When actors land a big part, they do not get much bigger than Commander-in-Chief. Sometimes the role is played crooked, sometimes played true. Sometimes the President is a hero, sometimes a fool. Here is my shortlist of the actors who set the precedents for playing the Presidents.
President: Merkin Muffley of the United States
Actor: Peter Sellers
Movie: Dr. Strangelove
Peter Sellers gave three outstanding performances in Stanley Kubrick’s pitch black cold war satire about nuclear war. The most understated was his portrayal of Merkin Muffley, the mild-mannered President who gets exasperated with his military for exceeding their authority (by launching a first strike on the USSR) and then calls his drunken counterpart, Premier Kissoff, to persuade him not to retaliate…
Hello?… Uh… Hello D- uh hello Dmitri? Listen uh uh I can’t hear too well. Do you suppose you could turn the music down just a little?… Oh-ho, that’s much better… yeah… huh… yes… Fine, I can hear you now, Dmitri… Clear and plain and coming through fine… I’m coming through fine, too, eh?… Good, then… well, then, as you say, we’re both coming through fine… Good… Well, it’s good that you’re fine and… and I’m fine… I agree with you, it’s great to be fine… a-ha-ha-ha-ha… Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb… The *Bomb*, Dmitri… The *hydrogen* bomb!… Well now, what happened is… ahm… one of our base commanders, he had a sort of… well, he went a little funny in the head… you know… just a little… funny. And, ah… he went and did a silly thing… Well, I’ll tell you what he did. He ordered his planes… to attack your country… Ah… Well, let me finish, Dmitri… Let me finish, Dmitri… Well listen, how do you think I feel about it?… Can you *imagine* how I feel about it, Dmitri?… Why do you think I’m calling you? Just to say hello?… *Of course* I like to speak to you!… *Of course* I like to say hello!… Not now, but anytime, Dmitri. I’m just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened… It’s a *friendly* call. Of course it’s a friendly call… Listen, if it wasn’t friendly… you probably wouldn’t have even got it… They will *not* reach their targets for at least another hour… I am… I am positive, Dmitri… Listen, I’ve been all over this with your ambassador. It is not a trick… Well, I’ll tell you. We’d like to give your air staff a complete run-down on the targets, the flight plans, and the defensive systems of the planes… Yes! I mean i-i-i-if we’re unable to recall the planes, then… I’d say that, ah… well, ah… we’re just gonna have to help you destroy them, Dmitri… I know they’re our boys… All right, well listen now. Who should we call?… *Who* should we call, Dmitri? The… wha-whe, the People… you, sorry, you faded away there… The People’s Central Air Defense Headquarters… Where is that, Dmitri?… In Omsk… Right… Yes… Oh, you’ll call them first, will you?… Uh-huh… Listen, do you happen to have the phone number on you, Dmitri?… Whe-ah, what? I see, just ask for Omsk information… Ah-ah-eh-uhm-hm… I’m sorry, too, Dmitri… I’m very sorry… *All right*, you’re sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well… I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don’t say that you’re more sorry than I am, because I’m capable of being just as sorry as you are… So we’re both sorry, all right?… All right.
President Muffley takes charge, is diplomatic, wastes no time on press conferences, speaks plainly and passionately wants to avoid war. But apart from that, it is a very realistic portrayal.
President: Dave Kovic/Bill Mitchell of the United States
Actor: Kevin Kline
When they talk about the film-making being a creative industry, they were probably were not thinking of this particular film. From the stupendously unimaginative title to the hackneyed plot device of having a character replaced by their double, the most challenging thing about this movie is watching it to the end. Why the normally so-selective Kevin Kline agreed to appear in this film is beyond me. In the story, Kline plays Bill Mitchell, the philandering President and Dave Kovic, the decent nobody who looks just like the President and ends up taking his place. Of course, the decent nobody is a caring sensible sort who does a great job as President. In other words he is exactly the sort of fantasy President that people wish for – without asking why they would never vote for someone like that in the first place…
President: James Marshall of the United States
Actor: Harrison Ford
Movie: Air Force One
The President’s security goons are caught sleeping on the job, allowing terrorists to take over Air Force One and put the President’s family in jeopardy. Following the maxim that ‘if you want a job doing properly, do it yourself’ the President is forced to kick the butt of the terrorists himself. The worrying thing is that some people probably do expect their world’s most powerful man to solve problems with his bare fists.
Presidential Candidate: Governor Jack Stanton
Actor: John Travolta
Movie: Primary Colors
It is a cheat to include John Travolta’s approximation of Bill Clinton in this list, not least because the film follows him on road to the White House, not his time in it. But the depiction of a man who would be President is so compelling, it is hard not to carried along by it. Clinton is a man of considerable charisma, and so is Travolta. With Charisma like that, he gets my vote.
President: David Levinson of the United States
Actor: Bill Pullman
Movie: Independence Day
So the aliens invade the whole earth, but apparently it is up to the yanks to do all the heavy lifting when it comes to fighting them off. The Americans do not need to coordinate with any other nation, and they get their asses royally kicked, as you might expect when fighting a race that has mastered interstellar travel and has put some thought into how they kill every living human living. Then, in rather a twist, the American government discovers that hacking can be a good thing. Some nerd finds that the aliens have not updated their admin passwords. Down comes the alien forcefields and up goes the President, a former pilot, in his jet fighter. The aliens lose and apparently the rest of the world gives them a blooded nose too, but the fighting by the rest of the world is off camera. It makes you wonder why anyone would put the United Nations in New York. Was it just to the only way to persuade the Americans to participate?
President: Andrew Shepherd of the United States
Actor: Michael Douglas
Movie: The American President
Did I say that “Dave” lacked imagination? In “The American President” it turns out the American President is a decent guy who has to deal with complicated political stuff and finds it hard to find time for dating between being a President and a single dad. There are only two original concepts in this film: (1) that American Presidents find it hard to meet women, and (2) that former sex addict Michael Douglas finds it hard to meet women. Both are extremely unlikely.
President: Thomas Wilson of the United States
Actor: Danny Glover
When Obama was on the campaign trail, there was a joke that they would never let a black man be President unless the country was in real trouble. Judging by Hollywood, they will not let a black man be President unless the world is about to end. Morgan Freeman set the mould for forlorn Black President watching as the world is destroyed, in the 90’s disaster movie Deep Impact. Danny Glover is equally forlorn in this latest formula excuse for lots of CGI and frantically screaming extras. Glover gives a decent performance as a man who cannot do much about the end of the world, and he does what any decent black President should do and makes no effort to save himself from disaster. This movie would have been significantly helped if, instead of just giving up, Glover had called up old pal Mel Gibson and the two of them had tried to save the day with some high-octane, high-kicking and high-explosive action, all the while complaining that they are “too old for this shit”. It probably would not have saved the world, but it would have been an entertaining way to try. At least they would have gone down fighting. “Riggs!”
President: Laura Roslyn of the Twelve Colonies
Actor: Mary McDonnell
TV Show: Battlestar Galactica
In the ground-breaking reworking of Battlestar Galactica, the President of the twelve human colonies was a woman. Clearly a double-X chromosomed President is only imaginable in a world set millions of light years from our own. Apart from the fact that she is a woman, the President of the Twelve Colonies is obviously based on the US Presidency. This can only leave you bewildered at the mixed emotions Americans must have about their leaders. She never wins an election, but tries to steal one. She behaves like a bashful schoolgirl when someone flirts with her, mere minutes after ordering the execution of someone in cold blood without a trial. She takes the mantle of religious messiah and is intolerant of those with differing beliefs. Unlike the others on this list, the viewer is given no clues about whether they are expected to despise or sympathize with this President. In Independence Day, McDonnell played the First Lady to Bill Pullman’s President. She consistently did nothing whilst the President consistently took the fight to the aliens. A decade later, McDonnell’s twisted President flip flops on every issue, and at times is caught loving her enemies, screwing her colleagues, and hating her neighbours. Compared to this, I would take Harrison Ford’s terrorist thumper or Bill Pullman’s alien dogfighter every day of the week. They may not be smart, but at least you know whose side they are on.
President: Josiah ‘Jed’ Barlet of the United States
Actor: Martin Sheen
TV Show: The West Wing
When the Democrats could not get a President into the White House, they could still get one on to television. Martin Sheen as the President is the supposed to be the right man in the right place at the right time. Yup, the program showed politics is complicated and full of compromise and it tried to track the substantive issues of the time. The real question though was how anyone found Martin Sheen’s depiction of an erudite and faithful President to be plausible, after Clinton’s personal failings and George W’s mangluage (mangling of language). Perhaps, for all its realism, The West Wing was the ultimate in Presidential escapism?