We've got two portrayals of U.S. Presidents vying for Oscars this year: Josh Brolin as W in W. and Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. I've yet to see either one, though I did see Langella in the Broadway play, which I hear the movie faithfully replicates. On the eve of W.'s release, it seemed like a good time to get a discussion going on Best Screen Presidents, real or fictional. Here's my list, which is surely missing some obvious choices -- but that's part of the fun.
1. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) - The Contender
For the past couple of elections, pollsters have asked people which of the two presidential candidates they would rather "have a beer with." Inevitably it is pointed out that the person you would rather have a beer with is frequently not the person you would want to run the country. Jeff Bridges's President Jackson Evans, though, wins at life: he's the guy I'd want to have a beer with, and the guy I'd want running the country. Seriously, I would vote for Jackson Evans over either John McCain or Barack Obama. He's charming, and funny, and a bit of a jerk when called for, but he stands up for what's right and gives the best Rod Lurie Speech to date. My favorite movie president -- though for the record, I think The Contender is only pretty good.
2. President Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins) - Nixon
As I mentioned, I saw Frank Langella play Richard Nixon in the stage play incarnation of Frost/Nixon. It's a great, towering performance, and a pretty darn good Nixon impression. (It's such a huge Nixon impression that I'm actually a bit worried about how it'll play on screen.) He covers all the bases: the hand gestures, the guttural rumble of his voice, etc. For a contrast, take a look at Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone's fantastic 1995 biopic. What's remarkable is that he doesn't really try to impersonate the man he's playing. He takes on a few of the mannerisms and inflections, but doesn't push too hard. It's a great interpretation of Richard Nixon, and it's part of what makes the movie great drama rather than a glorified historical reenactment.
3. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) - Dr. Strangelove
This is memorable more for individual lines and moments, but what lines and moments. President Muffley delivers maybe the movie's most famous bit -- "Gentlemen, you can't fight in here. This is the war room!" -- but what always sticks with me is his desperate attempts to soothe Russian president Dmitri Kissoff on the phone after the planes set off for Russia: "Can you imagine how I feel about it, Dmitri? Why do you think I'm calling you? Just to say hello? Of course I like to speak to you! Of course I like to say hello! Not now, but anytime, Dmitri. I'm just calling up to tell you something terrible has happened. It's a friendly call."
4. The President (Henry Fonda) - Fail-Safe
The stone-cold serious version of Merkin Muffley, really. One of the most quintessentially presidential portrayals of a President -- all dignity and moral high ground -- but also one of the few that really gets across how lonely that kind of responsibility must be. The last few minutes, with him alone in that room, with a phone and a translator, are kind of heartbreaking. The movie seems a bit cheesy now, but Fonda's performance is classic.
5. President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) - Air Force One
Okay, this is kind of an obvious one, but come on: who doesn't want a president who can physically kick a bunch of terrorists off his airplane? I'm actually surprised this didn't get resurrected as a post-9/11 favorite, since it's a beautiful bit of wish fulfillment (though I guess Hollywood's chosen mode of dealing with 9/11 turned out to be oblique allegory rather than anything this direct). "Get off my plane!" Damn right. Send James Marshall after bin Laden, please.
6. President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) - Mars Attacks!
Another of my favorite comedic presidents. The point where he announces that he would like the people to remember that they still have two out of three branches of government working for them, "and that ain't bad," is timeless. I mean, that's some formidable spin right there.
7. President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) - 24
I know, this is cheating -- and now everyone's going to yell at me for leaving off The West Wing's President Bartlett. But as a long-suffering 24 fan (a crappy season followed by a year's hiatus is torture), I have to give a nod to Dennis Haysbert's President Palmer, who's tough, cool in a crisis, and possesses a supernatural amount of loyalty and integrity. And if he goes a bit too far in his support for Jack Bauer sometimes, well -- it's incredibly comforting to know that Jack Bauer is always right. Everybody wins!