Hollywood, History and Presidents

February 10th, 2009 in Pop Culture History by Jay Wertz

Hollywood and history go together like ham and eggs, or in California, perhaps sprouts and endive. For that reason this blog will attempt to explore history in entertainment and visa-versa. Since the United States just inaugurated its 44th president I thought it would be interesting to look back at some portrayals of fictional commanders-in-chief, characters in films and TV who outnumber the men who have held the office.

They have appeared in dramas, comedies, animated films and television episodes too numerous to count. Some have garnered starring roles and others barely get mentioned in the credits. They may be unseen, adding only a voice, or affecting the story without ever appearing. The position carries certain assumptions that the writer can avoid scripting. America’s president as a movie character essentially began in science fiction films of the 1950s—When Worlds Collide (1951,) Red Planet Mars (1952,) War of the Satellites (1958)—then really took hold with a number of Cold War–, espionage- and terrorism-themed films.

Here are a few favorites-movies that create the kind of suspense and drama that challenges the soul of a public servant. Fredric March as President Jordan Lyman stood up to a powerful military leader who was after his job in Seven Days in May (1964). Henry Fonda not only played Abraham Lincoln but was also a fictional president trying to avert nuclear disaster in Fail-Safe (1964). Peter Sellers tackled the same issue in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964); he was outrageously funny playing the president and two other characters in Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy of the Cold War.

Tom Clancy has mastered the art of blowing up international incidents into high drama, and he often uses the U.S. president as a character. On screen, Donald Moffat was calculating as a scheming president in Clear and Present Danger (1994) while James Cromwell sweated through a face-off with the Russians in The Sum of All Fears (2002). Clancy film protagonist Harrison Ford introduced the president as action hero in Air Force One (1997). Kevin Pollack worked through an epic crisis in the little-known gem Deterrence (1999).

In some cases audience expectations of “presidential” qualities give way to the human side of the leader. Michael Douglas played a dashing widower in the romantic comedy The American President (1995) while Alan Alda amused in Michael Moore’s send-up Canadian Bacon (1995). It was only a matter of time before the president would enter that staple of prime-time television, the workplace drama, in this case the workplace being the Oval Office. Hugely popular, The West Wing (1999-2006) showed Martin Sheen as both president and ordinary guy. Geena Davis convincingly balanced the challenges of country and family in Commander-in-Chief (2005-2006).

The leader of the free world will always be of interest to creators and audiences of cinema and television. Whether biographical or fictional, the list of characters playing the chief executive will lengthen over time. The latest entry is Monsters vs. Aliens, due out this March, with Stephen Colbert giving voice to an animated president of the United States.

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One Response to “Hollywood, History and Presidents”

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