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.

by |

Movie Presidents

He worked his way up from his humble log cabin roots to become an entrepreneur, a lawyer, and finally the President of the United States -- and now Abraham Lincoln is an action hero, courtesy of this weekend's supremely silly-sounding Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In honor of Honest Abe's return to the big screen, we decided to take a look at some other films about real-life Presidents -- and although none of them feature commanders-in-chief slaying the undead, we think you'll still find a few classics in the bunch. Hail to the Total Recall!

Abe Lincoln in Illinois


Abe Lincoln in Illinois was a Pulitzer-winning hit on the stage before it arrived in theaters, and the film adaptation did right by its source material, earning a pair of Academy Award nominations -- including a Best Actor nomination for Raymond Massey, who reprised his stage performance as Honest Abe on his way to the White House. (Fun trivia note: Ruth Gordon, who went on to win an Oscar for her performance as Minnie Castavet in Rosemary's Baby, makes her screen debut here as Mary Todd Lincoln.) "It's a grand picture they've made from Robert Sherwood's Pulitzer Prize play of two seasons back," enthused Frank S. Nugent of the New York Times. "A grand picture and a memorable biography of the greatest American of them all."



With a pair of bikini-topped girls on the poster, the involvement of someone named Deep Throat, and a title like Dick, you might expect something other than a cheerful political parody from director Andrew Fleming's 1999 release. But all winking aside, Dick is actually a fairly clever re-imagining of the Watergate scandal, with a pair of teenage girls (played by Michelle Williams and Kirsten Dunst) who stumble into jobs as White House dog walkers after unwittingly ruining the break-in -- and subsequently wind up altering the course of the entire administration. Mused Sue Pierman of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "The film is such a delight not only because it's clever, but because it so perfectly captures the era."



Ron Howard's best-reviewed film in ages, 2009's Frost/Nixon adapts the Peter Morgan play that dramatized British broadcaster David Frost's (played by Michael Sheen) efforts to secure and sell a series of TV interviews with the politically exiled former president (portrayed by Frank Langella). Although plenty of pundits took umbrage at the way Morgan's screenplay took liberties with the actual events that inspired the film, for the vast majority of critics, Frost/Nixon's flaws seemed pretty minor when weighed against the script, direction, editing, completed picture, and Langella's performance -- all of which received Oscar nominations. For the Philadelphia Inquirer's Steven Rea, it all added up to "A must-see for political junkies, history buffs, and folks still fascinated by the paranoia-fueled follies of the twitchy, sweaty, decidedly uncharismatic 37th president."

Give 'Em Hell, Harry!


Samuel Gallu's hit play came to the screen with this 1975 film, which used nine cameras to capture a tour de force performance from the show's one-man cast. James Whitmore earned Best Actor nominations from the Academy Awards as well as the Golden Globes for his portrayal of Harry S. Truman, which revisited highlights from the 33rd President's career -- and benefited greatly from post-Watergate America's yearning for leaders they could trust. Roger Ebert captured this feeling in his review, praising Give 'Em Hell, Harry! for its "nice, wicked partisan spirit sure to delight Democrats and inspire Republicans to wonder glumly why Richard, Dwight, Herbert, Calvin and Warren, not to mention Gerald, don't seem to lend themselves to this treatment."

Jefferson in Paris


Could Thomas Jefferson have projected Nick Nolte's air of rumpled insouciance in a mugshot? We'll never know for sure, but we do know Nolte is capable of pulling off a pretty solid facsimile of our nation's third president. The evidence: 1995's Jefferson in Paris, which imagines what may have transpired during his French ambassadorship during the years leading up to his eventual election -- specifically, his alleged affairs with Maria Cosway and Sally Hemings. Directed by James Ivory and featuring a terrific cast that included James Earl Jones, Thandie Newton, and Gwyneth Paltrow, Jefferson seemed like critical catnip; alas, most scribes turned up their noses at the finished product's sluggish pace and scattered screenplay. James Berardinelli of ReelViews acted as a voice of dissent, arguing, "Though it may be occasionally slow-moving and perhaps a half-hour too long, this film is put together with care and a mindfulness of quality."



A two-time Oscar winner and controversial smash hit for director Oliver Stone, JFK reconstructs John F. Kennedy's assassination and then spends most of its epic 189-minute length sifting through the wreckage, treating the killing as a murder mystery that New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) doggedly attempts to solve at any cost. With an impeccable supporting cast that included Sissy Spacek, Kevin Bacon, Tommy Lee Jones, and Gary Oldman, as well as a screenplay that challenged long-held assumptions about Kennedy's death, JFK reignited interest in the assassination, eventually leading to new legislation that ordered a reinvestigation and promised that all documents related to the killing would be made public by 2017. And while many critics agreed that the movie could have benefited from a more rigorous approach to the facts, it remains, in the words of the Washington Post's Desson Thomson, "A riveting marriage of fact and fiction."



Part of the Tricky Dick trifecta on this list, Oliver Stone's Nixon gave us Anthony Hopkins as the disgraced former president and Joan Allen as his wife Pat -- and while the 192-minute political epic failed to generate much heat at the box office, both Hopkins and Allen received Oscar nominations for their work in the film, which follows a non-linear path through Nixon's life and career, taking viewers from his California youth through his resignation. "What it finally adds up to," argued Janet Maslin of the New York Times, "is a huge mixed bag of waxworks and daring, a film that is furiously ambitious even when it goes flat, and startling even when it settles for eerie, movie-of-the-week mimicry."