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10 Greatest Fictional Presidents on Film: Guiding America on the Big Screen

As July 4th approaches, we’re taking a look at the 10 best fictional presidents on film; those commanders in chief who have been created exclusively for the big screen and any similarity to people living or dead… is probably fully intentional.

Serving as guide to the best fictional presidents on film is author Dale Sherman, who has written the comprehensive Four Scores and Seven Reels Ago: The U.S. Presidency through Hollywood Films and observes, “As with any president, even if we didn’t vote for the person who won an election, we do want that person to do well in the job. The same holds true when it comes to those that are created for the screen rather than actually existed in the White House.

Four Scores and Seven Reels Ago cover Fictional Presidents on Film
Four Scores and Seven Reels Ago coverApplause Books

“As time goes by,” Sherman adds, “we have adjusted those ideas in Hollywood movies to sometimes show us presidents that probably should not be in the role, but almost always do the right thing for us, as seen in a couple of cases below. We may want to laugh at their occasional ineptitude, but that doesn’t mean we want them to ruin us in the process.”

So, what are the results of these presidents of the near-future? Keep reading about fictional presidents on film to find out.

1. Donald Pleasance as John Harker, Escape from New York (1981)

President John Harker was a real departure when it came to presidents, for he truly showed himself to be a weasel at heart deserving of everything that came his way (and still to come from what we see at the ending of the movie). John Carpenter’s Escape from New York is a classic movie that told of the future of 1997, when Manhattan had been transformed into a maximum-security prison where no one ever leaves.

Donald Pleasance as President Harker, 1981 Fictional Presidents on Film
Donald Pleasance as President Harker, 1981©Avco Embassy Pictures/courtesy

Harker is about to go before the world in a televised appearance with evidence that will turn the tide for America in a world crisis when his plane is hijacked and he escapes in a pod from Air Force One, only to land in the middle of this prison city. With the president kidnapped by a major gang in the city, “Snake” Plissken (Kurt Russell) is offered a parole if he can save both the president and the evidence before the planned television appearance.

“The focus of the film is on ‘Snake,’ naturally, but there are enough asides to show that Harker is a rat almost immediately,” explains Sherman, “as he willingly leaves his team on Air Force One to be jettisoned to presumed safety. His nature is to do whatever is needed to save himself from the leader of the gang, until such time as he gets the upper-hand and deliberately sets ‘Snake’ up as a sacrificial lamb so Harker can then easily kill the gang leader at a point when it’s no longer necessary.

“When Snake mentions near the end of the film about the death of many individuals who helped save his life, the president is dismissive; much more interested in his upcoming television appearance. In the end, Snake gets his revenge, Harker is left with egg on his face and the audience is happy, as it’s a well-deserved reward for his cowardly actions throughout the film. It’s a rare instance of a fictional president who doesn’t come to his senses, but gets what we feel he deserves in the end.

2. James Earl Jones as Douglass Dillman, The Man (1972)

Based on a novel by Irving Wallace, this then-futuristic tale of the first black president is essentially a re-write of the presidency of Andrew Johnson, right down to an attempt to impeach him. A movie adaptation went through a long development period before finally being set as an ABC television “movie of the week.”

With a script by Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone), it stars James Earl Jones as Douglass Dillman, the president pro tempore of the Senate who ends up becoming the President of the United States after the death of the president and the inability of the vice-president to serve. ABC, sensing some money to be made on a controversial topic, briefly moved the movie to theaters before premiering it on television.

“Surprisingly,” suggests Sherman, “if the movie had been made in the late 1960s where experimentation and openness was occurring in studio movies, or come just a few years later when mini-series television became the norm, such a movie would have had more meat to it. As it is, it has moments, with James Earl Jones giving a solid performance of a man who does not want the job and was quite happy in his smaller role where he could drift along without making waves, but nevertheless rises to the moment when crisis comes upon him.

“The resolution is also different in the movie, with Dilman ready to run for election rather than bow out as in the novel, showing him as a stronger leader in the end, making it a more positive message as well. Just a shame that the novel’s tackling of American racism is vacated. Well worth a look, just keep in mind the limitation of the script and budget.”

3. Morgan Freeman as Thomas Beck, Deep Impact (1998)

President Beck is woven through this disaster movie, showing him working to secure the survival of a set number of civilians when a large comet is about to hit Earth.

Explains Sherman, “Morgan Freeman would go on to play a president of the U.S. again over the years in both London Has Fallen (2016) and Angel Has Fallen (2019), making him one of the few actors — like Henry Fonda — to appear multiple times as different presidents on screen. And as in those films, Freeman gives us a president who we trust will guide us in a horrible situation, will save as many as possible along the way and who succeeds (with the help of many others, but still succeeds). Besides, the man played God in both Bruce Almighty (2003) and Evan Almighty (2007), so why wouldn’t you want him as president?”

4. Kevin Kline as David Kovic, Dave (1993): Fictional Presidents on Film

Back to the dark side of the political fence here with this comedy from 1993 featuring Kevin Kline in a dual role. The first is as a man named Dave, who makes a small living on the side as an impersonator of the current president, Bill Mitchell. Mitchell, for his part, is presented as a straight shooter who is looking out for Americans, but behind-the-scenes is out for himself and thinks little of the public.

“When a stroke sidelines Mitchell,” the author picks things up, “his Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) conspires to have Dave take Mitchell’s place with the objective of worming his own way into the role of president. The problem is that Dave turns out to be a much better president than Mitchell was and begins dismantling objectives the Chief of Staff had laid in place. In the end, Dave gives up his role for the greater good, but he does defeat those that would have tried to obtain power they should never have, thus making Dave an example of someone who really should be there even if they technically shouldn’t. Once again a story of a president who fumbles at first, but then rises to the occasion when needed.”

5. Terry Crews as Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, Idiocracy (2006)

“Make no mistake,” Dale Sherman laughs, “Camacho (Crews) is an idiot. One of the biggest around, which may explain why he’s president of the country in this movie set five hundred years in the future when the population has become increasingly dimmer.

“Camacho is treated like a professional wrestler who commands like an emperor, and he continues to do things that are not the best for the country. But in the third act of the movie, he does see the errors of his ways and allows our hero (Luke Wilson) to not only survive after saving the country (and possibly the world), but then become the next president of the country. Even in a comedy where we laugh at the low intelligence of this president, we still want Camacho to come through for the country and are happy to see him do so.”

6. Fredric March as Jordan Lyman, Seven Days in May (1964)

The setup is a coup planned by the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Burt Lancaster), for which the president is advised. With the coup slowly coming into focus, President Lyman (Fredric March) works to put the pieces together so that he can expose the plan before it can occur.

Sherman says, “March plays Lyman as a man in ill-health, but strong of mind, and his president is ready to jump in and actively try to reason with the Chairman, making him in some ways what I commonly refer to in my book as the ‘action president’ – someone who takes physical charge to save the day. It won’t be the last time we run across one on his list.”

7. Bill Pullman as Thomas Whitmore, Independence Day (1996): Fictional Presidents on Film

Just as Lyman in the previous entry was an “action president” in his own ways, President Whitmore here is ready to jump into a jet and face off against aliens in this blockbuster movie from 1996.

“Working with leaders from around the world,” details Sherman, “Whitmore doesn’t just sit back and let others do the dirty work, he physically leads them along the way, clearly showing us the type of president that will be a protective father for us and do anything to save our lives. Ironically, when the character returns in the 2016 sequel, Independence Day: Resurgence, he appears as a broken man and no longer seen as a leader, although in the end he helps point the way for the world to fight off the aliens once again.

“Nevertheless, the atmosphere in Hollywood has changed a bit in the 20 years since the first film, and we have begun to question how seriously we can believe in our heroes. The president is not only fallible, but not stable, and we treat that as something we can perhaps expect as we get closer to seeing the mistakes of our real presidents.”

8. Michael Douglas as Andrew Shephard, The American President (1995) : Fictional Presidents on Film

The last comedy on this list features an effective outing for Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shephard, a man fighting to win re-election and wanting to pass a crime bill that no one likes. As he works to resolve the political differences to get people on board, the president finds himself having romantic feelings for lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening).

Says Sherman, “When they begin to date, opponents to the president use the romance to underestimate the effectiveness of Shephard as a leader. Ultimately, given the choice to give up on Wade to pass his bill, Shephard refuses and instead goes back to a harder version of the bill that was originally planned before he was convinced to water it down for votes. It is not clear what the results will be as the movie ends, but we admire Shephard for sticking to his principles instead of only doing what he feels is best for his popularity, as we would hope to find in our presidents in reality as well.”

9. Harrison Ford as James Marshall, Air Force One (1997)

Of course, any review of fictional presidents must have the biggest “action president” ever, James Marshall of Air Force One. After refusing to use the escape pod when terrorists take over the president’s plane (a feature that the government says does not exists on Air Force One, no matter how many times since Escape from New York it has appeared in movies), Marshall goes the whole Die Hard route in order to not only save nearly everyone on the plane, but prevent the release of a dictator.

“The film is notable for discussing the 25th Amendment,” opines Sherman, “and while the movie makes it look to be as easy to use as a ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card, it is interesting to see its use here, since it has become so common for political commentators to throw out the Amendment like garlic against a vampire when discussing presidents in office they don’t like. Saying all that, in reflection, Marshall’s early ‘America First’ speech is a bit hard to stomach in light of world events since the making of the movie.”

10. Henry Fonda as The President, Fail Safe (1964)

While Harrison Ford is the physical image of how we dream of the president, we end up back to an early model of the Hollywood vision for our leader: Henry Fonda.

“His early career,” Sherman reflects, “saw him as Abe Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln, and he would eventually play the president in a 1970s disaster movie, Meteor, besides also being involved in political thrillers dealing with the presidency such as The Best Man (1964) and Advise and Consent (1962), and always as a kind, humble man trying to do the right thing. Fonda had the look of someone we trusted and the demeanor and soft-spoken nature that we expect of a man who could, like Teddy Roosevelt, ‘speak softly and carry a large stick.’

“And that ability for believability in strength of words comes no greater in any fictional presidential movie than in Fail Safe. Following a storyline very much the same as in Dr. Strangelove or; How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), U.S. jets speed towards Moscow to drop bombs in a mistaken mission that everyone tries to stop. Fonda plays the president, who is never named, and spends his time in a bunker with an interpreter as he tries to calm the Soviets. Others in the film may have more action, but Fonda’s character only has his words to keep us invested and he does so quite effectively.”

In the end, The President decides to hopefully stop a nuclear war by agreeing that if the bomb does hit Moscow, he would make a sacrifice by doing the same to New York. It’s an outrageous decision that will lead to the death of millions, yet we as the audience believe at this point in the film that it’s the only possible choice.

That,” he praises, “is the ability of a great actor to convey what must be done, even in the worst of times, because if we don’t believe it, then the movie doesn’t work, which proves what a good choice Fonda was for the role. Because as much as we prop up or pull down the president in our fiction and in our memories, we still want someone we can believe in. To guide us to a greater future, protect us against enemies, and search for ways to stabilize our world.

“Hollywood,” closes Sherman, “presents us with images of what we may fear at times, but typically what we wish we had. We want Henry Fonda. We could even put up with Camacho for a time, but give us Fonda in a crisis. Give us our Lincoln. For most of our history, we’ve been fortunate in our picks, and even the worst of our presidents have proven themselves to be what we needed at the time. One can only hope it will continue in the future, as we keep going to the movies to see our wishes come true.”

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