Tricky Abe and Honest Dick? The 5 Best Cinematic Portraits of U.S. Presidents

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Our presidents have passed through history, one after another, forty-four and Counting — some leaving great legacies and achievements, others not so much. The challenges and triumphs both public and private seen in the Oval Office and lived by the men who‘ve occupied it have inspired everything from drama to farce to romance whereas Hollywood is concerned. The latest, Spielberg’s quite worthy Lincoln, has emancipated cinemagoers from facile entertainment. As such, Top5 deems it appropriate to take a look at all the best screen portrayals of our real life Chief Executives. That’s right, real life; Morgan Freeman from Deep Impact needn’t apply.

5 Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon

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Apparently Nixon and Lincoln are the greatest friends actors have amongst our presidential roster, which makes sense, as they are icons at opposite ends of the spectrum. Langella, who reprises the role he originated on Broadway, gives us the Nixon years removed from the whole scandal/resignation business in this account of the 1977 interviews he granted to British TV personality David Frost. Distance from the events and pride have colluded to make Nixon a stone wall of rigid denial with delusions of rightfulness (“when the president does it, it’s not illegal”) but Frost does not let up, ultimately getting the Tricky One to show some palpable remorse toward the American people for his deeds. The moment, though highly played up in comparison to footage from the actual interviews, is powerful in the hands of a master like Langella.

4 Josh Brolin as George W. Bush, W. (2008)

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In Oliver Stone’s farcical, lighthearted, often hilarious look at the life of George W. Bush, Josh Brolin plays kind of a comic Henry V, in youth a hard-partying rabble rouserat odds with his father, in maturity seeking to honor/outdo the old man’s legacy in the theater of war. Stone and Brolin admirably attempt to fill you in on what could have shaped the man that W. eventually became, the man that gave us most notably the Iraq War (and many shocking malapropisms). Bush is largely (and convincingly) painted as an innocent, a man driven by insecurity and guided down the wrong path by sinister staff members like Cheney and Rumsfeld and the unwavering belief that he is doing the right thing. It’s all a work of frothy fiction, but one that does jibe well with the goofier aspects of George W. Bush, thanks in no small part to Brolin’s nailing of Bush’s cadence and mannerisms.

3 Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

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Though this film takes place before Lincoln was President, it very much illustrates what made the man a great leader and politician, as any film about Lincoln at any point in his life no doubt would (yes, even Baby Lincoln).Fonda was originally going to pass on this part in fear of having to inhabit the role of such a great man, but after seeing himself in makeup tests, decided to go for it and film history can forever be thankful he did. In a film that can now serve as a nice kind of prequel to Spielberg’s 2012 film, Fonda brings a lot of the same cool-headed cleverness to the role that can be found in Day-Lewis’ version, in this story based on an last court case Lincoln participated in as a lawyer before holding political office. Much like Day-Lewis, Fonda’s Lincoln is also an expert at working a crowd, swaying opinion with his metaphors and stories, drawing huge laughs with his sharp verbal jabs.

2 Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon, Nixon (1996)

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In Oliver Stone’s captivating look at the controversial, potty-mouthed (just listen to the tapes) prez, Anthony Hopkins brings us a man who is nervous, bitter, yet undeniably virtuous in many respects and genuinely puzzled by the scorn heaped at him his whole life. Stone surprised people with the relative mercy and sympathy he visited upon the sweat-soaked head of Richard and Hopkins’ intense performance sells the Depression-spawned, self-made scrapper climbing through a hard-fought political career fraught with embarrassment and loss before finally landing in the big seat. When he breaks down to wife Pat in private, genuinely inquiring as to why everyone hates him, you’ll want to reach in the screen and give the Watergate maestro a hug.

1 Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln (2012)

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There’s no surprise in the notion that once acting titan Daniel Day-Lewis embodied one of our American presidents, he would ultimately leave us with the single best presidential performance of all. In Steven Spielberg’s witty, crackling account of the 16th president’s last five months in office (and on Earth), Day-Lewis presents a sage, wily, master politician who takes his time telling funny, pointed parables in a historically accurate, thin, reedy voice as he maneuvers both in front of and behind the scenes (bribery!) to push the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery through Congress. His Lincoln projects an unmistakable, unyielding power from behind an increasingly tired and sickly exterior as the burdens of the Civil War and an equally fractured domestic life (look up Mary Todd Lincoln on Wikipedia) takes its personal toll. And when we finally see him on his deathbed from the inevitable Wilkes-Booth-inflicted head wound, the passing of this great man becomes real like never before.

Honorable Mention

Paul Giamatti as John Adams (2008)
In this HBO miniseries, Paul Giamatti’s Emmy winning, fiery and convicted performance as the second president shines over all seven installments.

Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams, Amistad (1997)
Portraying our sixth president years after his term in office, Hopkins provides a wise old rascal who ably defends the African slaves who revolted aboard the ship named in the film’s title.

John Travolta as Jack Stanton (Bill Clinton, pretty much) Primary Colors (1998)
In capturing Slick Willie’s trademark smoothness, hedonism, and easy-going rasp as a very,very thinly veiled stand-in, Travolta gives us one of his best roles to date.

Those are the chiefs we hailed to the most in theaters. Lobby for your own candidates as you see fit.

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