As the 2024 presidential election looms in the distance, with the debate season already in high gear, it is once again that time for the American people to reflect on what truly matters to them in a president of the United States. Is it good policies? Leadership? Character? Intelligence? Every four years, we determine that anew.
Sadly, we seem to have lost our faith in the institution of the presidency, that a president is transformed by swearing the oath of office from the candidate for his party to the leader of his country. Most Americans do not believe the federal government positively affects their lives, and two-thirds of those registered to vote think that the people in power only serve themselves. Political polarization grows deeper every election cycle, and dissatisfaction with the nominees of both parties has been endemic to the elections of 2016, 2020, and now, 2024 as well.
The cynicism felt toward the once-esteemed office of president is best exemplified in a brief scene from the widely successful period film Oppenheimer. In it, the title character visits President Harry Truman, who congratulates him on his essential role in winning the Second World War by inventing the atomic bomb. Oppenheimer, however, expresses to Truman his guilt for being complicit in the loss of so much innocent life at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Truman’s response is withering, jaded, and downright mean: “You think anyone in Hiroshima or Nagasaki gives a sh*t who built the bomb? You didn’t drop the bomb; I did. Hiroshima isn’t about you. [after Oppenheimer leaves] Don’t let that crybaby back in here.”
Is this what we now expect as a matter of course from the Commander in Chief? Does this portrayal of President Truman really constitute the best that an elected leader can offer to this country?
Not all filmmakers agree with Oppenheimer director Christopher Nolan’s assessment of the U.S. presidency. For readers who seek to be encouraged by the cinematic treatment of U.S. presidents rather than disheartened, here are six inspiring portrayals of the men who have, for better or for worse, served in America’s highest office:
6. Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams) in The Butler
Lee Daniels’ award-winning biopic of long-serving White House butler Cecil Gaines examines the racial policies of numerous U.S. presidents who employed the title character, but none so glowingly as Dwight Eisenhower, portrayed somewhat unconventionally by late comic actor Robin Williams.
Though the movie drew criticism for its allegedly biased portrayal of Ronald Reagan, Eisenhower is depicted as displaying absolute fidelity to his principles in spite of the challenging decision he is faced with: whether or not to deploy U.S. troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, to enforce the landmark Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court case.
Although he is advised that the action may be unpopular, Eisenhower takes that risk and sends troops to protect the safety of the “Little Rock Nine” and the other black children determined to attend an integrated school for the first time.
5. Franklin D. Roosevelt (Len Cariou) in Into the Storm
President Roosevelt is not the focus of this film, as it primarily follows British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, played by Brendan Gleeson, throughout World War II. Nevertheless, Len Cariou’s FDR steals the show in every scene in which he appears, not only for the quality of Cariou’s performance but for the portrayal of Roosevelt’s courage in standing up to the Axis Powers and his determination to put aside his differences with Churchill to join him in fighting for the free world.
Though Roosevelt was no perfect president by any stretch of the imagination, Into the Storm emphasizes perhaps his finest quality, his drive to be victorious in one of the most important moral and military conflicts in modern history.
4. Jmes Madison (Craig Wasson) in A More Perfect Union: America Becomes a Nation
Although this Brigham Young University–produced movie did not receive much commercial or critical attention following its 1989 release, it was recognized by the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution as being “of exceptional merit.”
It excels most in its stirring portrait of the document’s chief architect, the future President James Madison. Wasson showcases Madison’s passionate quest to create a new form of government for the fledgling republic that was at once effective in its operation and limited in its powers, a balancing act that America would spend the rest of its history attempting with debatable levels of success to perfect. Accessible to the layman, and friendly for all ages, A More Perfect Union is an outstanding introduction to the Constitutional Convention, as well as to President Madison himself.
3. John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) in Amistad
The most likely criticism of Anthony Hopkins’ John Quincy Adams, the first of two Spielberg-directed presidential characters on this list, is that he is in far too little of the movie. Rising from mere cameo status throughout the picture to deliver a rousing monologue at its very conclusion, Hopkins’ performance nearly makes one forget about everything else in the film.
The sixth president of the United States’ sharp oratorical skills and devotion to the principles of freedom and equality are adapted with brilliance. At first reluctant to join the troublesome court battle over the fates of the slaves who wrested control of the Amistad from her crew during the sea voyage from Africa, Hopkins’ Adams eventually joins forces with the beleaguered lawyers (Matthew McConaughey and Stellan Skarsgård) defending the slaves to argue stirringly, and ultimately persuasively, for their freedom.
2. John Adams (Paul Giamatti) in John Adams
Paul Giamatti’s Emmy-winning performance as the first President Adams transforms the second U.S. president from a historical sidebar between the more luminous Washington and Jefferson into a captivating characterization, showing Adams’ endearing and irritating qualities alike with considerable candor.
Covering not just his term in office, but much of his adult life, the HBO series stuns with its incisive writing and Giamatti’s charismatic portrayal. While it does not shy away from frankly depicting the unsavory side of the American Founding (for example, tarring and feathering), John Adams is nothing short of inspirational.
1. Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Lincoln
Apparently, Steven Spielberg decided that he hadn’t quite got his point across the first time he made a movie about U.S. presidents winning landmark historical victories in the fight against slavery; he came back for a second round with arguably one of the best period films ever made.
Covering just a short period of time at the end of Lincoln’s presidency as he fights to simultaneously bring an end to both slavery and the Civil War, the movie successfully articulates every characteristic of Lincoln’s that made him perhaps the most universally respected American politician to have ever lived: his intellect, his humor, his courage, and his zeal to keep the republic whole and free for all people.
Significantly, Spielberg does not end his story in the traditional fashion, with Lincoln’s assassination at Ford’s Theatre. Instead, he concludes with a flashback to Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, where Day-Lewis delivers the closing words that can be considered emblematic of President Lincoln’s service to his country:
With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.
In a time when both popular culture and politicians who mar the sanctity of their offices tempt us to look down upon our form of government and the institution of the presidency, these words, and those of the other presidents cinematically depicted with such grace, remind us that our Constitution is something worth fighting for, worth believing in.
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