americans might have thought about the possibility of life imitating Hollywood.

I must admit that I was somewhat dubious about the intentions of writers and producers on 24. Having a black president on the show just seemed like a gimmick, at first. But Haysbert had already established Palmer as a powerful character, in the first season, so his election win was a natural progression for the ongoing storyline, and he returned as a welcome guest in several episodes of later seasons, often helping our TV action hero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) with political contacts, or other problems.

Geena Davis
Last, but certainly not least, award-winner Geena Davis plays Mackenzie 'Mac' Allen, in Commander In Chief (2005-6). While feminist movie The Contender (2000) was a drama about a senator (superbly portrayed by Joan Allen) running for vice president (with a laidback but likeable Jeff Bridges as the President), this excellent TV series is the very first serious attempt to depict a female president, and Davis is an example of perfect Hollywood casting for such a groundbreaking role. Created by Rod Lurie, who wrote and directed The Contender, this is a greatly underestimated showcase.

Named by a dying President as his successor, Vice President Allen gets a crash course in realpolitik and vote/ veto wrangling when her quick unelected ascension to the White House is hampered by the Speaker of the House (Donald Sutherland), who is an ambitious backstabber and quite intolerant of President's Allen's independence. Her leadership faces moments of humility but she also shows outstanding courage as many sexist enemies and untrustworthy staffers surround her, testing Allen's defiant strength for any weaknesses to exploit. There is wry humour found in a unique set of social etiquette and media PR problems faced by Allen's husband (well played by Kyle Secor), as the first 'First Gentleman'.

Cramming a lot of crisis management and entertainment values into a mere 19 episodes (before it was unfairly and abruptly cancelled) Commander In Chief is a rare phenomenon in US television, an earnest character study of a powerful woman.

Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe

Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove

Hal Holbrook in The Kidnapping Of The President

Donald Pleasence in Escape From New York

Michael Douglas in The American President

Bill Pullman in Independence Day

Harrison Ford in Air Force One

Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact

Dennis Haysbert in 24

Geena Davis in Commander In Chief

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