The Movie Presidents of Election Years

By  · Published on March 3rd, 2016

London Has Fallen (Focus Features)

If there’s one thing I thought about while watching London Has Fallen, it’s “this movie is so stabby.” Second to that, though, I kept thinking about this year’s presidential election and what the candidates from both parties would look like running for their lives alongside Gerard Butler. I find it hard to picture any of the men or women currently down to live in the White House as aligning well with Aaron Eckhart’s President Asher, who is for the most part a very reserved character but able to be tough when needed. Everyone seeking election right now seems the opposite, boastful but probably not actually so great in a fight. Even with Butler’s protection.

The other significant fictional POTUS at the movies this year is Sela Ward’s President Lanford in Independence Day: Resurgence. Obviously a woman in the Oval Office on the big screen aligns with just one candidate in 2016 (now that Fiorina has dropped out): Hilary Clinton. It’s unclear yet, however, if Lanford will in fact be a conservative like the actress who plays her or more intently modeled after Clinton given that director Roland Emmerich has supported her as a candidate in the past. We have until the end of June (a month before the conventions) to see if the character is truly representative of this year’s election or its possible outcome.

The sequel also features the original movie’s now ex-President Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who was somewhat modeled after Hillary’s husband, Bill Clinton (with a touch of JFK), then seeking re-election at the time of the movie’s release. What might have been interesting is if Whitmore’s wife was the POTUS of Resurgence, but of course she died rather dramatically on screen 20 years ago. Also, that would be way too on point. And a good way of potentially making it immediately dated. Movies can model their US leaders after sitting presidents, but they aren’t made quickly enough these days to be so directly aligned with figures seeking election.


In the past, Hollywood was faster, while politicians were apparently slower. As late as April in 1948, Frank Capra’s State of the Union had an alleged impact on President Truman, who saw the movie at its premiere and then made more of an active effort to seek a bid for a second term. The movie is about a Republican candidate (played by Spencer Tracy), and while I’m certain he’s not based on anyone specifically ‐ he originates in a 1945 play ‐ his competition is said to be actual 1948 GOP hopefuls like Thomas Dewey and Robert Taft, and there’s reference to such real legislature as the Taft-Hartley Act. The same year had For the Love of Mary, in which the POTUS played matchmaker for a White House switchboard operator (Deanna Durbin). As far as I know, there was no correlation to anyone real with that one.

The next big election year to see some notable fictional movie presidents was 1964, with the special trio of Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, Seven Days in May and Fail-Safe. The first two were scheduled to come out the prior year but were delayed because of JFK’s assassination. Seven Days in May had full encouragement from the Kennedy administration, and although set a decade later, its President Lyman (Fredric March) is clearly modeled after the man in office during its production. Yet he looks more like his successor and then incumbent, Lyndon Johnson. All three movies deal with the Cold War, which was certainly an issue for the election, and two involve the start of a nuclear war. With GOP choice Barry Goldwater notoriously saying, “Let’s lob [a nuke] into the men’s room at the Kremlin,” he’d be aligned with the scary endings of Strangelove (where Peter Sellers’s President Muffley is actually modeled after continuous candidate Adlai Stevenson) and Fail-Safe.

Also in 1964, a year that saw Margaret Chase Smith contend for the Republican seat and Fay T. Carpenter Swain the Democrat ticket, Polly Bergen starred as the first female POTUS in Kisses for My President, which focuses mostly on her “First Man,” played by Fred MacMurray. And then there was the Gore Vidal-penned The Best Man, about two men competing for their party’s nomination, one based on a cross between JFK and Richard Nixon (played by Cliff Robertson) and another modeled after Stevenson (Henry Fonda), plus Robert Downey Sr.’s debut feature, Babo 73, a political comedy about the newly elected President Studsbury (Taylor Mead).


In 1968, the most significant presidential movie ‐ Wild in the Streets ‐ was of course interested in the idea of a young representative of the counterculture for office (even younger than not-yet-assassinated hopeful Bobby Kennedy). In 1972, we got the indie satires Richard, meant to be a fake biopic of then incumbent Richard Nixon, and Hail, in which the president (Dan Resin) is a fascistic leader rounding up hippies and other “undesirables” and throwing them in concentration camps. That same year saw the release of The Man, in which James Earl Jones plays the first US president not elected to that or the vice-presidential office. While not immediately relevant then, just two years later, Gerald Ford actually did become the first president with that distinction. And in 1976, The Omen concluded with the president (unseen but possibly meant to actually be Ford) taking custody of the Antichrist.

For 1980, there was The Kidnapping of the President, one of the original presidential action thrillers, perfect for the year a cowboy became president in part thanks to another kind of international kidnapping, and Buck Henry’s satirical First Family, for which Bob Newhart’s President Link was inspired by various recent commanders in chief, and in which there’s another international kidnapping. The year of Reagan’s re-election, 1984, brought a couple movies that may have had viewers recalling his assassination attempt a few years earlier. Dreamscape’s POTUS (Eddie Albert) is targeted inside of his nightmares, while in Splash it’s only assumed that the president (Charles Macaulay) is about to get shot by a man simply attempting to expose a woman as a mermaid.

After a couple presidential elections without a notable movie tie-in (1992 had a couple JFK assassination-related films, as was all the rage back then), Hollywood really upped its game in 1996. In addition to Independence Day’s Whitmore, in the sci-fi genre there were Mars Attacks’ President Dale (Jack Nicholson), which arrived post-election, and Escape from L.A.’s unnamed newly elected POTUS (Robertson again). Also there were First Kid’s President Davenport (James Naughton), who could have been associated with Bill Clinton solely in that he had a teenage child in the White House, and My Fellow Americans’ President Haney (Dan Aykroyd), a Republican who has defeated a one-termer, who’d previously defeated a one-termer, hinting that Clinton could have had as short a life in the White House as George H. W. Bush before him (but it also came out after the election).

The Contender was the big one for 2000, but its President Evans (Jeff Bridges) is a Democrat finishing his second term, making him a surrogate for Bill Clinton, then in his final year. More prescient for the year of George W. Bush’s election is The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s Fearless Leader (Robert De Niro) trying to steal the presidency, from James Rebhorn’s President Signoff.

Four years later, there were two First Daughter rom-coms, one called First Daughter and the other Chasing Liberty, which was fitting because incumbent George W. Bush had dual first daughters of his own. Also, David Mamet’s Spartan involved the kidnapping of yet another First Daughter. And Emmerich returned in 2004 with The Day After Tomorrow, which depicts a climate-change apocalypse partly linked to the environmental policies of a president and vice president blatantly modeled after Bush and Dick Cheney.

Also in 2004, Michael Moore released Fahrenheit 9/11, a documentary intended to convince Americans to oust George W. Bush from office. Moore often called Bush a “fictitious” president, but this was more in line with the tradition of nonfiction presidential movies coming out in election years. Timely works like Moore’s go back as far as 1960, when Robert Drew with his new brand of documentary immediacy delivered the Kennedy-focused Primary. But also in the nonfiction category are biopics like that same year’s Sunrise at Campobello, about the last truly popular Democrat president before Kennedy, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Similarly, back when FDR himself was running for his second term in 1940, the big presidential movie was Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and during his third in 1944, it was the suitable Democrat biopic Wilson.


In 2008, Oliver Stone tried to pull something similar to Moore with the dramatic George W. Bush biopic W., a reminder for voters not to choose the Republican candidate, even if this time that candidate wasn’t the movie’s subject ‐ reminiscent of when the Republican-damning All the President’s Men, about Watergate and the Nixon resignation, hit theaters in 1976, the year Ford sought re-election (the year also had its own Nixon movie, Frost/Nixon and another Bush mockery, in Harold and Kumar Escape From Guantanamo). Then there was the fictional Swing Vote that recalled Bush’s close call wins, with Kelsey Grammer playing the Republican incumbent President Boone in an election being decided by one man’s vote (Dennis Hopper played the Democrat candidate).

Three other major movie presidents in 2008 were fictional, Eagle Eye’s unnamed leader (Madison Mason) and Vantage Point’s President Ashton (William Hurt), and both were at the center of assassination plots. I’m not sure what the relevance was for that theme except perhaps fear for the future of any POTUS in these times of such a heavy political divide in America. And James Caan also played a president with his life at risk in Get Smart.

Finally, in 2012, ignoring the sci-fi futures of The Hunger Games and Lockout (one with a fascist President Snow, another with a guy named Snow saving the president’s daughter), as well as William Devane’s brief role in The Dark Knight Rises, the main trend again involved old real-life presidents, to the benefit of incumbent Barack Obama. Roosevelt returned (played by Bill Murray) in Hyde Park on Hudson and, more significantly, so did Honest Abe (Daniel Day-Lewis) with Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. The latter was a Republican, of course, but here as well as elsewhere he was linked more to Democrats like Obama as a historic liberal hero, and many saw the Oscar-winning biopic as a love letter to the current president and about his trouble working with Congress.

NEXT: The Fictional US Presidents We Wish Were Real

This year, in addition to the aforementioned fictional president movies, we do have a major nonfictional president movie, as well: Elvis & Nixon, in which Kevin Spacey plays “Tricky Dick” opposite Michael Shannon as “the King of Rock ‘n Roll.” This one is presumably not the effort of a conservative filmmaker intended to promote a Republican president in a way similar to what Lincoln was for Obama. However, given how some of the movies mentioned in this column have wound up prophetic, it’s worth looking out for any GOP candidate who creates an iconic photo with a popular music star.

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.