Monday was Presidents Day, and I continue a tradition I appear to have started a few years back, writing about the various presidents of the United States. It’s appropriate, not just because of the holiday but because I was watching a movie about my favorite chief executive over the weekend. So, I thought, why not write about cinematic versions of our presidents?
I also noted that HBO was running the 2008 miniseries John Adams, in which our 2nd president is played, and played well, by Paul Giamatti. The 7-episode series won 13 Emmy awards, with 10 other nominations. Giamatti won for lead actor, and his co-star Laura Linney won for lead actress. Linney played Adams’ wife, Abigail, a very influential figure in her own right. I’ve seen the series a few times and was always struck by the drama around the deliberations of the Continental Congress in 1776 as Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and other titans of American history grapple with the momentous issue before them: submit to Great Britain, or fight for independence?
Adams’ predecessor, George Washington, has been played on the large and small screens many times, of course. Wikipedia lists some 27 theatrical films featuring Washington, going all the way back to 1909, and many TV productions, which tend to have portrayed Washington in much more depth than any film. Washington was a very complex man and a two-hour movie is only going to scratch the surface of his long and momentous life. David Morse played Washington in John Adams, and one scene I remember with great clarity occurs during Washington’s first years as president. He is having trouble dealing with two contentious members of his cabinet, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton. In the scene, as Adams waits outside the cabinet room, Washington storms out, shouting back at the men inside that he’s had it with their bickering. It was almost shocking. This was George Washington, and he was angry! The image we have of Washington is almost mythical: stoic, stern, indefatigable in the face of the enormous challenges he faced and overcame. Other great portrayals of Washington on TV have been by Barry Bostwick in two different miniseries in the mid-80s and Nicholas Rowe in a 2020 History Channel documentary.
Aside from Washington, the most consequential president in history, most people would agree, would be Abraham Lincoln. Our 16th president has been portrayed countless times in books, movies and TV series. Some of them get a little far out there. Two of those that come to mind are the novel and movie, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, in which a young Lincoln makes it his life’s mission to rid the earth of vampires, and the Harry Turtledove alternate history novel, How Few Remain, which takes place in the early 1880s, more than a decade after the South’s victory in the Civil War. Lincoln, defeated for re-election in 1864, has now become a Marxist and is working fruitlessly to bring socialism to America. With the Union and Confederacy once again at war, and with the South’s ally, Britain, massing troops across the border in Canada, Lincoln’s antiwar efforts bring him into conflict with young rancher Theodore Roosevelt, who’s in the middle of raising a troop of early Rough Riders to oppose the British invasion of Montana.
Perhaps the best portrayal of Lincoln to date was by Daniel Day-Lewis in the 2012 movie Lincoln, based on the Doris Kearns Goodwin biography, Team of Rivals. The film covers the final four months of Lincoln’s life, as he fights for the adoption of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery and begins tentative (and unsuccessful) negotiations with the Confederacy to end the Civil War. Day-Lewis won an Academy Award for his portrayal of Lincoln. And once again, the viewer is treated to scenes of Lincoln that we don’t usually associate with him: his anger at recalcitrant members of Congress, his frustration with his wife, his sadness at the memory of his late son, Willie. We also see him as the wily politician he undoubtedly was, using the power of his personality and his simple eloquence to shape the destiny of the nation.
Other presidents from the 19th century have been featured in the movies and on TV, but few in a central role. Ulysses Grant has been portrayed in History Channel documentaries and in some shows about the Civil War, but a major production about his life has yet to be done, as far as I know. Oddly enough, one thing I remember most about a fictional portrayal of Grant is from a science fiction novel, If I Never Get Back. In the book, the hero goes back in time accidentally to 1869 and becomes a member of the very first professional baseball team, the Cincinnati Red Stockings. On a trip to Washington, the team is invited to the White House and meets President Grant. The time-traveler is not impressed, considering Grant to be short (he was 5’8″), frumpily dressed and uninspiring. “Television would kill him,” the guy from the future concludes.
With the advent of sound recording and motion picture filming in the late 19th century, American presidents suddenly became a lot more real to their constituents, and thus to us, their descendants. The first president to have his voice recorded was reportedly Rutherford Hayes in 1877, by Thomas Edison with his new recording device. Unfortunately, whatever record there was has been lost. The oldest one we have is from Benjamin Harrison in 1889.
Grover Cleveland preceded Harrison in office, but wasn’t recorded until he was running for election again in 1892. As for film, the first president to be photographed while in office was William Henry Harrison, who sat for a daguerreotype shortly after his inauguration in 1841. That one has been lost, unfortunately, so the honor of being the first president to have a photograph survive into the 21st century was John Quincy Adams in 1843, although this was some 14 years after he left office.
The first president to be filmed was William McKinley, taking the oath of office for the start of his second term in March 1901. McKinley was assassinated six months later, and his successor, Theodore Roosevelt, embraced the new media of film and audio recording, which did a good job of capturing his personal charisma. For the first time, the majority of the American people could actually see and hear their president, even if they were not among the relatively few who got to see him in person. Undoubtedly this gave Americans a much greater connection to their leader, which Roosevelt rode to a landslide victory when he ran for his own term in 1904.
It wasn’t long before another new medium, radio, appeared. Warren G. Harding was the first president to have his words broadcast, when he gave an address to a crowd in Baltimore in June 1922. His successor, Calvin Coolidge, was the first president to deliver an address specifically designed for a radio audience, as well as those listening in person, when he was inaugurated for a full term in 1925. Eight years after Coolidge made that speech, the all-time king of presidential radio, Franklin Roosevelt, took office. During his twelve years in the White House, FDR utilized radio to speak directly, and often, to the American people. His first “fireside chat” was broadcast only eight days after he took office in 1933. Roosevelt’s genius was to use radio in a very personal way, bypassing the filters of the newspapers who had for generations reported a president’s words and interpreted them based on whatever political slant the editor and publisher might have. Now, the people could hear the president directly, and make up their own minds about what he said. FDR was also the first president to appear on television, in 1939 when that new medium was in the experimental stage.
As presidents began to use film and broadcasting to their advantage in the first half of the 20th century, it was only natural that the film industry would start telling the stories of the presidents themselves, and indeed, make up entirely fictional presidents. Virtually every 20th century president has been played by someone in the movies, starting with the first, McKinley, who was played by Brian Keith in the 1997 TV miniseries, Rough Riders. That film focused on his ultimate successor, Theodore Roosevelt, and his brief but momentous Army career during the Spanish-American War of 1898. When this film aired on TNT 99 years later, I first became intrigued with this man who would leave his wife, young children and cushy government job to go to war.
There have been some 20th century presidents who haven’t made much of an appearance in the movies. There’s been no great demand for films featuring William Howard Taft, for example, even though he was the only American to serve as both president and then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. (He does make a notable appearance in a recent film about TR; more about that later.) Harding, Coolidge and Herbert Hoover have been mostly ignored by Hollywood, but virtually every president since then has had more than a few depictions on screens large and small.
It’s not infrequent for Hollywood directors, especially in recent years, to allow their personal political views to drive their work. Stone certainly did so with his two presidential movies, one of which was done while the subject was still in office, hardly lending itself to objectivity. There have been a few films made about Barack Obama’s younger days and early political career, and all of them show much of the hero-worship that our 44th president inspired in a lot of his followers. It’s said that no real balanced history of a public figure can be written until many decades after his or her death. Biographies are still being written about Washington and Lincoln, even though one might assume that everything that could be said about them has been said. Very few portrayals of Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter have been produced thus far, which is not surprising, since they were both fundamentally decent men who served only a short time in the presidency. Neither of those facts lend themselves to riveting drama. And it goes without saying that we should not expect any kind of fair on-screen consideration of Donald Trump until sometime late in this century, if ever.
TR and the River of Doubt
The movie I referred to at the beginning was one I hadn’t heard of, until I was reading an article in Parade magazine about the actor Aidan Quinn. I was familiar with him thanks to his role as NYPD detective captain Thomas Gregson in Elementary (2012-19), a modern-day update of the Sherlock Holmes legend. In the article, Quinn talked about a project he’d finished in 2021, a Brazilian TV miniseries titled The American Guest. Quinn plays Theodore Roosevelt in the four-hour production, which focuses on his exploration of an unknown tributary of the Amazon in 1913.
After finishing second behind Woodrow Wilson in the 1912 presidential election–TR had topped the ticket for the new Progressive Party, after failing to wrest the Republican nomination from his successor, William Howard Taft–Roosevelt embarked on a dangerous adventure in the wilds of the Brazilian Amazon, along with his son Kermit. The film is based on the 2009 book The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt’s Darkest Journey, by Candice Millard. The expedition, in which Roosevelt shared the leadership role with Brazilian explorer Candido Rondon, nearly resulted in the former president’s death, but he survived to see the river named after him. The miniseries also uses flashbacks to explore highlights of Roosevelt’s 1901-09 presidency, and his 1912 campaign to reclaim it, with Dana Delany starring as his wife, Edith. All told, it is a resounding tribute to the vision and, let’s face it, the heroism of our 26th president, without even touching on his pre-presidential days as a soldier in the Spanish-American War, which brought him a posthumous Medal of Honor, and his earlier time as a cowboy in the Dakotas.
The fictional Chief Executives.
Rob Reiner directed LBJ, but 21 years earlier gave us one of the best depictions of a fictional president in The American President. The film stars Michael Douglas, and Reiner surrounded him with a fine cast that included Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox and Annette Bening. A decade or so later, Sheen moved up to the fictional top job in the TV series, The West Wing.
Hollywood being what it is, fictional presidents can also be action heroes, fighting terrorists on board his airplane (Harrison Ford in Air Force One) and even taking to the skies as a fighter pilot in a do-or-die battle against alien invaders (Bill Pullman in Independence Day).
My two favorite fictional on-screen presidents go back a ways, and there was nothing about fighting terrorists or shooting down aliens in either film. They’re serious dramas that explore troubling issues. Both premiered in 1964, during the height of the Cold War. Just two years earlier, real-life President John F. Kennedy had averted nuclear war with the Russians over their installation of missiles in Cuba, using tough diplomacy and deft military maneuvering to force his adversary, Nikita Kruschev, to remove the weapons. The threat of nuclear war was very real in those days, and two movies addressed it in clever ways.
Seven Days in May stars Kirk Douglas, Michael’s father, as a Marine Corps colonel serving as the chief aide to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, an Air Force general played by Burt Lancaster. Douglas notices some alarming things going on and becomes suspicious that his boss is planning to lead a military coup to topple the government. The president, played by Frederic March, has upset many in the civilian population, not to mention those in uniform, with his willingness to enter into disarmament negotiations with the Soviets. The general is indeed planning to overthrow his commander-in-chief, but Douglas’ courageous colonel takes his suspicions to the president and the revolt is defused.
What’s interesting about the film is that it doesn’t rely on combat scenes, gunplay or even fisticuffs to tell its story and build the tension. The climactic scene, where the president confronts the renegade general in the Oval Office, is one of the great scenes in movie history, certainly at the top when it comes to political films.
Fail-Safe postulates a nightmare scenario: American nuclear bombers launch an attack on Moscow because of a computer error. Defying the orders of the President of the United States and even the entreaties of their wives, the pilots, having been trained to ignore such things as possible enemy deception tactics, drive on to the target. The president, played by Henry Fonda, gets on the phone with the Soviet premier, and assisted by his interpreter (a very young Larry Hagman), attempts to help the Soviets shoot down the attacking jets. But the bombers’ evasive maneuvers are too good, the Soviet air defense network too inefficient, and when he realizes Moscow is doomed, the president does the only thing he can think of to avert a counterattack that will lead to the destruction of both countries: he orders one of his own bombers to strike New York City.
The film never shows us the Russians. They’re only voices on the phone: an incredulous, then angry premier, a general working feverishly with his American counterpart shoot down the planes, an interpreter who is probably much like the terrified young man played by Hagman. In the end, the worst-case scenario unfolds.
As movies are wont to do, films about fictional presidents often give us the men (and occasionally women) we would like our real-life leaders to be: strong, brave, flawed and yet determined to do the right thing, even at great cost. One wonders what Lyndon Johnson thought, for example, when he sat in the White House movie theater watching Fail-Safe and Seven Days in May, as he surely did.
We’d all like our presidents to be as good-looking and noble as Michael Douglas’ Andrew Shephard or as resolute as March’s Jordan Lyman. Fiction is worthwhile in giving us archetypes, those to emulate and those to avoid. Maybe someday, we think, we’ll get a president or two who actually is as good as those in the movies. But if we pay attention to history, we’ll find that we’ve had quite a few of them already.