It’s Presidents’ Day again, when we get a sorely needed three-day weekend, a bonanza of price-slashing mattress sales, and a tip of the ol’ tricorn to our first commander in chief, George Washington. But it’s also a great excuse to hunker down on the sofa and watch some great movies about U.S. presidents, both factual and fictional. Consider this list of 12 must-see movies a veritable Mount Rushmore of streaming options.
Steven Spielberg forgoes the traditional cradle-to-grave Great Man Hollywood biopic treatment and instead zeroes in on one brief-but-telling four-month chapter of the Great Emancipator’s time in office: namely, the fight to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Abraham Lincoln is nothing short of a magic trick — a brilliant sleight of hand that conjures both the dreamy idealist and the shrewd political animal behind the beard and stovepipe hat. What could have easily been a dry history lesson instead unspools like a masterpiece that feels vital and alive.
Oliver Stone’s biopic about the nation’s 37th president is exactly what you’d expect from the conspiracy-minded provocateur behind JFK — but also so much more. No, Anthony Hopkins looks nothing like Richard Milhous Nixon, but his performance reaches beyond sheer mimicry and is so layered that you forget about the performance of it all after the first 15 minutes. This is a biopic as star-studded psychohistory that lays out in time-leaping fragments the full sweep of Nixon’s hard-scrabble life in order to explain his insecurity, paranoia, persecution complex and restless ambition. Joan Allen is quietly devastating as Pat Nixon. And James Woods, J.T. Walsh, and Paul Sorvino are note-perfect as all the president’s men.
The American President (1995)
Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner’s Oval Office comedy is a light-as-meringue liberal fantasy about a decent, recently widowed Democrat president (Michael Douglas) named Andy Shepherd who falls in love with a daffy environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening), putting a target on his back for his political adversaries. If you want to know where the seeds for Sorkin’s The West Wing come from, look no further than this delightful, Capra-eque film.
Southside With You (2016)
Long before they were the president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama were a seemingly mismatched pair who went out on a first date — a first date that would end up defining the rest of their lives. Set over the course of a sunny afternoon on the South Side of Chicago in 1989, the two walk and talk, get ice cream, see a movie, and spark a connection that will one day lead all the way to the White House. As played by the dead ringers Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson are a study in contrasts. Think of this charming, opposites-attract indie as Before Sunrise with an eye on history.
Air Force One (1997)
Harrison Ford plays the leader of the free world as a cross between Han Solo, Indiana Jones, Jack Ryan and one ticked-off papa bear hell bent on single-handedly stopping a motley crew of Kazakhstani terrorists (led by a maniacal Gary Oldman) from hijacking the presidential 747 with the first family on board. Director Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot, In the Line of Fire) proves yet again that he’s a maestro of blockbuster entertainment with white-knuckle set pieces that will satisfy any action-flick sweet tooth, making Air Force One a rousing, jingoistic, Die Hard-at-30,000 feet hoot.
Lee Daniels’ The Butler (2013)
Daniels’ emotionally affecting drama is a funhouse mirror version of the usual presidential biopic. Instead of focusing on the famous residents of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, it tells the story of Cecil Gaines — the African-American butler who had a front-row seat to history for three decades working as the presidents’ personal butler. Played with understated humanity and grace by Forest Whitaker, Daniels’ film is like an Upstairs Downstairs version of American history.
Thirteen Days (2000)
Once you get past the thick chowder of Boston Brahmin accents, this tense tick-tock procedural chronicling the Kennedys as they stared down the Soviets during the Cuban Missile Crisis is an underrated marvel. Told not through the eyes of Bruce Greenwood’s JFK, but rather the special assistant to the president, Kenny O’Donnell (Kevin Costner), Thirteen Days is an enthralling, high-stakes game of Cold War chicken at a time when the world teetered on the brink of WW III. That annihilation was skirted thanks to a series of bluffs and lucky breaks is both a relief and hugely terrifying.
Primary Colors (1998)
Based on Joe Klein’s best-selling roman à clef about the Clintons and the sordid skeletons in their closet, Mike Nichols’ political satire deserves a better reputation than the one it got when it first came out. As the thinly veiled president Jack Stanton and first lady Susan Stanton, John Travolta and Emma Thompson both walk the tightrope between cartoonish caricature and uncanny exactitude like a pair of Wallendas. With a biting, barbed script by Elaine May, Primary Colors is the definitive portrait of the Clinton era — comical, tragic and packed with more scandal than a supermarket checkout rack.
Seventeen years after JFK and 13 years after Nixon, Oliver Stone returned with the finale in his presidential trilogy. Though not as assured as those two previous films, the director’s lampoonish portrait of President George W. Bush is still a rollicking snapshot of the political scion’s rise from alcoholic ne’er-do-well to the most powerful man on the planet thanks to Josh Brolin’s backslapping good ol’ boy performance. W. doesn’t have as much to say as either JFK or Nixon, mainly because it arrived so shortly after Bush left office that his legacy hadn’t hardened yet. But what it does say, it says with surprising resonance.
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The Contender (2000)
Rod Lurie’s grippingly scandalous political thriller feels like 1962’s Advise and Consent updated for the Drudge era. Joan Allen stars as a U.S. senator who has been nominated by the incumbent president (a playfully mischievous Jeff Bridges) to be his new VP. But the ranking Republican in Congress (a deliciously villainous Gary Oldman) schemes to make her confirmation a nightmare thanks to a possibly sordid past that she refuses to discuss. Loaded with partisan mudslinging and Machiavellian power plays, The Contender is a dirty delight with a corker of a third-act twist that will pull the Lincoln bedroom rug right from under your feet.
Fail Safe (1964)
A series of human and computer errors nearly touches off WW III in this black-and-white nail-biter from director Sidney Lumet. Henry Fonda plays the president, who tries to convince the skeptical Soviets that the squadron of American bomber jets loaded with nukes soaring toward Moscow weren’t sent by him and that he intends to stop an all-out attack before there’s no turning back. Coming out in the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Fail Safe is a terrifying reminder of just how easily Armageddon could be unleashed during the Cold War. Then again, if it’s calm reassurance you’re after, no one could play that card better than Fonda.
Jimmy Carter: Rock & Roll President (2020)
The smiling peanut farmer from Plains, Georgia, was hardly anyone’s idea of a hip dude when he ran against Gerald Ford to become the 39th president. But in director Mary Wharton’s rockin’ documentary, it turns out we were all wrong. Carter quoted Bob Dylan on the campaign trail, the Allman Brothers headlined countless fundraisers for him, and Paul Simon played at his inauguration. Who knew that beneath his cardigan-clad veneer beat the heart of a cool, cool cat? Well, thanks to this truly fun film, you finally will.