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The Great American President Movie Mixtape

Lincoln Daniel Day Lewis
Walt Disney Pictures
By  · Published on February 20th, 2017

All 45 US presidents in one long marathon of history and stuff.

Presidents Day isn’t much more than an excuse for car dealership sales. But it can mean other things to different people and statehoods. Maybe it is, as intended, a twofer celebration of the births of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. Perhaps it’s a catch-all holiday to recognize every one of the presidents. Or it’s a time to honor Purple Heart medal winners.

For us, it’s a day to watch movies about American presidents, actual or fictitious. This year, we’ve compiled a list of 45 of them, from the real people pile, for a long list of recommendations. There’s one pick each for every US president going back to Washington. It’s not a history lesson, but some of the selections are educational, while some are just fun portraits.

1. George Washington
Film: George Washington (2008, Brad Neely)

Let’s begin with one of the fun ones. Actually, it’s downright ridiculous. We all grew up learning false legends about the original Commander in Chief, but Neely’s short cartoon goes extra measures to cement Washington as more myth than man. The thing is, there are so few films depicting him as President Washington rather than General Washington ‐ he is inaugurated at the very, very end of D.W. Griffith’s America, at least ‐ so why not?

Watch it here:

2. John Adams
Film: Independence (1976, John Huston)

For the US Bicentennial, the great John Huston made this little-known short about America’s early years for the National Park Service. And he got a handful of amazing actors to take part, including Eli Wallach, Patrick O’Neal, and Pat Hingle, who portrays the second President of the United States in various depicted events, including his inauguration. The John Adams miniseries may be better, by the way, but it’s too long for this mix.

Watch it here:

3. Thomas Jefferson
Film: Thomas Jefferson (1997, Ken Burns)

Semantics be damned, there are some Ken Burns documentaries that are best called miniseries and there are those best called films, and this is the latter. Sam Waterston voices the words of Jefferson in the life-encompassing biography of the man who was both a highly mysterious figure and also one of the most important to the nation. [Buy it on Amazon]

4. James Madison
Film: Magnificent Doll (1946, Frank Borzage)

Burgess Meredith, best known now as the Penguin in the Batman series and as Mickey in the Rocky movies, portrays President Madison in this love-triangle drama about his rivalry with friend Aaron Burr (David Niven) for the love of Dolly Payne (Ginger Rogers). Most of the movie takes place before Madison became POTUS, much set during Jefferson’s terms, when he was Secretary of State. But the film is bookended by scenes of the Madisons evacuating the White House during the War of 1812. [Buy it on Amazon]

5. James Monroe
Film: The Monroe Doctrine (1939, Crane Wilbur)

A Technicolor two-reeler short, this film isn’t biographical nor does it only involve Monroe (Charles Waldron), because it’s also about the legacy of The Monroe Doctrine in the hands of later presidents through Teddy Roosevelt (regular Roosevelt portrayer Sidney Blackmer). You can find this on the DVD for the Warner Bros. feature Invisible Stripes. [Buy it on Amazon]

6. John Quincy Adams
Film: Race for the White House: Jackson vs. Adams

Sort of cheating here to qualify an episode of CNN’s recent Race for the White House series as simply an installment of a series of Kevin Spacey-narrated documentaries about high-stakes presidential elections in American history. This one chronicles the controversial 1924 match of John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson as well as their 1928 rematch. [Stream it on Hulu]

7. Andrew Jackson
Film: The Gorgeous Hussy (1936, Clarence Brown)

Really you have two good options for portrayals of Jackson. There’s Lionel Barrymore in The Gorgeous Hussy and Lone Star, the latter set post-presidency, and there’s Charlton Heston in The President’s Lady and The Buccaneer, the latter being set pre-presidency. I prefer Barrymore’s old codger variety, plus The Gorgeous Hussy focuses loosely on the life of Peggy Eaton, and Joan Crawford plays her fabulously. It’s soapy political joy. [Buy it on Amazon]

8. Martin Van Buren
Film: Amistad (1997, Steven Spielberg)

There’s no denying this is John Quincy Adams’s movie, yet it’s post-presidency Adams (portrayed exceptionally by Anthony Hopkins). The POTUS at the time of the Amistad case was Van Buren, who is played in a supporting role by Nigel Hawthorne. [Buy it on Amazon]

9. William Henry Harrison
Film: Drunken History Vol. 4: Featuring Paul Schneider (2008, Jeremy Konner)

One of the first installments of Drunken History when it a web series, this one remains my personal favorite (maybe because it was the first I saw). Paul Schneider plays Harrison in maybe the only depiction of the man during his extremely brief presidency. Everything else is War of 1812, Battle of Tippecanoe stuff. Nothing would compare to this drunken telling anyway.

Watch it here:

10. John Tyler
Film: John Tyler: Getaway Driver (2012, John C. Bradley and Richard Cline)

Continuing the goofiness, a fake trailer as short film is the best we have for Tyler, another short-lived presidents and one of the worst. This was likely done as a nod to the real feature Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter released the same year, and for what it is, it’s a pretty funny bit about Tyler wanting to save Harrison so he doesn’t have to be president.

Watch it here:

11. James K. Polk
Film: The Oregon Trail (1959, Gene Fowler Jr.)

It’d be easy to continue the nonsense stuff even further, since Polk also got a parody trailer inspired by Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter called James K. Polk: Frankenstein Wrestler, with Casper Van Dien in the role (it’s part of the Funny or Die short Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter Sequels), but let’s let Polk have just a little (really just a little) more screen time with his early scene (played by Addison Richards) in a Western about the Oregon Trail. It’s not Fred MacMurray’s best, but when is Fred MacMurray not enjoyable? [Buy it on Amazon]

12. Zachary Taylor
Film: Rebellion (1936, Lynn Shores)

Another Western where the president is a brief supporting character to send the main characters (Tom Keene and Rita Hayworth) out on a mission, this one pertaining to the aftermath of the Mexican War. [Buy it on Amazon]

13. Millard Fillmore
Film: Life Portrait of Millard Fillmore (1999, Mark Farkas)

All the presidents up until this point, and all of those after, have their own Life Portrait documentary from C-SPAN’s Peabody-winning American Presidents series, which serves its educational purpose. However, Fillmore’s is pretty much all he has for a film, period.

Watch it here:

Life Portrait of Millard Fillmore

14. Franklin Pierce
Film: The Great Moment (1944, Preston Sturges)

Porter Hall makes a short appearance as Pierce in this lesser-Sturges biopic about Dr. William T.G. Morton, a dentist famous for discovering the use of ether as an anesthetic. The main character pays the president a visit regarding his patent. [Buy it on Amazon]

15. James Buchanan
Film: Life Portrait of James Buchanan (1999, Mark Farkas)

You’d think Buchanan’s status as one of the worst US presidents of all time would make him an interesting subject for a movie, but he’s another for whom we have to settle on the C-SPAN documentary.

Watch it here:

Life Portrait of James Buchanan

16. Abraham Lincoln
Film: Lincoln (2012, Steven Spielberg)

In great contrast to his predecessor, Lincoln has the record for most portrayals in film of any POTUS. So, there’s a lot to choose from, including numerous shorts in the 1910s where he was regularly, alternately played (at different companies) by Ralph Ince and Francis Ford. And many of the films are great, both dramatic and comedic varieties. Many of them also cover more of his life and more of his presidency than Spielberg’s fine-tuned biopic, but Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning portrayal edges out all others. [Buy it on Amazon]

17. Andrew Johnson
Film: Tennessee Johnson (1942, William Dieterle)

While not often historically accurate and despite having been a hugely protest biopic at the time of its release, we still need to recognize that Johnson has such an otherwise well-directed and well-acted film ‐ Van Heflin is the POTUS while Lionel Barrymore plays his political nemesis Thaddeus Stevens ‐ just one in which he’s given a preferential, defensive portrayal in the narrative of his impeachment.

18. Ulysses S. Grant
Film: Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee (2007, Yves Simoneau)

Grant has shown up in tons of movies, but most are set during the Civil War, when he was General Grant, or they’re nutty fictional things like Wild Wild West and From the Earth to the Moon. This TV movie is set during his presidency, with the late Senator Fred Thompson playing the part, and involves the plight of Native Americans, a significant issue for his legacy, during that time. [Stream free with Amazon Prime]

19. Rutherford B. Hayes
Film: The Flag of Humanity (1940, Jean Negulesco)

It’s President Garfield who comes out looking better in this short film biopic about Clara Barton, but it’s also one of the rare places you can see President Hayes portrayed on screen (by Joe King), doing what he did best, upholding the Monroe Doctrine. Even if it meant rejecting the Red Cross.

Watch it here:

20. James Garfield
Film: The Price of Power (1969, Tonino Valerii)

An Italian film depicting the assassination of Garfield in a way that’s obviously also about the JFK assassination, Valerii’s political Spaghetti Western features Van Johnson as the POTUS who fails to make it through his first year in office. [Stream it free with Amazon Prime]

21. Chester A. Arthur
Film: Silver Dollar (1932, Alfred E. Green)

Another biopic about someone tied to the POTUS, Silver Dollar loosely follows the story of the “Silver King of the West” Horace Tabor, renamed for the movie, who was a member of the Arthur administration. The president, played by Emmett Corrigan, appears in a supporting role at the main character’s wedding. Arthur’s successor, Grover Cleveland, is not a character but was very significant to the life of Tabor, albeit quite negatively ‐ he changed the US to the gold standard, ruining the man financially.

22. Grover Cleveland
Film: Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull’s History Lesson (1976, Robert Altman)

For the first of Cleveland’s non-consecutive terms, we have to go with Robert Altman’s ensemble Western focused on Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley (Paul Newman and Geraldine Chaplin), which has Pat Hingle portraying the president and Shelley Duvall as his young new First Lady, Frances. [Buy it on Amazon]

23. Benjamin Harrison
Film: Stars and Stripes Forever (1952, Henry Koster)

John Philip Sousa was a band leader serving five presidents, Harrison being the last, but it’s only Harrison who is represented in this Sousa biopic. You can see him, portrayed by Roy Gordon, in a scene set at the White House where the iconic composer seems to publicly debut “Semper Fidelis.” [Buy it on Amazon]

24. Grover Cleveland
Film: Princess Kaiulani (2009, Marc Forby)

Cleveland got to be president twice, so he gets two films. This time it’s more political in representation as he appears (played by Peter Banks) in a meeting with the titular Hawaiian leader, in which he agrees not to annex the islands as a US territory. Of course, the agreement was short lived, as McKinley went against it. [Buy it on Amazon]

25. William McKinley
Film: President McKinley’s Inauguration (1897, G.W. Bitzer)

McKinley was not only the first POTUS ever to personally appear on film, but his first appearance was actually prior to election, in the actuality short William McKinley at Canton, Ohio, which reenacts his reception of the Republican nomination. G.W. Bitzer, who worked on that, also shot this later film of McKinley being sworn in for his first term.

Watch it here:

President McKinley inauguration, 1901

26. Theodore Roosevelt
Film: Fancy Pants (1950, George Marshall)

Roosevelt was also the subject of many actualities, and he’s been portrayed in plenty of movies, including essential documentaries such as Ken Burns’s The Roosevelts and great historical dramas like The Wind and the Lion. But it’s been a while since this list had some fun, so the musical rom-com Fancy Pants, starring Bob Hope and Lucille Ball in a farcical plot of decption involving a visit from the president (John Alexander) to the home of a newly rich but unrefined New Mexico family. [Buy it on Amazon]

27. William Howard Taft
Film: William Howard Taft in Panama (1910?)

Surprisingly, there don’t appear to be many surviving actuality films covering the Taft presidency, and even this one on a trip to Panama is up for debate as far as when it was shot, before or after he took office. The Library of Congress believes it depicts events in the fall of 1910, during his term, while inspecting construction on the Panama Canal. Interesting piece of trivia, following his presidency, Taft apparently played himself in a short drama titled The President’s Pardon.

Watch it here:

William H. Taft in Panama.

28. Woodrow Wilson
Film: Wilson (1944, Henry King)

Character actor got an Oscar nomination in his rare lead role and Wilson was nominated for Best Picture in spite of it being a huge box office flop (it was nominated for 10 in total, winning five). Until Leonardo DiCaprio makes his Wilson movie, it’s a good enough biopic, especially for Geraldine Fitzgerald’s shockingly non-nominated performance as First Lady Edith Wilson. [Buy it on Amazon]

29. Warren G. Harding
Film: Harding Dead (1923)

Pathe News produced this newsreel announcing the sudden death of President Harding, but according to their archives it was never used. Unlike another of their films, President Harding Laid to Rest, this one shows footage of him alive during his single term.

Watch it here:

30. Calvin Coolidge
Film: President Coolidge, Taken on the White House Grounds (1924, Lee de Forest)

Coolidge was the first US president to be heard in a film with sound recording, three years ahead of the famous release of the talkie feature The Jazz Singer. He addresses the nation, reading from a paper in the least exciting way possible.

Watch it here:

31. Herbert Hoover
Film: Landslide: A Portrait of President Herbert Hoover (2009, Chip Duncan)

Ken Burns, who is apparently a distant cousin of President Hoover, has made a few recent films and miniseries with historical commentary on the Hoover presidency (see Prohibition, The Dust Bowl, and The Roosevelts). But for a specifically focused doc that’s very much in the Burns style but honestly not even close to as good, PBS’s Landslide offers the facts and more about the man leading the country in the early years of the The Great Depression. [Buy it on Amazon]

32. Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Film: Annie (1982, John Huston)

Sure, let’s reduce the lengthy and important presidency of FDR to an appearance in a musical adaptation of a comic strip. But it’s also a nod to Edward Hermann’s continued portrayal of Roosevelt, previously seen in two terrific TV miniseries that are too long to be considered films for the sake of this mixtape list. Plus, after all those stuffy nonfiction bites, Annie is just the thing to make you smile. Plus, Huston gets a second, very different item. [Buy it on Amazon]

33. Harry S. Truman
Film: Give ’em Hell, Harry! (1975, Steve Binder and Peter H. Hunt)

Gary Sinise is pretty good in the 1995 HBO movie Truman, but Truman is first and foremost James Whitmore’s role to play. The film is really just a recording of the one-man-show of the same name in front of a live audience, and Whitmore received a deserved but questionable in terms of qualification Oscar nomination for the performance. [Buy it on Amazon]

34. Dwight D. Eisenhower
Film: Why We Fight (2005, Eugene Jarecki)

Rather than a depiction of Ike (sorry to Robin Williams, who also missed out on the Teddy Roosevelt slot), the most important film involving President Eisenhower begins with his famous farewell address warning about the military-industrial complex. The rest of the documentary is a look at how his fears had come true over the next 40 years. [Buy it on Amazon]

35. John F. Kennedy
Film: Crisis: Behind a Presidential Commitment (1963, Robert Drew)

If we were to go with the most iconic movie for each president, JFK would sadly be stuck with the Zapruder film. Kennedy is another president with a lot to choose from, and it came down to a toss up between the Cuban Missile Crisis drama Thirteen Days and a Drew Associations documentary, and I couldn’t help recognizing the latter. The film, which is also shot by doc legends D.A. Pennebaker and Richard Leacock, intensely shows JFK and RFK dealing with the University of Alabama integration crisis of June 1963. It’s actually without argument the greatest item on this list. [Buy it on Amazon]

36. Lyndon B. Johnson
Film: Selma (2014, Ava DuVernay)

It may not be the nicest portrayal of LBJ, but how could I not pick Selma even with such full-on biopics like the Bryan Cranston-led All the Way being options? Tom Wilkinson plays the president in meetings with David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr., and he’s kind of shown as a villain. Is it historically accurate or fair? That hardly matters for the sake of the emotionally driven aspects of the movie, and as for the politically driven side, controversy is always good, as it spawns discussion and awareness. [Stream it free with Amazon Prime]

37. Richard Nixon
Film: Frost/Nixon (2008, Ron Howard)

Oh, how I’d love to showcase Dick instead, but Frost/Nixon has maybe not the most realistic portrayal of Nixon but arguably and surprisingly the most interesting. Howard’s movie is almost just a recording of Peter Morgen’s play, originating on stage in 2006, and it’s fascinating that a drama like this can consist primarily of an event that was already recorded and broadcast on television. But for the past decade, this has become in my mind the most notable dramatic version of the fallen POTUS yet. [Buy it on Amazon]

38. Gerald Ford
Film: The Betty Ford Story (1987, David Greene)

Come for the performance of Gena Rowlands as First Lady Betty Ford in this TV movie based on her autobiography about her struggles with alcohol and drug addiction, and stay for a rare spotlight on the presidency of her husband, played by Joseph Sommer. Much of the story takes place after the Fords left the White House but there are flashbacks depicting how Ford’s position affected his wife. [Buy it on Amazon]

39. Jimmy Carter
Film: 20th Century Women (2016, Mike Mills)

If you want a documentary of Carter, check out Jonathan Demme’s Man From Plains, which does have a few glimpses of the 39th president while in office but mostly follows him during a recent book tour. But without much that’s too interesting as far as portrayals of Carter go, here’s a film that like Why We Fight involves a famous speech. Unlike Why We Fight, this is otherwise fiction and includes a criminally Oscar-snubbed performance from Annette Bening as a woman raising her son with help from other women. [Buy it on Amazon]

40. Ronald Reagan
Film: Genesis: Land of Confusion (1986, John Lloyd and Jim Yukich)

Yes, music videos can count as short films, and this one for the song “Land of Confusion” featuring puppet versions of Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, and other world leaders, as well as the band Genesis, is a perfect representation of how I remember Reagan during his presidency ‐ of course, it also defined my view of Reagan during his presidency at the time. If anyone deserves a silly animated music video portrait expressing the myth of the man other than Washington, it’s Reagan.

Watch it here:

41. George H.W. Bush
Film: The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991, David Zucker)

As long as there is no movie starring Dana Carvey as George H.W. (his impersonation in Opportunity Knocks doesn’t count), the other essential portrayal of the elder President Bush is still a parody. And, played by impersonator John Roarke, he’s actually kind of part of the plot the Naked Gun sequel, even more than the Gulf War-lampooning Hot Shots! movies. [Buy it on Amazon]

42. Bill Clinton
Film: Primary Colors (1998, Mike Nichols)

Two essential films follow the 1992 presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, but while the documentary The War Room takes the story to his election, the dramatic roman a clef Primary Colors, based on the initially-anonymously penned best seller and starring John Travolta as the renamed Jack Stanton, finishes up at the inauguration ball. And with the impeachment of Clinton looming, by the time it was released, Nichols’s movie, seemed to reflect more than just the events leading up to Bill’s first day. [Buy it on Amazon]

43. George W. Bush
Film: W. (2008, Oliver Stone)

You didn’t think we’d go through all 45 presidents without even a mention of Oliver Stone, did you? Maybe it’s not as good a movie as Nixon or JFK (not that the latter is a biopic), but W. is a perfectly passable film for the younger Bush’s presidency, with its greatest achievement probably being its casting, including Josh Brolin in the lead role. [Buy it on Amazon]

44. Barack Obama
Film: Steven Spielberg’s ‘Obama’ (2013, Steven Spielberg?)

While Taft may have been the first POTUS to play himself in a fictional setting, Obama still deserves some credit for being a rarity that would parody himself in such a way. This short that’s a fake behind-the-scenes look at an Obama biopic from Spielberg, produced for the 2013 White House Correspondents Dinner, is exactly the sort of fun we could expect from the last administration over the years. Technically he’s not even playing himself. He’s playing Daniel Day-Lewis playing himself. That’s even more perfect.

Watch it here:

45. Donald J. Trump
Film: Nobody Speak: Trials of the Free Press (2017, Brian Knappenberger)

There’s only one film I know of that depicts the Trump presidency, not just his election, as is done so well in the documentary Trumped: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time. Knappenberger’s astonishingly current feature debuted at Sundance a week after Trump’s inauguration and manages to feature footage from the new POTUS’s first two days. In a year, or a few years, maybe this final track of the mixtape will be swapped for something that represents the 45th president even better.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.