Essays · Movies

The 8 Worst Movie Presidents

By  · Published on October 20th, 2016

If you think Donald Trump would be bad, remember these fictional presidents…

Things are a bit tense in the old US of A these days, because we’re dangerously close ‐ even considering the ass-whipping towards which the numbers are gradually inching ‐ to electing a vaguely sentient orange leathery thing president. Donald Trump would be, by a considerable margin, the worst president in the history of the country. It’s not close. “What about Hillary’s [whatever]” is not a counter-argument.

The movies, though, are great because they reveal worlds beyond our own, and in some of them, people are president who are almost as bad as anything our benighted mortal world has to offer. Herewith, the 8 worst movie presidents:

Jack Nicholson, President James Dale, Mars Attacks!

In President Dale’s defense, the Martians are a bunch of wild shitheads in this movie, and he does resist the time-honored impulse to nuke them, which should be appreciated. On the other hand, he doesn’t really do anything substantive to stop them, and through general passivity the Martians basically overrun us, and assassinate him. This might come off as victim blaming, but let’s be real: when the Martians invade and you’re the president you gotta fuck the motherfuckers up. It shouldn’t be down to Lukas Haas to figure out Slim Whitman makes their heads explode. The executive branch is supposed to lead.

Lyndon Johnson, JFK

Not like this, though. Oliver Stone’s LBJ is eyeball-deep in the conspiracy that gets JFK assassinated, which is poor form in a vice president. Rude, even.

Woodrow Wilson, The Birth of a Nation

Going extratextual (and serious) for a second, Wilson, as the sitting president at the time of Birth of a Nation’s release giving it as an enthusiastic an endorsement as he did (“history written with lightning!”) may not have directly contributed to its becoming a smash hit, but it didn’t hurt. Wilson legitimizing what is, for all its formative cinematics, ahistorical trash was part of a national tide of racism that restored the Ku Klux Klan, after a thankfully brief reign of terror during Reconstruction (depicted in a heroic fashion in the film) to a position of strength as an entity. The KKK is, bluntly, one of the most evil terrorist organizations known to humanity, and enabling them is an act of deep, unforgivable shame for a chief executive. You know it’s bad when he made this list without even being in the movie.

Gene Hackman, President Alan Richmond, Absolute Power

Let’s get back to fiction. Absolute Power is one of the weirdest literary adaptations I can think of, in that it completely excises the main character from the novel, shifting the focus to Clint Eastwood’s aging cat burglar who accidentally witnesses two Secret Service agents murder a woman the president (Gene Hackman) was in the process of raping. A bunch of bullshit happens ‐ it’s not top-tier Clint ‐ and President Richmond ends up getting stabbed by E.G. Marshall, which is as good a way to go as any I guess, and suitably ignominious for the kind of slimeball Hackman, playing the villain to the hilt, essays.

Peter Strauss, President James Sanford, xXx: State of the Union

Revisiting this hidden cubic zirconia of a film may, in light of recent excruciatingly protracted events, cause some to note a hint of the Trumpian about the POTUS of SOTU. Strauss’ President Sanford is an amusingly leather-skinned, quite-possibly-coked-up asshole whom Ice Cube must, out of noblesse oblige, save. Very little of President Sanford’s policy or actual governance is revealed, but his affect and the total ease with which Xzibit executes “[history’s] first tank-jacking” right in the middle of downtown DC reveals an extremely vulnerable nation, one might even say anarchic. Barring a surprise post-credits appointment of, perhaps, Secretary of State Cube, the Sanford administration is almost certainly doomed.

Gregory Peck, unnamed, Amazing Grace and Chuck

Most notable for being the film debut of Alex English, dearly beloved of 1980s NBA heads ‐ the Denver years on his Basketball Reference page are NSFW ‐ Amazing Grace and Chuck was an otherwise painfully earnest “nuclear weapons are, like, bad” movie. Its lasting legacy (aside from a brief period where I got really excited because, operating on little kid logic, I assumed there was going to be a movie where Adrian Dantley saved the whales or some shit) was almost entirely Alex English-centric. Except for what was, in retrospect, a hilariously cynical ending where the president (Gregory Peck) congratulates the little kid ‐ there was a little kid ‐ and Alex English for their brave stand against nuclear war . . . but essentially turns around and goes go fuckyaselves ya little shits, nuclear weapons rule and they ain’t goin nowhere! Mwahahahahahaha! Funny as this was, it doesn’t speak well of President Whatshisname’s quality as Commander-in-chief. Nuclear brinksmanship was dangerous and stupid.

Kevin Kline, President William Harrison Mitchell, Dave

Very important note here: Dave himself is a fantastic president in Dave, in both senses of the word, which is to say he does all kinds of nice, compassionate shit that no politician would literally ever do in real life. On the other hand, Bill Mitchell, whom Dave is hired to impersonate, is the avatar of icky, reptilian Beltway corruption, and his administration is lousy with venal, corrupt assholes that offend Dave’s better senses because Dave, gosh darn it to heck, is a good guy. Dave’s essential goodness further casts Bill’s perfidy in an unflattering light, and boy, does it. What an asshole.

Peter Sellers, President Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love the Bomb

This guy literally ends life on Earth as we know it. That’s about as bad as you can do at being president. Peter Sellers, being Peter Sellers, rides the figurative bomb down to Earth with equivalent aplomb as Slim Pickens rides the literal one.

Brief, Not Subject To Debate, Peter Sellers Strangelove Character Power Rankings:

1. The President
2. Mandrake
3. Dr. Strangelove

Aside from doing a note-perfect Plains Milquetoast American accent, Sellers perfectly embodies the kind of bland, inoffensive putz who used to ascend to the higher echelons of American politics as if by the laws of physics. And by God, those telephone conversations. I’m not going to quote any here because I’d have to quote all of them, and we’d be here all day. But where both the greatness of Sellers’ performance and the hideous inadequacy of the Muffley presidency peak is with the delivery of the line: “You can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” Sellers knows exactly what the fuck that means. Muffley does not. And that’s why the world ends, because he’s allowed a state of being to take hold where things happen because no one does anything, and no one can do anything because things happen inexorably.

Fortunately, reality hasn’t been devoured by satire, yet anyway. So remember to vote, y’all.

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Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all