Hail to the Chiefs: 6 Memorable Movie Presidents

2012 is starting to feel very presidential.  Not only is the real election just a week away (get out there and vote, American readers!), but the executive branch has also been inspiring Hollywood: both Steven Spielberg‘s Lincoln and the Bill Murray-as-FDR farce Hyde Park on Hudson hit theaters before the end of the year, not to mention this past summer’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

And while we here at Screen Invasion love a good biopic, we started thinking about the many fictional presidents that have sprung from the minds of screenwriters and onto the big screen.  There’s nothing that adds heft to your silly little disaster movie or lightweight comedy like an appearance from the leader of the free world.  So let’s put our partisan differences aside and celebrate some of cinema’s most memorable commanders-in-chief.


1. President Merkin Muffley

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Peter Sellers
Leadership Style: Paternal

Stanley Kubrick‘s Cold War farce features not one but three characters played by comedy legend Peter Sellers, but it’s his ineffectual President Muffley that gets the film’s best line.  “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here, this is the War Room!” he exhorts his military brass, scolding them for coming to blows as they try to figure out how to stop an impending nuclear war with the USSR.  But there’s little they can do once a rogue general gets the ball rolling, least of all the bemused president, emphasizing Kubrick’s point about the myopia of atomic deterrents and the madness of mutually assured destruction (encapsulated so brilliantly in the film’s idea of a world-purging “Doomsday Device”).

2. President James Marshall

Air Force One (1997)
Actor: Harrison Ford
Leadership Style: Hands-On
 “Get off my plane!”  Ah, if only our real chief executives had the guts to personally growl one-liners at terrorists before giving them the boot, literally and figuratively.  Bill Clinton was reportedly a fan of Wolfgang Petersen‘s airborne thriller – who wouldn’t be pleased with the one and only Han Solo (or Indiana Jones, if you prefer) playing your onscreen avatar? – that pits Harrison Ford against Russian ultranationalist Gary Oldman in the ultimate action fantasy for foreign policy hawks.  The White House did take exception with the film’s inclusion of an escape pod on Air Force One.  It (supposedly) doesn’t exist on the real plane, but shouldn’t our head of state enjoy the same safety precautions as R2-D2 and C-3PO?

3. President William (Bill) Mitchell/Dave Kovic

Dave (1993)
Actor: Kevin Kline
Leadership Style: Idealistic
Kevin Kline‘s dual role in Dave doesn’t actually allow him to showcase his range.  The real President Bill Mitchell is in a coma for much of the film, so Kline spends the majority of his screen time as Dave Kovic, the affable look-alike drafted to impersonate the president until his health stabilizes.  Though Mitchell’s two-timing chief of staff (Frank Langella) thinks he can use the impostor as a puppet to undercut the Vice President (Ben Kingsley) and ascend to the presidency, Dave’s wide-eyed populism proves too powerful for political chicanery.  Through his unorthodox policies, like letting an accountant friend balance the federal budget, Dave gives us a blueprint for how democracy might be saved – and how to regain the trust of an estranged spouse (Sigourney Weaver).  Still no word on how Clinton felt about this one.


4. Unnamed President of the United States

Love Actually (2003)
Actor: Billy Bob Thornton
Leadership Style: Bullying
This one may be stretching the definition of “fictional,” as the POTUS cameo in Richard Curtis‘ sprawling rom-com is a thinly veiled caricature of George W. Bush.  But I have to include it here because of Billy Bob Thornton‘s mustache-twisting performance, a turn so deliciously evil and enjoyable in its campy anti-American sentiment.  Thornton’s self-centered approach to diplomatic relations is one thing.  But after Hugh Grant‘s Prime Minister catches Thornton trying to extend the “Special Relationship” to a member of his household staff (Martine McCutcheon) – the woman Grant also happens to have the hots for – the PM opens up a can of oratorial whoop-ass during a televised news conference.  Bush #2 would last another term in the White House, but I’m still pretty sure this somehow contributed to the election of Barack Obama.

5. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho

Idiocracy (2006)
Actor: Terry Crews
Leadership Style: Muscular
The acid-tongued satire Idiocracy predicts an American society so progressively dumbed down by 2505 that it’s a sedentary wasteland where all important tasks are handled by computers and millions are entertained by TV programs like “Ow! My Balls!”  The leader of this ignorant electorate, President Camacho, possesses all the qualities they admire – physical strength, a booming voice, and a willingness to intimidate the weaker members of his Cabinet into participating in televised monster truck-style deathmatches.  Former NFL player/Old Spice pitchman/Expendable Terry Crews is the perfect choice to play Camacho, a benevolent despot with a grin as broad as his shoulders.  You know that Lincoln trailer where Abe talks about the presidency being “clothed in immense power?”  The Camacho Administration is just that idea taken to its literal conclusion.

6. President Thomas Whitmore

Independence Day (1996)
Actor: Bill Pullman
Leadership Style: Inspirational
From the ridiculous to the…even more ridiculous.  The Clinton era was the golden age of pretend presidents, and President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is the cream of the ’90s crop.  A throwback to the days when military service was a crucial part of a candidate’s résumé, the Gulf War vet has no qualms about hopping into a fighter jet to save the Earth from extraterrestrial invaders.  His rousing speech declaring a new Independence Day – the 4th of July, naturally – for the entire planet is the Roland Emmerich-helmed blockbuster’s enduring contribution to popular culture, repeated at barbecues and in bars across the US of A.  Given its enduring popularity with the Millennial Generation, don’t be surprised if that wonderfully bombastic ending quatrain (“We’re going to live on, we’re going to survive!”) starts sneaking into speeches during the 2032 presidential campaign.
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Who’s your favorite fictional president?  Anyone we missed?  Let us know in the comments!

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The Author

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is a film critic and correspondent for Screen Invasion, as well as the founder of Ambler Amblog (https://ambleramblog.blogspot.com/). His parents named him after a Welsh spy novelist they found in a reference book. Someday he will get around to watching all the VHS tapes he bought at Goodwill.