You’ve got a whole day off. Spend it watching movies about these powerful politicos past and present.
Presidents Day is pretty much known for one thing—giving us everyday folks a day off work or school. Why not thank good old George Washington (and all 42 presidents after him) for this freebie by watching a film featuring one of our venerable heads of state past and present? Believe it or not, there’s at least one film for all our prezzes in which they appear as either a character or themselves. I can’t guarantee you that they’re all in print, but I can guarantee you there’s a film (or at least a TV movie) that exists for all 43 (Obama not included).
George Washington – The Patriot (2000)
For such an iconic figure, Washington is surprisingly underrepresented on film. Of the limited options, this Mel Gibson starrer featuring the president when he was still a general in the war against England is your best bet.
John Adams – John Adams (2008) (TV)
Sure, it’s technically an acclaimed TV miniseries rather than a movie, but come on; would you rather watch the godawful movie musical 1776?
Thomas Jefferson – Jefferson in Paris (1995)
Because nothing portrays perhaps our smartest president quite like this mug shot.
James Madison – Magnificent Doll (1946)
Watch Burgess Meredith’s James Madison somehow beat out David Niven’s Aaron Burr for the affections of the woman who would become Dolly Madison, played by Ginger Rogers.
James Monroe – The Monroe Doctrine (1939)
According to IMDb, “this two-reel short tells the tale of the effects of The Monroe Doctrine in North and South America and Europe and how through the years, various U.S. presidents have upheld it in various ways.” Which is, I hear, the premise of the next Michael Bay movie. Er…
John Quincy Adams – Amistad (1997)
Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal of JQA got him his second Oscar nomination in three years for playing a U.S. president, after 1996’s Nixon.
Andrew Jackson – The President’s Lady (1953), The Buccaneer (1958)
Until the inevitable film adaptation of the nutty Broadway musical Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson that portrays our 7th prez as an Emo rocker, best to seek out either of these two Charleston Heston movies.
Martin Van Buren – Amistad (1997)
Nigel Hawthorne‘s MVB is the second of two great presidential portrayals in this oft-forgotten Spielberg film.
William Henry Harrison – Ten Gentlemen from West Point (1942)
This Oscar nominee about the fight to keep West Point open is your best bet, although Tecumseh (1972) is another good choice, as it’s definitely one of the best German-language Westerns about the War of 1812 you’re ever likely to see.
John Tyler – Big Bad John (1990)
Alright, so it's not about John Tyler the president, but it is about a character named Big Bad John Tyler who much like the real President John Tyler is a mysterious Southerner who's a bit of an outlaw. If that doesn't meet your John Tyler needs, then you can rent the 1988 film Necromancer featuring an actor named John Tyler. I'm pretty sure that it's not the president John Tyler, but you never know.
James K. Polk – The Oregon Trail (1959)
Watch Polk attempt to ford a river before dying of dysentery. Or something like that.
Zachary Taylor – One Man’s Hero (1999)
Any film from 1999 featuring Tom Berenger as the above-the-title star has to be great. This also features the acting debut, and only acting role to date, of Prince Albert of Monaco.
Millard Fillmore – The Monroe Doctrine (1939)
Yes, this blockbuster.
Franklin Pierce – The Great Moment (1944)
A Preston Sturges comedy, believe it or not, about the true story of “one man’s quest to have anesthesia, in the form of ether, accepted by the public and the medical and dental establishment.” Sounds hilarious.
James Buchanan – Nada. Zilch. Zero.
Okay, so I lied about there being a film for every president. There’s no film for James Buchanan. Not even by my extremely lenient standards. But that’s just further proof that James Buchanan is in fact the worst of our presidents, at least according to the Brits.
Abraham Lincoln – Abraham Lincoln (1930)
Honest Abe is by far the most popular president in film. He’s showed up in everything from Birth of a Nation to Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (pictured). And he’s been played by actors ranging from Brendan Fraser (Bedazzled) to Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln) and by Frank McGlynn Sr., who made a whole career of playing him in the 1930s--although my suggestion of D.W. Griffith’s second biopic portraying Abe starred Walter Huston. Look for President No. 16 next in 2012’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s successful supernatural novel.
Andrew Johnson – Tennessee Johnson (1942)
Did you know that in his impeachment proceedings President Johnson kept his job by only a single vote? Find out about that and more in this account of an important chapter in American history.
Ulysses S. Grant – Wild Wild West (1999)
Because nothing says Ulysses S. Grant and the Civil War period quite like Will Smith and a giant mechanical spider.
Rutherford B. Hayes – Buffalo Bill (1944)
This movie only features Hayes as an uncredited role played by John Dilson, but it captures his late 1800’s era well.
James Garfield – Night Riders (1939)
A largely forgotten John Wayne Western. Although if that’s not your speed I’m pretty sure the fat cat gorging himself on his owner’s food at the center of 2004’s Garfield is meant to be some sort of allegory for James Garfield’s support of civil service reform.
Chester A. Arthur – Silver Dollar (1932)
If you ever find yourself thinking that the switch to the gold standard isn’t a key plot point in enough movies, then this is definitely the film for you.
Grover Cleveland - Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson (1976)
Robert Altman’s revisionist Western features Pat McCormick as the world’s second most well-known Grover, after the fuzzy blue one who speaks without using contractions.
Benjamin Harrison – Stars and Stripes Forever (1952)
A biography of composer John Phillip Sousa, but Roy Gordon has a bit part as the second President Harrison.
William McKinley – President McKinley Taking the Oath (1901)
Maybe at a minute long it doesn’t qualify as a movie, but it was shown in theatres and enough scholars consider it the first movie featuring a U.S. president that it’s preserved by the National Film Registry and the Library of Congress. If silent movies of presidential inaugurations aren’t your thing you can check out A Message to Garcia (1936), This Is My Affair (1937), or The Adventures of Ociee Nash (2003) for your President McKinley fix.
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt – Night at the Museum (2006)
Teddy was a man so outsized that Robin Williams didn’t have to dial down his overactive mugging one bit to play him.
William Howard Taft – The Greatest Game Ever Played (2005)
President Taft may have been the first president to throw out the first pitch at a baseball game, but his greatest (only?) film portrayal is in this golf movie.
Woodrow Wilson – Wilson (1944)
The most expensive movie ever made up to the time, this gem was nominated for Best Picture and earned Alexander Knox a Best Actor nomination.
Warren G. Harding – Backstairs at the White House (1979) (TV)
If a TV movie doesn’t count enough for you, Harding is also featured in archival footage in Whirlpool (1934) and Fifty Years Before Your Eyes (1950) and, most importantly, as the namesake of the school in A Christmas Story.
Calvin Coolidge – The Court Marshall of Billy Mitchell (1955)
This Otto Preminger film about a trial that led indirectly to the formation of the United States Air Force features “Cool Cal” as a character ever so briefly.
Herbert Hoover – Public Be Damned (1917)
It’s little more than a cameo appearance, but it is in fact Hoover himself, 12 years before he became president.
Franklin D. Roosevelt – Annie (1982)
Sure, Jon Voight portrays FDR at his most stirring in Pearl Harbor, but nothing captures the feel of FDR and his America quite like watching him alongside singing orphan girls. Does it?
Harry S. Truman – Give ‘Em Hell Harry (1975)
A one-man biopic that earned James Whitmore an Oscar nomination.
Dwight D. Eisenhower – The Longest Day (1962)
Although Ike is the subject of many a TV movie, better to set aside a long day and watch this three-hour feature film classic instead.
John F. Kennedy – Thirteen Days (2000)
JFK might seem like the no-brainer choice for a JFK movie, except for the fact that it never features the man himself. Bruce Greenberg’s great work in Thirteen Days really captures JFK’s essence and what he was about far more than Oliver Stone’s conspiracy thriller even attempts to.
Lyndon B. Johnson – The Right Stuff (1983)
Another three-hour classic. Really great stuff.
Richard Nixon – Nixon (1995), Frost/Nixon (2008)
It’s too hard to choose between these two Oscar-nominated Nixon performances, so just watch them both. The comedy Dick (1999) starring Dan Hedaya as the titular prez is a good choice, too.
Gerald Ford – The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
Dick Crockett’s character is only known as “The President,” but clearly it’s meant to be bumbler Gerald Ford (long ridiculed by Chevy Chase on classic SNL). And The Pink Panther seems slightly more presidential than the other obvious choice here - Hot Shots! Part Deux.
Jimmy Carter – Jimmy Carter Man From Plains (2007)
Jonathan Demme’s documentary following Jimmy Carter on his 2006 book tour is insightful and entertaining.
Ronald Reagan – Bedtime for Bonzo (1951)
The future President of the United States co-stars with a chimp named Bonzo. It doesn’t get much better than that.
George H.W. Bush - W (2008)
Yep, it’s primarily about his son, but James Cromwell’s great H.W. Bush really steals the movie.
Bill Clinton – Primary Colors (1998)
Okay --it’s not technically about Bill Clinton, but really it is. John Travolta is Bubba at his Bubba-ist.
George W. Bush – W (2008)
This Oliver Stone biopic paints a relatively human and sympathetic portrait of Dubya, as played by Josh Brolin. It also features a scene of hell freezing over….