For President's Day: The Best Movie Portrayals of 15 Presidents
Portraying presidents on screen is always tricky. Crass imitation makes the thing look like a comedy skit, but completely ignoring the mannerisms and voice that people know doesn't work either.
Jaunty angle on the cigarette holder? Check.
There have been some laughingly inept acting jobs when it comes to the 44 people who have been the country's chief executive -- who can forget, try as they might, Jon Voigt as FDR in Pearl Harbor? (At least almost no one saw his George Washington in the awful rightwing effort An American Carol.)
Still, sometimes Hollywood gets it right.
Like with these 15 portrayals, moving backwards in presidential time:
15. George W. Bush
James Cromwell is usually dependable, but we just never bought into his George H.W. Bush in Oliver Stone's W. Josh Brolin, on the other hand, came close enough for government work with his take on the 43rd president.
14. Bill Clinton
The default choice here is John Travolta in Primary Colors, and that's perfectly defensible. We prefer (Houston's own!) Dennis Quaid in The Special Relationship -- the voice isn't quite there, but we love the scene at the end when he tries to charm Tony Blair's wife with some never-fails small talk, and she's not having any of it.
Here's the trailer:
13. Ronald Reagan
Two Brolins on one list? The White House vibe is strong in this family. The Reagans was chased off CBS by rightwing complaints and sentenced to cable so a lot of people missed it, but it's worth checking out. Brolin gets Reagan's disconnect from reality when things get unpleasant, and Judy Davis plays a brittle Nancy.
12. Richard Nixon
Frank Langella in Frost/Nixon was just a bit over the top, as was Anthony Hopkins in Nixon. Both were good, to be sure, but for our money we'll take Philip Baker Hall in Robert Altman's Secret Honor. Mostly unknown at the time -- he went on, of course, to greatness as library detective Bookman in Seinfeld -- Hall is on camera alone, talking into a recorder, for the whole movie as Nixon remembers his life, and you're never bored.
The ending, admittedly, is too much:
11. Lyndon Baines Johnson
Dumbledore as LBJ? Yep. We could have gone double-Quaid for Randy's portrayal in LBJ: The Early Years, but John Frankenheimer's final effort, Path to War, is marred only by a cheap-looking scene of an LBJ speech to Congress. Other than that, the movie, and Michael Gambon's version of Johnson, are convincing and fascinating, with Donald Sutherland as Clark Clifford and Alec Baldwin as Robert McNamara.