11 of the worst, truly terrible, movie Presidents
- Alex Johnston
- 9 November 2016
A spotters' guide to crappy commanders-in-chief
The world woke up this morning to the startling news that Donald Trump has been elected President of the United States. Whatever your political inclinations, we're sure you'd like to echo First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's right and proper congratulations to President-elect Trump on his success; her warm tribute to Hillary Clinton, whose campaign represented such a huge step forward for women; and her hope that the new president 'will reach out to those who felt marginalized by his campaign and make clear – in deeds as well as words – that he will be a president for everyone in modern, multicultural America.'
Turning to unrelated matters, while there are many great screen presidents, the most inspiring fictional one being Martin Sheen's, passionate, avuncular smartass Josiah Bartlet in The West Wing, there is a parallel tradition in American cinema of depicting really crappy ones. Here are some rubbish screen presidents; not all of them fictional.
1. Richard M Nixon, All the President's Men (1976)
In Alan J Pakula's great, paranoid news thriller, Nixon is one of only two historical characters to appear as himself, in the form of actual news footage. The face we see of Nixon is the public one, but the shadow he casts is long and dark, and it's the one Hal Holbrook as Deep Throat (aka Woodward's FBI contact Mark Felt) looms out of whenever he dispenses his hints and warnings. All the President's Men may focus on the press coverage of the Watergate robbery to the exclusion of the far larger and more disturbing surveillance operation that Nixon ran on his enemies, but it still has the power to inspire and inform.
2. Bill Mitchell, Dave (1993)
Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) is the cheerful boss of a Georgetown temp agency, and he just happens to bear a striking resemblance to sitting President Bill Mitchell (also Kline), a cold, corrupt, philandering asshole. When Mitchell has a disabling stroke while in mid-coitus with a White House staffer, scheming Chief of Staff Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) hires Dave to impersonate Mitchell during the actual president's recovery, keeping the real man's coma a secret even from the sharp-as-a-tack First Lady (Sigourney Weaver.) It all goes awry when Dave's competence and likeability makes him hard to get rid of. Very silly, but good fun.
3. Bob Roberts, Bob Roberts (1992)
Tim Robbins' Bush Sr-era mockumentary about American politics stars himself as a smirking, besuited, conservative folksinger running for president (its inclusion here is something of a cheat, as it's only implied that he will win.) The film gets off some nice jabs against hypocrisy, but there's something implausible about Bob's rise to power: he pushes all the correct far-right buttons, but would this uptight, humourless yuppie-scum really inspire enough love to make it to the White House? It depends on which candidate you regard Bob as a precursor of.
4. The President, Wag the Dog (1997)
The President in Barry Levinson's satire is neither seen nor named, but he's another example of Crappy President: Free-Roaming Penis Type. After the Prez makes advances on an underage girl two weeks before an election, spin doctor Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) concocts a fictional war to distract the public's attention. Worth it for De Niro's deliciously underplayed turn as the genial, beard-stroking villain, Anne Heche as his nervous assistant, and Dustin Hoffman channelling Hollywood producer Robert Evans as their egotistical co-conspirator.
5. Richard M Nixon, Nixon (1995)
Oliver Stone's take on Nixon is very much his own. Anthony Hopkins is like a tormented mole, his neckless head poking directly out of his ill-fitting shirt collar, shoulders hunched, eyes constantly on the alert for slights and insults. As so often with Stone, the director falls a bit in love with his villainous hero, and so we find ourselves sympathising with a man who prolonged the Vietnam war in order to get himself elected. Still, if you're going to look for the humanity in a bad politician, this is how to do it.
6. George W Bush, W. (2008)
… And this is how not to do it. Stone's biopic of the least impressive president of the last 40 years suffers from the fact that its subject isn't a protagonist: born rich and privileged, George W (Josh Brolin) stumbles from one failure to another and is continually brushed off and forgiven because, well, he's rich and privileged. Even when events conspire to get him into the White House, he remains a baffled, uncomprehending nebbish who desperately wants, but never gets, the approval of his terrifying father (James Cromwell). And again, Stone glosses over the more callous aspects of his subject. If it's worth watching, it's for Cromwell and also Richard Dreyfuss, boiling with red-faced anger as Dick Cheney.
7. Russell Kramer, Matt Douglas and William Haney, My Fellow Americans (1996)
If you want to watch James Garner and Jack Lemmon as feuding ex-presidents who must become unlikely buddies in a wacky assassination caper, this one's for you. Former presidents Kramer (Lemmon) and Douglas (Garner) narrowly escape being blown up as part of an evil scheme to supplant dimwitted incumbent Haney (Dan Aykroyd). The plot turns rather heart-warmingly on the honour and dedication of a gay Secret Service sniper (Jeff Yagher), leading to the film's comic high point where Lemmon and Garner take part in a pride parade, but you can also see a young Bradley Whitford as Aykroyd's evil but not very effectual Chief of Staff.
8. President Hathaway, Monsters vs Aliens (2009)
This animated comedy for older kids is really about Susan Modesto (Reese Witherspoon), a California woman who is struck by a meteorite that causes her to grow to fifty feet high, and who's subsequently drafted by gruff General Warren R Monger (Kiefer Sutherland) into a team of super-monsters who must fight off evil alien Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson). It's a hoot, but Stephen Colbert steals every scene he's in, as the voice of gleefully idiotic President Hathaway.
9. Martin Van Buren, Amistad (1997)
Spielberg's historical drama about an 1841 slave revolt is far from his best-loved film. Its depiction of oppressed black folk being freed by the noble efforts of well-intentioned white men (as well as a fictional black abolitionist) is the kind of thing that doesn't go down well with different audiences for different reasons, but there's a harrowing scene in which fifty slaves are thrown overboard in mid-ocean, simply because the slave ship crew made a mistake with provisioning. President Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) doesn't like slavery, but very much in the manner of a modern anti-gun-control advocate, his attitude is that you can't abolish it because it's protected by the Constitution. He spends much of the film wishing that all this abolitionist nonsense would just go away.
10. Alan Richmond, Absolute Power (1997)
The most depraved monster in this list, Richmond (Gene Hackman) is carrying on a fling with the beautiful young wife (Melora Hardin) of one of his biggest donors, and unluckily for her, he's got a sadistic streak; they fight, it escalates and she's shot dead by the Secret Service, the only witness being jewel thief Luther Whitney (Clint Eastwood). The loathsome Richmond then spends the rest of the film trying to cover it up, but this is a Clint Eastwood movie, so you can guess how that works out. Preposterous but enjoyable, and one of the last ever films of the great character actor EG Marshall, who plays Hardin's elderly, grieving husband.
11. Merkin Muffley, Dr Strangelove (1964)
Not all crap presidents are sex-obsessed, paranoid, stupid or hawkish. In Stanley Kubrick's great black comedy about apocalypse, Peter Sellers based the reasonable, mild-mannered but tragically ill-informed President Muffley on the public persona of Democratic politician Adlai Stevenson II (a tad unfair, as Stevenson played a crucial role in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis.) Muffley wastes so much time consulting, debating, fretting and just plain waffling that doomsday happens to the tune of Vera Lynn. Stay safe, people, and be good to one another.