In honor of Presidents Day, we dove into the vault of films currently streaming on Netflix to find a handful of films that, while involving presidents, will not endanger you with any sort of historical knowledge (except for Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies, which is strictly based on well-documented facts).
So! Here are five presidential films that are recommended for your viewing pleasure, and one that’s included as a dire warning for you to stay away from it. In case you don’t have much time to read this, let’s start with the best of the lot:
1) The Contender (2000)
President: Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges)
While the story is largely concerned with the confirmation of a new vice president, Laine Hanson—portrayed by an awesome Joan Allen—we still get plenty of screen time with Jeff Bridges’ President Evans. We even get to see him bowl in a scene that in no way requires bowling, which can only mean that director Rod Lurie—a former film critic—likes him some Lebowski.
Democratic President Evans is itching for the perfect swan song for his presidency. When his current vice president kicks the bucket, he sees a good opportunity to appoint the nation’s first female vice president, and Laine Hanson is the perfect stateswoman for the job. Gary Oldman’s villainous Shelly Runyon isn’t happy with his nomination, though—he’d like a more moderate Democrat for the gig—and, as chairman of the confirmation committee, he sets out to ruin Hanson’s reputation/political career/life. With a bit of digging, he finds his golden goose: Several photos of her participating in a gang bang at a fraternity while in college.
When faced with the photos, Hanson refuses to step down as the vice presidential appointee, and the film gets down to its brass tacks of analyzing the double standard upon which male and female politicians are judged. It’s not completely realistic—I can’t imagine a real president allowing an appointee to remain in the running after photos like these have gone public—but it certainly should be realistic. And, if we can’t turn to fictional films for idealism, then where can we turn?
The film’s examination goes deeper than gender—on a larger scale, it gets into the modern disconnect of integrity and popular public image—although the commentary on integrity might be a cop-out on the commentary on gender (I know that’s confusing, but I can’t clarify without spoilers). One thing is for sure, though: President Evans gives a damn fine speech at the end of the movie.
2) American Dreamz (2006)
President: Joseph Staton (Dennis Quaid)
Before Josh Brolin and Richard Dreyfuss were, respectively, George W. Bush and Dick Cheney in 2008’s W., Dennis Quaid and Willem Dafoe played them in 2006’s American Dreamz. No, they weren’t actually named Bush and Cheney, but when Dafoe looks like this, it’s pretty hard to miss who they’re satirizing.
And what a satire it is. A satirical film is a tough thing to pull off: If it’s not absolutely perfect, it’s likely to be universally despised before slinking off into obscurity, and American Dreamz is nowhere close to perfect. In hindsight, though, we can look back at American Dreamz and stand in awe at how much nerve the film had. With two years remaining in the Bush presidency (meaning that it probably went into production with at least three years left), the film brutally mocks not only that administration, but also terrorism, the Iraq War, and American Idol—so basically, everything that was sacred and/or off-limits in 2006.
Though Quaid and Dafoe are just one piece of the film’s massive ensemble—the plot loosely follows a season of American Dreamz, which is a riff on American Idol and has an amazing original song—their performances alone warrant giving the film a watch. And, if you’re a fan of satire in general (enough so to look past some serious flaws), you’ll find a lot of other stuff to like in the messy and insane American Dreamz, too. The film also serves as a reminder that, at one point, Chris Klein was poised to be the world’s next Keanu Reeves… but then Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun Li happened, and it was also discovered that Keanu Reeves won’t need replacing, because he can’t age.
3) Left Behind: World at War (2005)
President: Gerald Fitzhugh (Louis Gossett Jr.)
This is the third film in the Kirk Cameron-starring Left Behind film series, which was adapted from a series of novels. One of the authors of those novels, Tim LaHaye, sued the producers of the films for breach of contract, on account of how terrible they were. But the producers ended up retaining the rights, and they responded to LaHaye’s criticisms by rebooting the series in 2104, with Nicolas Cage starring in a film that managed to be even worse than the original, and received the ire of non-Christians and Christians alike.
This entry, which ended up being the last in the Cameron-verse films, follows Louis Gossett Jr.’s President Fitzhugh as he struggles with various militias that have sprung up following the Rapture and also quite possibly the Antichrist himself, who happens to be the president of the U.N. While Gossett makes for a fine president, it’s not nearly enough to save this film.
In my time writing Netflix roundups, this is the only time I haven’t been able to make it through a film, which is saying a lot, because I once made it all the way through this Louis Gossett Jr. Christian film series. With sufficient amounts of alcohol to protect your brain and a network of friends to laugh at it with you, it’s possible that some entertainment could be gleaned from this weird and horrible Walker Texas Rapture. But I’d advise against trying.
4) Olympus Has Fallen (2013)
Presidents: Benjamin Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and Allan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman)
Yes, this film contains two presidents, which is appropriate: I don’t think one president is enough for the sheer amount of awesome on display in Olympus Has Fallen.
This one came as a real surprise, as the premise of a terrorist organization taking over the White House doesn’t seem too exciting—not in a modern action film, anyway, where things tend to be a tad watered down. But this isn’t a modern action film. This is Die Hard in the White House, and, in all seriousness, it’s just as fun as Die Hard… at least on the first viewing. (It might not hold up on the 14th viewing as well as Die Hard does.)
There is CGI aplenty—everything that isn’t hand-to-hand combat seems to be at least half computer-generated—but the action is so propulsive, so insane, and so I can’t believe they did that that you can forgive the film for its video-game airplanes and helicopters. It has the joy of an 8-year-old smashing action figures together, and—in the hands of Antoine Fuqua—it manages to ground that joy just enough to make it an enthralling experience.
Freeman’s been the president before, so he’s got this stuff down by now, but Eckhart is no slouch in his Oval Office debut. Maybe Gerard Butler—the film’s John McClain—will pull a Jack Ryan and be the president himself somewhere down the line.
5) Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies (2012)
President: Abraham Lincoln (Bill Oberst Jr.)
This movie starts with some pilgrim-looking people running around the woods on some ill-fated night, being attacked by zombies. If you’re wondering why this is happening, this isn’t the movie for you. The next morning, a young Abe Lincoln comes home to his log cabin, and his father is dying (inexplicably slowly) from a self-inflicted gunshot to the head, and, with his last breaths, he tells Abe that he didn’t have the nerve to handle his mother. He dies, and Abe sees his zombie mother shackled to the wall, and he kills her with a scythe.
We cut (pun intended) to present day, where Lincoln is on his way to give the Gettysburg Address, when he gets word that a Union soldier has returned from a battle at a fort—as part of a mission hilariously titled “Old Shanty”—and he’s acting sick and telling stories of the dead attacking the living. Abe, having seen this before (for some reason, nobody else knows about the zombie outbreak from his youth) assembles the Secret Service and personally leads them on a mission to investigate this fort and its zombie problem. John Wilkes Booth is among the men on the mission, because, well, that’s how all of this really happened. It’s in your history books.
This is obviously a case of a small movie existing solely to piggyback on the success of a larger one, and, in this case, the larger one wasn’t even that successful. The title is so close to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter that the Netflix description starts with “Unrelated to the big-screen vampire hunter…,”and it’s highly unlikely that the Asylum cared about this film’s quality, just so long as people accidentally rented it while trying to rent Vampire Hunter.
Which is why it’s so surprising that it’s kind of good. Maybe it’s a combination of extremely low expectations, a love for old pistols, the presence of zombies, and the sheer joy of Stonewall Jackson’s Academy Award acting while donning one of the all-time goofiest fake beards, but I really enjoyed myself for most of the running time, and I might actually prefer it to the film it was piggybacking on. The production value is on par with Civil War reenactments you’d find on PBS, which isn’t fantastic, but it’s still infinitely better than it has any right to be. Also: Bill Oberst Jr.’s Lincoln is surprisingly good, as is the rest of the acting. It’s like somebody funded a cynical rip-off of a film, but everybody making it said “balls to that” and did their best to make something good. There’s only one point—when Lincoln yells “Emancipate this!” while beheading a zombie—in which the awfulness that it should have been really shines through.
Honorable Mention: The Manchurian Candidate (2004)
Potential president: Raymond Shaw (Liev Schreiber)
While not technically a movie that involves a president, it does involve an evil conglomerate’s plot to brainwash soldiers in the Gulf War—one of them a senator’s son—in order to install somebody in the presidency whose mind they control. Since it’s a Jonathan Demme film, with a slew of great actors, that’s close enough to earn it an honorable mention on here.
But it’s not its pedigree alone that’s landed the film in the roundup: According to Sean Hannity, President Obama is, in fact, a real life Manchurian Candidate, which makes this film—in Hannity’s world—an important explainer for understanding our current, nonfictional administration. In fact, it’s not just Hannity’s opinion: It’s also here, here, here, here, here, and here.
So, it’s time to learn how the real world works by watching this satirical political thriller starring Denzel Washington. Don’t be too alarmed about Obama, though—pretty much everybody else has been a Manchurian Candidate, too.
Illustration by Jason Reed