Warren Cantrell, our good friend from 10Rant.com, checks in with an awesome Top 10 list of Fictional Movie Presidents to celebrate President’s Day. If you ask me, any day is a good day for a Cantrell rant. If you have a Top 10 list you’d like to contribute, email firstname.lastname@example.org! Here’s Warren:
President’s Day is upon us again, presumably to honor a bunch of crooked politicians who were, even amongst the best of the lot, in possession of some of the most twisted and devious minds this country has ever known. Yes, Lincoln had a good heart, Jefferson was a genius, and Washington knew his way around a fight both physically and politically, yet even these lions of American history had bad days in the office. Lincoln suspended habeus corpus and refused to abolish slavery until it was politically advisable to do so, Jefferson’s personal dalliances are now comedic fodder for even the most undereducated citizens, and Washington set up a government that disenfranchised or ignored pretty much all non-Caucasian males.
Fictional portrayals of the Commander in Chief of the United States of America usually hold on to the best qualities to be found in the historical record, white-out the ugly spots, then color them back in with shades of Superman, Rambo and Jesus. Mind you, I’m not complaining about this trend in the slightest, I’m just a bit skeptical of our current President’s ability to fly a high-powered jet into an alien space battle so as to save the planet (sweet as that might be). I mean, I like Obama, but he’s got a ways to go before reaching that level of awesomeness.
I did not rank the Presidents on this list due to the quality of the actor’s performance, or as a critique of the film as a whole, but instead positioned them against each other based on their performance in America’s most honored political office. Please understand and consider this point before firing off a vitriolic comment criticizing the ranking or its author. I may have considered a performance or film among my favorite of all time, yet if it involved a shitty President doing shitty work, they may have received a sorry spot (or none at all).
This list honors the best ideals of the Presidency: everything that the office should represent and demonstrate. Of course, politics being the cruel, malicious, cut-the-throats-of-your-enemy’s-children kind of game that it is, most Presidential portrayals offer the best of what we citizens might hope for in a far off place, somewhere just a town or two over from Never Neverland. As the title clearly states, this is a list honoring fictional Presidents, so don’t fret if your favorite Nixon or Kennedy portrayal didn’t make the cut.
Some close calls that nearly made the list, yet didn’t pass Presidential mustard included Jack Nicholson in “Mars Attacks!,” William Hurt in “Vantage Point,” Jeff Bridges from “The Contender,” Robin Williams in “Man of the Year,” President Camacho from “Idiocracy,” Alan Alda in “Canadian Bacon,” and Billy Bob Thornton’s naughty President in “Love Actually.” Gene Hackman, though extremely salty and a wise judge of character in “Absolute Power,” was an evil, murdering bastard who used his political influence to cover up heinous corruption at the highest level. Even with all that, I nearly ranked the performance because Hackman was so damn awesome in that picture. Alas, however: Rules are rules.
Finally, I excluded Donald Moffat’s President Bennett from “Clear and Present Danger” because the character was a reactionary goon reminiscent of a shit-eating moron we just ran out of the White House a few years ago. President Bennett governed with his gut, and wasn’t above starting a little war so that he could satisfy his own personal ends. He abused the most distinguished public office this country has to offer, and got the talking-to of a life time at the end of the film, for Jack Ryan was done screwing around by that point. An immature child not worthy of uttering the word “President,” Bennett was a shadow of the man that held the office in another Tom Clancy creation…
I’m going to go to bat for “The Sum of All Fears,” for despite what you may think about Ben Affleck, I think the guy brought a little vitality to the Jack Ryan role. For fans of the film series, this movie provided a little background for the C.I.A. agent, and fleshed out his relationship with Cabot (played by James Earl Jones in previous installments, and Morgan Freeman in this one) not to mention Ryan’s wife. The film concerned itself with a Neo-Nazi terrorist who used a rogue nuclear device and backroom bribery scheme to instigate a war between the U.S. and Russia. Using his political connections to ratchet up tensions between the two countries, the Nazi, Alan Bates’ Dressler, maneuvered his a-bomb into place, and set the thing off right as he was turning up the heat on both sides. It was Dressler’s hope that he could arrange for the two super-powers to destroy each other so that his Nazi brood might collect some scraps in the aftermath.
Luckily, the U.S. had Jack Ryan on the case, and between trips to the Ukraine and bare-knuckle battles with foreign spies, the C.I.A. spook got to the bottom of things. Of course, this was only after some Nazi prick had detonated a nuclear device during a football game, thus vaporizing most of Baltimore and a couple good squads of gridiron warriors (fucking Nazis!). When things came down to the wire, it was up to the President, Cromwell’s Bob Fowler, to make a crucial decision based on the posture-heavy actions of the Russkies. Of course, the Russian President was the one who had to take the real leap of faith, but to be fair, Fowler could have nuked the evil punks anyway and didn’t, so props to him. Besides, the Commander in Chief had to make a crucial decision after one of his staff essentially died from a heart attack right at his side, which came only an hour or so after the President survived an atomic explosion. All things considered, I’d say Fowler just standing, making decisions, was something of a victory, so I gave the guy a nod.
It almost makes one nostalgic to think of a time when actors played more than one role so as to respectfully flex a little acting muscle, and not as an excuse to crawl into a fat suit so that dick and fart joke pay-offs might carry a little further. Though it was the studio, and not Stanley Kubrick or Sellers, that pushed the latter into numerous roles, the famed director and actor didn’t seem to put up much of a fight. What blowback that did exist came about because Sellers didn’t feel he had it in him to play a fourth role, that which Slim Pickens immortalized as Major ‘King’ Kong. Sellers got his wish, and what came about was a trio of performances that out-distanced all others in a film brimming with superb turns.
As President Muffley, Sellers oversaw a war room in the midst of a fairly serious nuclear crisis. One of his generals had superseded his authority and launched an all-out attack against the Soviet Union. When the President logically questioned his air command representative and asked how this was possible, Muffley was reminded that he was the one who had approved the contingency plan in play at that moment, and it was that plan which allowed the rogue general to move forward with his aggressive preemptive assault. Though a good chunk of his bombers were on their way to Russia with bellies full of hellfire and their radios switched to “we don’t give a fuck,” President Muffley showed some class.
Though he was pressured to roll with the situation as a means to get over on the Soviets, and get ahead in a war that now seemed inevitable, Muffley didn’t take the bait. Sure, it probably made the most sense on a tactical level, yet the President was not a murderer and wasn’t about to pull the trigger on a gun that would level roughly a third of the planet. Good leaders make hard choices that transcend easy solutions in exchange for more difficult ones. Muffley knew perfectly well that the logical course of action would have been to embrace nuclear war as a means to achieve the most beneficial American end, yet to be President of the United States means that you must bear the responsibility of more than just this nation. World power that she is, America must shoulder the burden of a global concern, at least in part, and that’s what Muffley did when he opened up comm. lines to Soviet Premier Kisov.
Of course, when the Russian leader opened up to Muffley, he explained that his people had been working on a “Doomsday Device” that would destroy all life on the planet if the Soviets were attacked. This put everybody, Yankees and Russkies alike, in a pretty sorry spot which negated all the level-headed thinking and savvy diplomacy Muffley had been putting to good use. And this is a shame, because the man looked like a pretty competent leader whose only real failing was an inability to keep his Air Force on a shorter leash. This is a pretty big failing, however, for it plunged the world into utter ruin and despair, mine shaft gaps be damned. Say what you will about the rest of today’s contenders: at least they kept the planet in one piece (mostly)…
If Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove” was the classic black comedy, then Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe” was simply black. The plot similarities between the two films were enough that Kubrick sued so that “Fail Safe” would appear in cinemas only after his picture had debuted, a maneuver that worked both at the time and in the subsequent court of public opinion. To compare the movies is a perfect example of weighing apples against oranges, however, for the two films were trying to get their audiences to look at near-identical scenarios with a similar thematic take on the events. Like “Dr. Strangelove,” Lumet’s film was about a U.S. President who learned that automated commands removed from the human decision-making process were responsible for a pending nuclear assault against the Soviets. In “Fail Safe,” it was a computer glitch (and not a rogue general) which started a chain of events that led the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. toward a devastating, unavoidable showdown. Ironically, each fail safe measure that had been put in place to protect the respective nations only served to further the crisis, and human destiny did not rest in the hands of humans, but instead was in the possession of the machines we’d thoughtlessly created.
The difference between the two films is both slight and unavoidable, for only the most delicate nuances separated the two pictures. Whereas both films lampooned the absurdity of automated redundancy initiatives at the highest level, “Strangelove” did so in a way that got to the root of the problem while “Fail Safe” merely addressed it. Lumet’s picture, 100 percent serious and dire in its tone, played the “woe is me” card and seemed to call for a closer look at the system so as to change it. Conversely, Kubrick and “Strangelove” suggested that the whole damn system, be it communist or capitalist, was a sham. It argued that the problem wasn’t with the procedures governing the use of nuclear weapons, but with a world that required such destructive tools in the first place. To make such a bold claim one needs to do it out of the corner of the mouth and with half a smile lest the message weigh down the means of conveyance. As a President, Henry Fonda’s character seemed a bit more practical, resolute, and in command than what Sellers lent to his performance. On top of this, Fonda was an American, and that is pretty important when it comes to playing our Chief, at least in this author’s eyes. Sure, “Dr. Strangelove” was a better picture, Sellers a superior actor, and the impact of Kubrick’s masterpiece far more profound. Yet as a President, Fonda’s man did a bit better than Muffley, if only because he had a country left to govern at the end of the day.
It’s easy to forget that this film came out a couple months before the festering ass-sore that was Jerry Bruckheimer’s penultimate cinematic fuck fest, “Armageddon.” In fact, “Deep Impact” cost about half as much to make as its space-disaster counterpart, pulled in over a hundred million domestically, and about twice that in international markets. For Paramount, this was a respectable return, something that has probably staunched the pain that grew out of this film’s inability to gain any kind of traction amongst critics or audiences in the years since its release. It’s not a great movie, but it’s also not wrist-slicingly bad with acting, cinematography, and editing that would be enough to give most people a seizure. No, that’s “Armageddon.” “Deep Impact,” whose narrative construction was only slightly less absurd, concerned itself with a rogue comet arching toward tender-assed Earth, and humanity’s laughably feeble attempts to survive. Morgan Freeman played President Tom Beck, a no-nonsense politician and world leader with a contingency plan for any eventuality. This was his most engaging quality as a President, for no matter what turn this movie took, President Beck seemed calm, collected, and full of extremely well-flushed-out ideas about what to do next.
Comet barreling toward Earth? No problem, just send nuclear astronauts up to blow the thing back to hell. That didn’t work? Get humanity enrolled in a lottery that is already set up so that you can get a couple hundred thousand choice survivors underground in ready-made comet bunkers. Sure, half the comet crashed into the Atlantic Ocean and gave the planet a firm nipple twist, yet most of the planet was eventually saved, and even if it had not, President Beck had things pretty well under control so that America, if nobody else, might emerge from the ruins of an apocalypse only slightly worse for wear. A cool customer under the most dire of circumstances, Freeman’s turn as President Beck might have beat out this next role, which eventually won out because this next President actually succeeded in keeping his planet unmolested from the hostilities of outer space…
Yeah, I ranked Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister in front of Morgan Freeman! What of it? The last time I looked, President Lindberg’s Earth was intact and doing just fine. For his part, President Beck’s watch saw half the world flash-fried via a saltwater tidal wave big enough to scare the fucking sun. Is Tommy Lister as good an actor as Morgan Freeman? Well, no. Is “Deep Impact,” lame as it is, better than the schizophrenic train-wreck that is “The Fifth Element”? You bet your biscuits. Yet I don’t want to chastise Mr. Lister’s performance in the latter picture, however, for both the actor and the role demonstrated a lot of strength and confidence. Long story short, some evil space entity in the shape of a flaming, molten moon was waiting for its chance to careen into Earth and destroy all of humanity. Our only hope was some supreme being from another galaxy, whose only purpose in existence was to combat this evil bastard hanging in the wings. At the helm of his country’s ship when the shit started going down, President Lindberg was in the ready room and not some stuffy White House Oval Office, so clearly the man was a hands-on leader.
Throughout the ordeal, Lindberg was personally communicating with his generals so as to coordinate the next line of defense. This guy didn’t appear to leave his post throughout the entire emergency, and actually emerged at one point with a towel and what appeared to be a fresh shave. This President was so in command and personally involved that he didn’t even bathe, people! Now that’s what I call a leader. When the shit hits the fan, a President shouldn’t have time to do much more than wipe their ass, and get prepared for a glorious death whilst defending the nation. Any good President worth their salt would want to be on the other end of the phone when the meat hits the metal instead of passing orders through hacks in a cowardly command thrice-removed. At the end of the day, President Lindberg put the proper people in charge to see the job done, and as a result the planet was saved. About the only thing keeping Lindberg from moving up higher in the ranking was his premature champagne celebration after the stones were in Allied hands. This guy was yelling “chin, chin” when the combined nut-sack of the planet was in a veritable sling. Sure, it’s no aircraft carrier landing with a ‘Mission Accomplished’ sign, but it’s also not a moment a President would like remembered.
A forerunner to the television show “The West Wing” in a lot of ways, Rob Reiner’s “The American President” took a similar approach with its portrayal of life inside the White House. While the film hinted at the heavy responsibilities of the job, (most specifically during the discussion over whether to retaliate against an enemy’s building that would likely be staffed only by innocent janitorial personnel) the overall picture was a somewhat simplified one. Michael Douglas’ Shepherd seemed only nominally concerned with his prospects of re-election during the beginning of the film, and even as the picture waned and his character suffered political setbacks and a decrease in public approval ratings, he always seemed more concerned with his romantic disposition. While I’ll submit that this impractically-dreamy courtship was at the center of the film’s narrative, President Shepherd never really seemed too concerned with public affairs, issues, or burgeoning dilemmas. Some may point to this as a failing of the movie, and that may indeed be a valid argument I can get behind, for to burden Douglas’ character with criticism on this level seems a bit uncalled for. Indeed, President Shepherd seemed to have some very admirable qualities.
It wasn’t Shepherd’s fault that he was an awesome leader who ran a ship so tight that things pretty much took care of themselves. At the beginning of this film, poorly conceived though it may have been, Shepherd’s gun bill was cruising, his links with the environmental lobby where tenuous but intact, and the American people seemed to be all over his nuts. Though he went through a rough patch because some mean bastard was running a smear campaign fueled by Shepherd’s personal life, the incumbent President seemed to weather the storm via three pounds of balls and a refusal to indulge assholes. After a crisp speech to the nation to tell everybody what fucking time it was, the man walked into the State of the Union address seemingly at the top of his game again. Now that’s when you know you’ve got some skills! If you can take a political beating for the better part of a year, then decide to roll over and casually swat the problem away only to come out more popular for the bother, then you’re swinging a pretty big stick. Respect.
This performance operated under the more fantastic “what if” scenarios in film history, for it enjoyed the slack usually cut to Presidential portrayals, but then ran that line out a mile or two. As this list has thoroughly demonstrated, Presidential roles, fictional or otherwise, generally play on the most optimistic or pessimistic ideals of what the leader of the United States should be. The more fantastic the role, the better, for most audiences don’t have a lot of patience for government procedurals that spend thirty minute blocks on tort reform and Senate vote swapping. No, audiences want to see a President either saving or ruining a nation with broad, sweeping actions that leave no room for interpretation. In movies, a President’s role must be clearly defined, for people are already confused and torn in real life: why make them suffer similar agony when they’ve given their brains a rest for two hours? “Dave” took an average man, Kevin Kline’s Dave Kovic, and thrust him into the Presidency overnight, first as an impersonator for the Commander-in-Chief at public events, and then as an actual fill-in after the real President fell into a coma. It had shades of several older tales from “The Prince and the Pauper” to “The Phantom President,” yet updated the classic narrative with its own unique, modern charm.
In “Dave,” once the decoy got over the initial shock of everybody thinking that he was actually the real-deal President, he began to see things simply and rationally in a way only an average citizen with no practical political experience could. Dave’s boyish enthusiasm whilst experiencing some of the more exciting frills of the Presidency revived his standing amongst voters, and actually improved the “President’s” political position. Using this as a springboard to lend a hand to common-sense initiatives that he cared about, Dave saved a homeless shelter, balanced the budget, and even created a jobs bill so that everybody in the country who wanted a job could get one. While he had some free time, Dave also fell in love with the First Lady (Sigourney Weaver), then cleaned up the White House so that only honest men and women roamed its halls. By the end of the film, after fixing the government and a Presidential administration, Dave quietly slipped out of his doppelganger role in a way that still protected the integrity of the office, and saved the country from a scandal. A damn fine President that was made all the more endearing because it was played in such a way as to suggest that any of us might have done just as well. Truly: it was a wild enough tale to inspire, yet just sane enough for most to go along for the ride.
You’re goddamned right I put ol’ Tug Benson in the top three! What’s it to you, huh? This fucking guy was pushing 80, and despite a list of grievances well-documented in the first “Hot Shots” installment, President Benson personally went in with a rescue squad to spring hostages in Part Deux. Not only that, Tug went into Iraq, son! Can you imagine what those bastards would do to the President if they caught him going rogue behind enemy lines? Jesus! Now that takes balls. Balls Tug Benson had in surplus, however, and the man wasn’t shy about making sure the world knew it. After the President learned that Topper Harley (Charlie Sheen) and the rescue squad had hit a snag, the old bastard got into a frog suit and went in with the next wave. Again, this guy wasn’t just old: the fact that he was a walking, talking member of society made him a scientific marvel. According to the first firm, hardy Tug Benson had ceramic eyes, stainless steel ear canals, a shell the size of a fist in his head, and had crash landed 194 times. The fact that the man made it into political office shouldn’t be that surprising, for a werewolf could pull that trick off with enough funding, yet for President Benson to still be willing to go on a near-suicide mission as President does put him in the higher echelon of fictional Commanders in Chief.
Sure, this guy didn’t demonstrate a lot of political savvy, or cunning military skills, but Benson did know his way around an underwater rescue op., and could lightsaber duel with the best of them! To take things up a notch, Bridges’ “President Benson” ended the film by personally dueling Saddam Hussein himself in a fight to the death! If that isn’t lead-from-the-front generalship, I don’t know what is! To get the highest marks the 10rant is willing to bestow, a President has to throw his or her country on their back, look an enemy in the eye, and battle in the name of a proud and valiant people. There’s nothing I respect more than a leader willing to get in front of their soldiers to share the burden of a fight. Unfortunately, as will be discussed a bit more in detail in the next entry, such burly gestures simply aren’t practical these days, what with the now-intrinsic relationship of a major world power, their economy, and the perception of stability in its leadership caste. If our President was running around like Putin, wrestling bears and personally poisoning and/or beating confessions out of folks (allegedly), then this nation might not be able to maintain so innocent a hue on the world stage. Luckily for this next President, by the time his crisis came to the fore, the world had bigger problems…
Just try to wrap your head around this, alright? You’re the President of the United States, and snooty invaders from outer space roll up on your crib, not to mention about a dozen other cities under your control, and blow the whole lot of it all to Hell. On top of that, these slimy bastards were also in violation of a well-known man-code which states that during war, while pretty much anything goes, you don’t mess with the other guy’s woman. The man’s house in smoldering splinters, his domain no better, and his woman down for the count, Bill Pullman’s President Whitmore was sore around the asshole by the end of this film’s first act. Yet on top of all that, President Whitmore organized a planetary defense, and personally led the counter-attack to avenge his people. Hell yeah. Back in the day, when men swung heavy blades at each other and people knew what fucking time it was, the king would suit up and ride out into battle at the head of his men, and goddammit, that’s the way it oughta be. Though Lincoln did actually participate as an observer during the Civil War, and even came under direct fire at one point, no American President has actually led troops into battle while in office. No President has come close to this chivalric ideal, and Pullman’s Whitmore is about the best we can offer. And that’s okay. Seeing as how our system of government relies pretty heavily on the President, it is reasonable that any man or woman in that office wouldn’t want to put themselves in any unnecessary danger. Yet when you’re fighting off a murderous horde of alien invaders and you need every swinging dick in the sky that can fly a tin-can rig, “unnecessary” becomes a somewhat flexible term.
Though he was a President, Whitmore was also a man, something that allowed for a new set of rules considering somebody had just walked into his house, wrecked it, then fucked with his woman. I don’t give a damn what your job is, if somebody pulls that shit on you, if you want to call yourself a man then you better make sure the son of a bitch that just stepped to your shit comes correct. If you want to bust up my crib and knock around my lady, you better expect that I’ll be coming for your ass like a fat man chasing a candy thief. Pullman’s character acted no different, except that he also took a little time to rally his troops, inspire the planet’s resistance, and coordinate an all-out attack to save the universe. On top of all this, once he was in the thick of the fight, President Whitmore was a fucking junkyard dog! This guy was dropping alien bogeys left and right, and lent a hand near the end to assure that Randy Quaid’s Casse, got the job done. A warrior and an inspired leader of men, it’s hard to rank anybody higher than this one, that is until one takes into account the colossal feats of this next man, a President who was on his own, and also in one hell of a tight spot…
Harrison Ford’s President Marshall was the real-deal: the complete package from head to toe. This guy was clever, brave, resilient, quick to think on his feet, and a no-nonsense politician down to the bone. Though his SS crew had their man in the special escape pod within minutes of the hijacking of Air Force One, the President wasn’t about to abandon his staff and family in a moment of crisis. Hidden in the avionics bay, President Marshall began his covert mission to sabotage the saboteurs. His first order of business was to get into contact with the outside world, which then led to the formalization of a plan to take his plane back! Sure, Pullman’s President Whitmore showed a lot of balls when the chips were down and a formalized defense was put in place, but Ford’s “Marshall” threw down on the spot, and immediately went after his foe when the shit started hitting the fan. Starting with a little mischief, President Marshall used his head before he got into his modestly concealed, but-obviously rockin’ muscles, and arranged for a fuel discharge on Air Force One (thus forcing the issue of a landing). When this didn’t work out exactly as planned, Marshall then went hard-core, and started smoking mother fuckers like he’d gone to the John McClane school of hard knocks.
Sure, the Chief Executive got his ass captured during the ordeal, and had to call in a favor with the Russkies in order to save his daughter and wife from an in-flight flaying. Yet did this throw President Marshall into a funk or cause the man to despair? Shit no! This was the President, son: and we never suffered pussies in charge ‘round these parts. Getting loose, Ford’s character took on the terrorists pretty much single-handedly, and personally saw to it that his family was saved, and that the terrorist leader in charge (Gary Oldman) suffered for his evil deeds. Even after all that, the President still had it in him to successfully pilot Air Force One through a heady air-to-air combat engagement. Yet the man’s day wasn’t completely wrapped up until he had uncovered the mole that had betrayed him, killed that bitch, and orchestrated the rescue of most of the remaining passengers (his family included). Now that’s a complete day. If President Marshall was able to get that much done in one sitting, can you imagine what the guy did with his remaining years in office? Does anybody else smell sequel?