Total Recall: U.S. Presidents On Film

With Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter hitting theaters, we run down some memorable movies featuring historical commanders-in-chief.

PT 109

63%

The first theatrical release inspired by a sitting president, 1963's PT 109 used Vincent Flaherty and Howard Sheehan's nonfiction bestseller about John F. Kennedy's heroics during World War II as the basis for a war film starring Cliff Robertson as JFK, James Gregory as his crusty commander, and a young(er) Norman Fell as one of his crewmates. Made with no shortage of reverence for its subject -- and White House veto power over the director and star -- PT 109 struck many critics as too long and dull to recommend during its theatrical run, but most scribes found something to enjoy. As Allmovie's Craig Butler pointed out, "Not everyone was involved with the major assaults; many spent their time risking their lives in places and situations of which most people are totally unaware, and it's a nice change of pace to see this aspect of the war dramatized."

The President's Lady

——

Before he played Moses, John the Baptist, or Michelangelo, Charlton Heston portrayed Andrew Jackson in The President's Lady, dramatizing the seventh President's early years in a sweeping historical drama that centers on his marriage to Rachel Donelson Robards. Arguably more interesting than most presidential unions, Jackson's relationship with Robards was complicated after the lovebirds discovered that their marriage was technically invalid on account of the fact that her previous husband had lied about filing for divorce, thus clouding Jackson's political ambitions with accusations of bigamy. "Through it all," observed Variety, "Charlton Heston supplies the kind of ammunition to this film that is as loaded as any carbine slung across his broad shoulders. It is a forthright steely-eyed portrayal."

1776

64%

A musical about the founding fathers? It might sound like a Family Guy sketch, but 1776 is actually very serious -- and although it arrived in theaters a few years too early to take advantage of bicentennial fever, director Peter H. Hunt's song-and-dancefied look at our nation's birth found critics in a generally forgiving mood. How can you argue with a musical starring Ken Howard as Thomas Jefferson? Vincent Canby of the New York Times couldn't -- although he groused that "the music is resolutely unmemorable" and "the lyrics sound as if they'd been written by someone high on root beer," he had to concede that this adaptation of the hit 1969 play "insists on being so entertaining and, at times, even moving, that you might as well stop resisting it."

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Sunrise at Campobello

100%

A key figure in some of the most crucial events in American history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt led an eminently biopic-worthy life -- but 1960's Sunrise at Campobello sidesteps most of his time on the world stage, opting instead to concentrate on the difficulties he faced in the weeks after suffering partial paralysis at the age of 39. Ralph Bellamy stars here as FDR, reprising his role in the hit stage run of the Broadway play, alongside Greer Garson (who earned an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe for her performance) as Eleanor Roosevelt. For most critics -- who were, along with the rest of the country, learning the extent of the former President's health struggles for the first time -- the end result was well worth watching. "Ralph Bellamy's performance of Mr. Roosevelt is every bit as strong, as full of feeling and characteristic gesture, as Mr. Bellamy made it on the stage," wrote Bosley Crowther in the New York Times. "The picture he gives us of a strong man enduring a dark Gethsemane and coming through it with cheerfulness and courage is one of the finest of this year on the screen."

Thirteen Days

83%

Nearly a decade after he scored a huge hit with JFK, Kevin Costner starred in another film that drew inspiration from events surrounding the Kennedy administration: Thirteen Days, which found Costner playing presidential aide Kenneth O'Donnell alongside Bruce Greenwood (JFK) and Steven Culp (Bobby Kennedy) in a tense behind-the-scenes dramatization of what went down in the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. While it wasn't a huge hit during its theatrical run, Days scored with critics such as Eric Harrison of the Houston Chronicle, who mused, "Who would've thought this nearly 40-year-old piece of history could be turned into such a riveting motion picture?"

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W.

59%

The most recent chapter of Oliver Stone's presidential trilogy, W. served George W. Bush -- who was wrapping up his second term while it was filmed -- with a somewhat muted, surprisingly sympathetic biopic that traced his occasionally haphazard rise from political scion to oil baron and back again. While Josh Brolin earned near-universal praise for his work in the title role, critics found W. as a whole a little harder to take, citing its laconic pace and insufficiently hard-hitting approach as particularly troublesome flaws. For others, however, it proved a warm, fairly witty farewell for the GWB years; as the Chicago Tribune's Michael Phillips put it, "The film may be ill-timed, arguably unnecessary and no more psychologically probing than any other Stone movie. But much of it works as deft, brisk, slyly engaging docudrama."

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Wilson

88%

A prolific legislator, successful -- albeit occasionally begrudging -- proponent of progressive causes (including women's suffrage), and dedicated diplomat, Woodrow Wilson offered producer Darryl F. Zanuck plenty of material for a biopic -- and Zanuck obliged, turning the 28th President's life into the 154-minute epic known simply as Wilson. Sadly, in spite of its inspiring source material (and generally positive reviews), Wilson was a costly flop; according to the film's Wikipedia entry, "its failure upset him to the point that he forbade any of his employees from ever mentioning the film in his presence again." Still, the movie earned an impressive 13 Academy Awards, winning six. "Zanuck, fresh from his experiences of WWII, was keen to make a movie which addressed the problems of the age," explained Time Out. "The result's handsome, worthy and solemn."

Young Mr. Lincoln

100%

Offering a somewhat fictionalized version of real-life events, Young Mr. Lincoln blends the 16th President's early years into some vintage courtroom drama with surprisingly successful results. Starring Henry Fonda as Lincoln, the film begins with the chance encounter that sparks his journey from humble shopkeeper to skilled attorney, culminating in a court case that finds young Mr. Lincoln saving a couple of men framed for murder -- and winning Mary Todd's heart in the process. Eventually enshrined in the National Film Registry, Young Mr. Lincoln boasts a perfect Tomatometer rating thanks to reviews like the writeup printed by Douglas Pratt of the Hollywood Reporter, who enthused, "Fonda's physical presence throughout the film is a thing of magic, as he seems to glide from one position to the next, never looking awkward even when he is bent in three places to fit within the frame."


Take a look through the rest of our Total Recall archives. And don't forget to check out the reviews for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Finally, here's a clip of Honest Abe dropping science on the students of San Dimas High School:

Comments

D Ray

D Young

Check out the PBS movie "The Missiles of October". Simply the best dramatization of the Cuban Missile Crisis you'll ever see.

Jun 20 - 05:02 PM

jimmyl3241

James Livolsi

Thirteen Days with Kevin Costner is excellent. Cuban Missile Crisis movie.

Jun 20 - 10:11 PM

Christopher Hellinger

Christopher Hellinger

I don't know if it's right to include JFK as the film wasn't really about the president so much as it was about the attempt to uncover a conspiracy in Kennedy's assassination. Though, if those kind of films are fair game, then I think it's a shame that All the President's Men wasn't included, especially considering the recent anniversary.

Jun 20 - 05:28 PM

Adam Baum

Adam Baum

The list is "U.S Presidents on Film." JFK was depicted on film in JFK.

Jun 22 - 12:40 PM

Jeffrey Jackson

Jeffrey Jackson

Was he? I know they used the Zapruder film (which was actually JFK) but I don't recall him appearing otherwise.

Jun 23 - 10:57 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Just one shout out for Brian Keith's incredible preformance of Teddy Roosevelt in "The Wind and the Lion". And I'm very relieved that no one mentioned "1776". Dodged a lead bucky on that. Hopefully Bill Murray and Daniel Day-Lewis will join these ranks later this year.

I really like both of the Oliver Stone films (I also think "JFK" is a stretch), "Nixon", with an awesome supporting cast and performances all around, and "W", more great acting and that ball that never dropped. The perfect metaphor for that imbecile.

Jun 20 - 05:55 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

I forgot to mention it earlier but Dan Hedaya is inspired casting for Richard Milhouse Nixon. Better than either Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella, and it's not their fault. Hedaya has the scummy essence in his blood like a wellbred hound. Also good is Bob Gunton who played a great Nixon in the unfortunately little-seen "Elvis Meets Nixon", a small forgotten gem.

Jun 20 - 07:59 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Another great Nixon: James McManus in "Black Dynamite". Poor Dan Aykroyd. The very best Nixon can only be seen on original SNL DVDs.

Jun 20 - 11:38 PM

Matt John

Matt John

Dude, stop replying to yourself!

Jun 23 - 11:46 PM

Aaron Yovanovits

Aaron Yovanovits

I was enjoying his conversation tbh

Jun 24 - 01:11 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Where is this internet rulebook with all these etiquette laws I'm violating?

Jun 24 - 06:29 PM

ap sirius

karl anderson

If your looking for something thats not very good, but interesting none the less, try The Kidnapping of the President.... A young and thin William Shatner has to rescue the president, played by Hal Holbrook, who is being held for ransom in an armoured car. For those who are fans of the Resident Evil films, you'll recognize the set of the films finale is Toronto Canada city hall, the same set that is used in the second R.E. film.

Jun 20 - 06:38 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Well, I'd like to see a "Best Fictional President" list. Donald Pleasance in "Escape From New York", Henry Fonda in "Fail Safe", Peter Sellers in "Dr Strangelove", Harrison Ford "Air Force One", Richard Belzer "Species II", Terry Crews "Idiocracy". I'm sure there are many many more possibilities.

Jun 20 - 07:51 PM

Christopher Kulik

Christopher Kulik

Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho 2012

Jun 20 - 10:12 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Edward Albert from "Dreamscape". Ronald Lacey from "Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" (Lacey is better known as the creepy Toht from "raiders of the Lost Ark"). Jack Nicholson from "Mars Attacks".

Jun 20 - 11:36 PM

CFM

'schak Attack

Bill Pullman in "ID4". Morgan Freeman in "Deep Impact". Danny Glover in "2012". And the best ever on-screen fictional president: Tom "Tiny" Lister, Jr. in "The Fifth Element".

Jun 21 - 08:39 AM

CFM

'schak Attack

TV Time... Madam President from "Battlestar Galactica". President Palmer, and his sleezy yahoo successor, and his chick successor, from "24".

Jun 21 - 08:49 AM

I fight for the users

Ian Fastert

Does President Schwarzenegger from The Simpsons Movie count?

Jun 22 - 07:11 AM

Theo Koskoff

Theo Koskoff

If TV counts then Martin Sheen from "The West Wing"

Jun 23 - 03:16 PM

Deepak Menon

Deepak Menon

Lloyd Bridges - Hot Shots Part Deux, case closed!

Jun 21 - 01:42 PM

Banra Purk

Banra Purk

all the presidents' men?

Jun 20 - 07:12 PM

Ben Barnard

Ben Barnard

You know that no President actually APPEARS in All the President's Men, right? It's ineligble.

Jun 21 - 08:03 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Well, I'd like to see a "Best Fictional President" list. Donald Pleasance in "Escape From New York", Henry Fonda in "Fail Safe", Peter Sellers in "Dr Strangelove", Harrison Ford "Air Force One", Richard Belzer "Species II", Terry Crews "Idiocracy". I'm sure there are many many more possibilities.

Jun 20 - 07:51 PM

Christopher Kulik

Christopher Kulik

Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho 2012

Jun 20 - 10:12 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Edward Albert from "Dreamscape". Ronald Lacey from "Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" (Lacey is better known as the creepy Toht from "raiders of the Lost Ark"). Jack Nicholson from "Mars Attacks".

Jun 20 - 11:36 PM

CFM

'schak Attack

Bill Pullman in "ID4". Morgan Freeman in "Deep Impact". Danny Glover in "2012". And the best ever on-screen fictional president: Tom "Tiny" Lister, Jr. in "The Fifth Element".

Jun 21 - 08:39 AM

CFM

'schak Attack

TV Time... Madam President from "Battlestar Galactica". President Palmer, and his sleezy yahoo successor, and his chick successor, from "24".

Jun 21 - 08:49 AM

I fight for the users

Ian Fastert

Does President Schwarzenegger from The Simpsons Movie count?

Jun 22 - 07:11 AM

Theo Koskoff

Theo Koskoff

If TV counts then Martin Sheen from "The West Wing"

Jun 23 - 03:16 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

I forgot to mention it earlier but Dan Hedaya is inspired casting for Richard Milhouse Nixon. Better than either Anthony Hopkins or Frank Langella, and it's not their fault. Hedaya has the scummy essence in his blood like a wellbred hound. Also good is Bob Gunton who played a great Nixon in the unfortunately little-seen "Elvis Meets Nixon", a small forgotten gem.

Jun 20 - 07:59 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Another great Nixon: James McManus in "Black Dynamite". Poor Dan Aykroyd. The very best Nixon can only be seen on original SNL DVDs.

Jun 20 - 11:38 PM

Matt John

Matt John

Dude, stop replying to yourself!

Jun 23 - 11:46 PM

Aaron Yovanovits

Aaron Yovanovits

I was enjoying his conversation tbh

Jun 24 - 01:11 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Where is this internet rulebook with all these etiquette laws I'm violating?

Jun 24 - 06:29 PM

Jacob Miller

Jacob Miller

Where is Bill Pullman in Independence Day!

Jun 20 - 08:08 PM

CFM

'schak Attack

He protrays a fictional president. This list is about dudes that portray real Presidents.

Jun 21 - 08:47 AM

William Crane

William Crane

You obviously didn't see Nixon or JFK. Talk about fictional!

Jun 22 - 12:16 PM

Christopher Kulik

Christopher Kulik

I wrote a review on ABE LINCOLN IN ILLINOIS for DVD Verdict a couple of years ago. Very underrated film, directed by John Cromwell; his son, actor James Cromwell, was born only a month after ABE LINCOLN'S release in theaters. Massey was so good at Lincoln that he portrayed the President in all other movies and TV shows up until 1962's HOW THE WEST WAS WON. Another interesting trivia bit is the only other actor aside from Massey to make the transition from stage to screen was Howard da Silva as a ruffian who Abe tangles with near the beginning. Silva may be best known as the empathetic bartender in Billy Wilder's THE LOST WEEKEND, however I think his finest role was as Benjamin Franklin in 1776, the most underrated musical ever made.

Jun 20 - 10:09 PM

William Van Gieson

William Van Gieson

Howard Da Silva was a very underrated actor. Take a look at his performance in 'The Blue Dahlia'. I met him once in an elevator in NYC. A charming and pleasant man.

Jun 21 - 05:57 AM

Lynn Stuart

Lynn Stuart

Loved his Benjamin Franklin!

Jun 22 - 01:15 PM

jimmyl3241

James Livolsi

Thirteen Days with Kevin Costner is excellent. Cuban Missile Crisis movie.

Jun 20 - 10:11 PM

Christopher Kulik

Christopher Kulik

Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho 2012

Jun 20 - 10:12 PM

Adam Lee

Adam Lee

No George W. Bush in Harlod and Kumar?

Jun 20 - 10:25 PM

Adam Baum

Adam Baum

Why are you asking? Reread the list. It's not on there.

Jun 22 - 12:41 PM

Lynn Stuart

Lynn Stuart

That wasn't nice. It was his way of commenting...

Jun 22 - 01:17 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Edward Albert from "Dreamscape". Ronald Lacey from "Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" (Lacey is better known as the creepy Toht from "raiders of the Lost Ark"). Jack Nicholson from "Mars Attacks".

Jun 20 - 11:36 PM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Another great Nixon: James McManus in "Black Dynamite". Poor Dan Aykroyd. The very best Nixon can only be seen on original SNL DVDs.

Jun 20 - 11:38 PM

Matt John

Matt John

Dude, stop replying to yourself!

Jun 23 - 11:46 PM

Aaron Yovanovits

Aaron Yovanovits

I was enjoying his conversation tbh

Jun 24 - 01:11 AM

Janson Jinnistan

Janson Jinnistan

Where is this internet rulebook with all these etiquette laws I'm violating?

Jun 24 - 06:29 PM

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