As American voters get set to cast their votes, we look back at Hollywood's best and worst representations of its Commanders in Chief.
1 Dec 2009 - 12:00 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:07 PM

American audiences have not always embraced big-screen versions of their leader with wide arms and open minds. Oliver Stone's tour-de-force version of Tricky Dicky's life story, Nixon (1995), was a flop; when producer Darryl F. Zanuck wondered aloud why audiences stayed away from his lauded account of the life and flaws of Woodrow Wilson (Wilson, 1944), a colleague observed "Why should you expect people to pay 75 cents to see a movie about Woodrow Wilson when they wouldn't give two cents to see him alive?"

Nonetheless, the position that brings with it the title 'Most Powerful Man in the World' has always held an irresistible allure for filmmakers. Whether dissecting the self-destructive flaws of a Richard Nixon, the strength of spirit of an Abraham Lincoln or the glistening charisma of a Bill Clinton, the American President (real or imagined) makes for a fascinating subject.

President Abraham Lincoln was a visionary, to be sure – his furious fight to save the Union after the American Civil War and the 1863 Emancipation Proclamation were but two of the great free-thinking President's achievements that resonate to this day.

Abraham Lincoln's nation-building was too profound for Hollywood's producers to ignore. With 123 films tied to his name, Lincoln is the most enduring of American Presidents and his life and legacy, in all its inherently dramatic scope, has been examined in depth.

In 1910 Theodore Wharton directed the silent short film Abraham Lincoln's Clemency, featuring the President pardoning a grieving sentry and displaying the empathy and understanding he felt for the people of his nation. Character actor Ralph Ince portrayed Lincoln no less than seven times in four years, starring in short silent films that dramatised significant historical moments (The Battle Hymn of the Republic, 1911; Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, 1912; Lincoln, the Lover, 1914).

Lincoln featured heavily in D.W. Griffith's controversial epic Birth of a Nation (1915), portrayed by Joseph Hanabery as a wise and magnanimous leader. Despite Griffith's widely-recognised support of the Confederacy and all it stood for (including slavery), he held Lincoln in the highest regard as a leader of men; he would embrace Lincoln's influence on a healing nation in his first talkie film, Abraham Lincoln (1930).

The great American director John Ford was similarly reverential of Lincoln. In his 1936 film The Prisoner of Shark Island, he told the story of Samuel Mudd, the medical practitioner who mistakenly treated Lincoln's assassin John Wilkes Booth and was sentenced to prison for his good will; the film ended on a shot of Lincoln's hand followed by a none-too-subtle fade into a majestic portrait of the late President. Ford would examine Lincoln's life in greater depth in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), featuring Henry Fonda in one of his most iconic roles.

As the US became more deeply embroiled in World War 2, films that portrayed one the greatest personifications of the American spirit began to flow. Raymond Massey recreated his lauded stage role in John Cromwell's Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940; Massey would play Lincoln again in his distinguished career – twice on episodic television and again in the classic 1962 feature How The West Was Won); Frank McGlynn Sr played the President in the 1939 short Lincoln in the White House; Walter Huston provided the voice of Abraham Lincoln in the propaganda short The Battle of China (1944).

Iconic portrayals were borne out of the television era – from Austin Greene's portrayal of the President in 'The Passerby' episode of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone, to the mini-series period of the 70s and 80s, which spawned unforgettable portrayals of Lincoln by the likes of Hal Holbrook ('North And South Books 1 & 2', 1985/86), Gregory Peck (The Blue and The Gray, 1982) and Sam Waterston ('Gore Vidal's Lincoln', 1988), the 16th President remained as deeply-respected as ever.

There were those that endeavoured to sully the memory, however humourously – Lincoln joined Kirk and Mr Spock to fight Genghis Khan in the 1969 Star Trek episode, 'The Savage Curtain' and helped Bill and Ted pass history class in the cult hit, Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). But one thinks Abraham Lincoln may have laughed along. He was a man of the people (eventually – he was hated by the vast majority when he came to office in March 1861). With Liam Neeson signed on to portray Lincoln in the long-gestating biopic from Steven Spielberg, The Great Emancipator is due for another century of reverence from cinemagoers the world over.

Early filmmakers favoured Thomas Jefferson almost as much as they did Lincoln, and there were eight silent productions focussing on the Jefferson administration. Most notable of these was the William Randolph Hearst-produced epic, Janice Meredith (1924; aka, The Beautiful Rebel), a sweeping, lush romantic tale that pitted Jefferson against several suitors for the charms of the titular British girl – it also featured characterisations of George and Martha Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Marie Antoinette and Paul Revere.

For over four decades, the life of Thomas Jefferson has been explored in such worthy films as: Irvin Willat's Old Louisiana (1937), featuring a young Rita Hayworth; Frank Lloyd's The Howards of Virginia (1940), in which Cary Grant was (mis)cast as a cocky revolutionary and Richard Carlson as his nemesis, Jefferson; the short film Williamsburg: The Story of a Patriot (1957), which still runs daily at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Centre; and the 1972 adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, 1776, directed by Peter Hunt and starring Ken Howard as an all-singing, all-dancing Jefferson opposite William Daniels' John Adams and Howard da Silva's Benjamin Franklin.

The most compelling aspect of Jefferson's life, however, has been his 30-year illicit relationship with Sally Hemmings, a woman Jefferson met when serving as US ambassador to King Louis' court in France. Hemmings travelled back to the US with Jefferson where, according to historians, she was groomed and educated by the President, and bore him several illegitimate children. The essence of the love affair was captured in Charles Haid's mini-series Sally Hemmings: An American Scandal (2000), which featured Sam Neill as Jefferson and Carmen Ejogo as Sally; less successful was the handsome but stuffy Merchant Ivory production, Jefferson in Paris (1995), in which Nick Nolte wooed Thandie Newton in the royal courts of Paris and its surrounds.

A four-term presidential great, 'FDR' saw the US through some of the most trying times in the mighty nation's modern history. Wheelchair-bound following a childhood bout of polio, FDR was the protector of the people through the Second World War and, as such, has been given due respect by American filmmakers.

FDR was a rousing orator and his words feature as heavily as his image in many films that depict the die-hard fortitude he came to represent to the American fighting men and women. Lloyd Bacon's stirring tribute to the US Merchant Marine Corps, Action in the North Atlantic (1943), concludes with one of Roosevelt's most resonating speeches: “Nothing on land, or on the sea, or in the air, or under the sea, shall prevent our complete and final victory”. In the films Air Force (1943), God Is My Co Pilot (1945), and Flying Tigers (1942), American airmen are brought to tears by the Commander-in-Chief's 'Day of Infamy' speech: “Through our armed forces and in the unbounded determination of our people, we will win the inevitable triumph, so help us God.” Such was FDR's heavenly stature during the war years, his appearance in the James Cagney musical Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942) is shot as a silhouette – a stylistic device that film scholars immediately recognised as being inspired by the appearance of Christ in Ben Hur (1925).

FDR's defiant rise to the Oval Office in spite of his paraplegia was also a source of inspiration for filmmakers and audiences alike. Vincent J. Donehue's adaptation of Dore Schary's play Sunrise at Campobello (1960) saw Ralph Bellamy reprise the role he played on stage – FDR at age 40, struggling with the onset of the disease and its impact upon his stoic wife (Greer Garson), family and political ambition. It was a role that would serve Bellamy well – he recreated the part for the mega-series The Winds of War (1983) and its sequel, War and Remembrance (1989).

Rangy actor Edward Herrmann would also achieve acclaim in several different manifestations of FDR. In the mini-series Eleanor & Franklin – The Early Years (1976) and its follow-up, 'Eleanor & Franklin – The White House Years' (1977), he co-starred with Jane Alexander, both of whom aged 50 years in their portrayal of the loving couple. Herrmann returned to the role, in a cameo as the President in the musical Annie (1982).

FDR's majestic figure has inspired many fine actors in the role – Jason Robards (FDR: The Last Year, 1980); Robert Vaughan (FDR: That Man in the White House, 1982); Kenneth Branagh (Warm Springs, 2005). Jon Voigt's caricature in Michael Bay's Pearl Harbor (2001) took a less reverential tone; the director and actor conspired to not only turn one of America's greatest defeats into a moral victory of sorts, but also cure FDR of polio – he rises out of his wheelchair to address Congress.

Prior to FDR's Oval Office glory, another Roosevelt stood tall – Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th US President and 5th cousin of FDR. 'Teddy's terms in office have not inspired the great films that FDR's did; the robust frontiersman's image usually plays a support role espousing true grit and turn-of-the-century integrity (most memorably by Brian Keith in The Wind and the Lion (1975); most recently in the form of Robin Williams opposite Ben Stiller in the Night at the Museum films). But all that may change in 2011 when Martin Scorsese teams with Leonardo Di Caprio to film The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt.

No president has enjoyed a love affair with Hollywood (quite literally, at times) than The King of Camelot, John F. Kennedy. He was the first President to have his life story told on-screen while still in office. In Leslie H. Martinson's PT 109 (1963), Cliff Robertson plays a young Kennedy, called upon to save his crew after his ship in sunk in battle with a Japanese destroyer (rumour has it JFK wanted noted pants-man Warren Beatty cast in the lead).

Kennedy represented a new era of hope for America – after the tough times of World War 2, his East Coast wealth and starry connections, personified an American success story. Films embraced his success as a symbolic goal for the country - Jonathan Kaplan's Love Field (1992), in which Michelle Pfeiffer finds inter-racial love while travelling to see Kennedy's Dallas drive-by; Kennedy, the 1983 mini-series that painted the President (portrayed by Martin Sheen in an iconic performance) as a complex, flawed but honourable man; and Oliver Stone's fanciful but compelling JFK (1991) portrayed even the upper echelons of American power as being smitten by the spirit of what Kennedy represented to a new America.

The most volatile political period in Kennedy's term was the Cuban missile crisis in October 1962. Kennedy's staunch defiance in the face of Russian military aggression is captured perfectly in William Devane's performance in Anthony Page's The Missiles of October (1974) and its loose remake, Thirteen Days (2000), directed by Roger Donaldson (and starring Bruce Greenwood as arguably the finest screen-Kennedy ever).

Thirteen Days also featured a very true-to-life portrayal of brother Bobby (Steven Culp), yet it is one of the few times the younger (some say more politically astute) Kennedy has been depicted on screen. Kevin Anderson's Bobby went toe-to-toe with the union tough-guy in Jack Nicholson's Hoffa (1992); British actor Linus Roache starred as the optimistic Robert in Robert Dornhelm's RFK (2002); and fleeting glimpses of Dave Fraunces as the ill-fated Robert in Emilio Estevez's Bobby (2006) are enough to bring intense grief to an all-star cast.

With Senator Ted Kennedy's recent passing, a major film chronicling the triumphs and tragedies of the American royal family can only be a matter of time away.

And then there's Richard Millhouse Nixon....

When the country was baying for his blood as the young men of America spilt theirs in the jungles of Vietnam, Richard Nixon took his own political life with a bullet marked 'Watergate'.
On June 17, 1972, five men were apprehended inside the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate Hotel in Washington DC. As police interest in the case began to wane, two Washington Post reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, continued to investigate links between the Nixon administration and payments made to the intruders. As portrayed in Alan J Pakula's landmark 1976 film, All The President's Men, the journalists kept digging until they reached the top – Nixon, ashamed and fearing criminal charges, resigned from office in August 1974.

In the years since, he has been portrayed as a figure of ridicule (Andrew Fleming's Dick, 1999; Bruce Smith's Bebe's Kids, 1992; Jim Abrahams' Hot Shots Part Deux, 1993; Scott Sander's Black Dynamite, 2009); as a political sociopath with the most over-arching ambition (Ron Howard's Frost/Nixon, 2008; Richard Pearce's The Final Days, 1989; Oliver Stone's Nixon, 1995); and as a sad man with an inability to comprehend the nation's mood when it turned on him (Daniel Petrie's Kissinger and Nixon, 1995).

But there is no doubting the most powerful and insightful portrayal of Richard Nixon is by character actor Phillip Baker Hall, who gives an extraordinary, stream-of-consciousness performance in Robert Altman's little-known 1984 masterpiece, Secret Honor. Critic Roger Ebert describes Hall's performance as one of “such savage intensity, such passion, such venom, such scandal, that we cannot turn away.”

Nixon continues to fascinate directors eager to explore the notion that absolute power corrupts absolutely, and there can be no greater example of this than in a President that goes bad.

Not all Presidents make worthy subject matter. Millard Fillmore and Calvin Coolidge have only a few supporting appearances to their names; John Tyler, James Buchanan and Warren Harding do not appear in any movies at all. Others have been played so perfectly, we may have already seen the definitive versions – of Harry S. Truman (Gary Sinise in the mini-series Truman, 1995; James Whitmore's Oscar-nominated one-man triumph in Give 'em Hell, Harry!, 1975); of Andrew Jackson (Lionel Barrymore perfected the part of 7th President twice – first opposite Joan Crawford in The Gorgeous Hussy, 1936, then again in Lone Star, 1951); or, indeed, of John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins in Steven Spielberg's Amistad; Paul Giamatti in the lavish, detailed mini-series, John Adams).

So far, President Dubya Bush has been played for laughs on the bigscreen in all but Oliver Stone's terrific biopic, W. (2008). George has smoked weed with Harold and Kumar (Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay, 2008) and been savagely lambasted by Michael Moore in his doco-diatribes Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004), Sicko (2007) and Capitalism: A Love Story (2009), to name just a few. In the mockumentary Death of a President (2006), filmmaker Gabriel Range had the nerve to show the President being assassinated and ask “What would happen if...?”


Non-specific depictions of the incumbent are always a fascinating watch. During the Clinton administration, a series of square-jawed, internationally-acceptable, action-hero and/or lovable Presidents filled multiplexes (Bill Pullman in Independence Day, 1997; Harrison Ford in Air Force One, 1997; Dennis Quaid in American Dreamz, 2006; Billy Bob Thornton in Love Actually, 2003). The most successful Clintonesque President to win hearts was Andrew Shephard (Michael Douglas), who wooed a very doe-eyed Annette Bening in Rob Reiner's The American President (1995). Only one film decided to take on the enigmatic Clinton image with satirical savagery – Mike Nichols' Primary Colors (1998), in which a paunchy John Travolta gives a spot-on impersonation – but audiences stayed away.

And we should give credit to Hollywood for being ahead of the curve by some way in its depiction of an African-American President. As far back 1933, when Sammy Davis Jr starred as the little black child who imagined himself in the White House in the musical short Rufus Jones for President, film-makers have imagined an African American leading America – whether it be Little Richard in The Pickle, (1993); James Earl Jones in The Man (1972); Dennis Haysbert in '24'; Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact (1998); and Chris Rock in Head of State (2003).

We can only hope that the movie industry is as prescient about a woman becoming the 'Most Powerful Person in the World'. Geena Davis was a towering figure of strength as President Mackenzie Allen in the TV series ' Commander In Chief'; not so impressive was Joan Rivers as President Rivers in Les Patterson Saves The World (1987).

Perhaps the greatest embodiment of the President of the USA has been Peter Sellers as President Merkin Muffley in Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964). In trying to quell some in-house frustration, he utters the immortal line, “You can't fight in here, this is The War Room”. No phrase more precisely captures the balance between control and anarchy that the President must live with as part of his job every day.

John Adams screens on SBS ONE Sundays @ 9.30pm from December 6