Every year in the United States, we mark the birth of two of our most important Presidents of the United States with the President’s Day holiday. Since both George Washington and Abraham Lincoln both had their respective birthdays within the month of February, this is the month we choose to recognize these two pillars of American history. Washington, the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, helped secure the destiny of the United States as an independent country, and would further serve the people of the new union he helped to create as the inaugural President of the United States. Abraham Lincoln, our sixteenth president, capped off a life of public service by being elected to the highest office in the land in 1860, and would go on to lead the country through, arguably, the most tumultuous time in our history: the Civil War.
In honor of President’s Day, here are five presidential movies, ranging from the historically accurate to the ridiculous, that would be great to take in today in honor of these two pillars of American society.
5) Air Force One
While Washington literally fought on the front lines of the war that would come to define the United States as a sovereign nation, that kind of necessity doesn’t exist in the executive position today. That doesn’t mean that we can’t have a hell of a good time watching Harrison Ford play a president that knows his way around an MP5 against some offshoot Russian terrorists, though, and director Wolfgang Petersen’s 1997 action thriller about the presidential aircraft being hijacked gives us just that. Though it’d be pretty difficult to fire a gun on an aircraft without some serious consequences, Air Force One is quite a ride that makes an effort to have a degree of political intrigue, and is worth the price of admission for the sheer awesomeness of one of Harrison Ford’s most definitive lines from the entirety of his long career in film.
There are definitely some moments where it’s clear that the film isn’t exactly written by Shakespeare, but as a gung-ho action film with the kind of president willing to trick the Secret Service into thinking he was safely evacuated from the plane just so he can take it to the bad guys that dare threaten his family, this is definitely a fun one to watch.
4) Man of the Year
While not exactly a critical darling upon its release in 2006, Man of the Year was an interesting drama-comedy film starring the late Robin Williams as the host of a satirical news show who is persuaded to run as an independent candidate for president. When his victory in the general election shocks the nation, a woman that works for a company responsible for manufacturing voting machines for the election comes upon a fatal flaw in the architecture of the system that means that the victory of Williams’ character isn’t legitimate. What follows is a story that tries to comment on the flaws of the American electoral system as well as some fun moments provided by the likes of Williams and co-stars like Christopher Walken, Lewis Black, and Jeff Goldblum.
The fun part about this movie is that it definitely treats the office of president with a great deal of reverence, but it also isn’t afraid to indulge in the comedic strengths of Williams or its other stars. That makes it a generally fun movie to watch, and something that likely deserves a revisit if you haven’t seen it in awhile.
A critically acclaimed adaptation of the stage play of the same name, Frost/Nixon is a true story following the exploits of British journalist David Frost in securing, planning, and conducting a series of extensive interviews with the 37th President of the United States, Richard Milhous Nixon. Taking place in 1977, three years after President Nixon became the first sitting holder of the office to resign, the performances of actors Michael Sheen and Frank Langella as Frost and Nixon, respectively, ends up being a fascinating drama showing the journalistic resolve of the eager David Frost, and the calculating thoroughness of President Nixon in the theater of politics. While Frost was exceptionally well prepared for the interviews and was a very sharp individual, Nixon’s entire career was based on the war of words so common with politicians, and the end result ended up being more of a draw than anything else.
Still, the journey to get to that point is a tour-de-force of political drama, made all the more fascinating by the idea that these stories actually took place. You need not be an expert on the history of the Nixon Administration to admire the personalities in play, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to deny the excellent piece of filmmaking that director Ron Howard shows off here.
2) The Butler
The 2013 drama loosely inspired by the life story of real White House butler Eugene Allen helps to serve as the unifying backdrop for an exploration of several presidents, as well as the various social and political climates that punctuated all of their respective times in office. The Butler certainly helps to bring the plight of African-American citizens to the forefront by placing the tumultuous civil rights era in the spotlight, while also showing the strength of the American dream and how each of the chosen few that are elected to live in the White House can embody those aspects for everyone. With a powerful lead performance by Forest Whitaker as butler Cecil Gaines, and featuring a plethora of wonderful actors in the roles of each depicted president, The Butler helps to serve as both a reminder of America’s values when at their best, as well as a cautionary tale on the dangers of denying people their basic humanity.
With Robin Williams as Dwight Eisenhower, James Marsden as John F. Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Lyndon B. Johnson, John Cusack as Richard Nixon, and Alan Rickman as Ronald Reagan, there’s a lot of presidents in this film, but it also has the benefits of being engaging and heartwarming, making it a great choice to watch on the day.
Director Steven Spielberg’s account of President Lincoln’s diligent work to get the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution through a polarized congress during perhaps the most difficult time in our history also does one, primary thing: it gives the oftentimes monolithic image of Abraham Lincoln a well-rounded perspective of humanity, a condition that’s all too easy to forget that he had. Daniel Day Lewis’ Oscar winning performance as the weary and noble 16th president is perhaps the most well-rounded depiction of the “Great Emancipator” that’s ever been committed by a dedicated actor to the medium of film, with a friendly chuckle accompanying some wonderful story, or righteous anger cloaking him in immense power. Lewis helps to give Lincoln something that he has rarely had in the 150 years since his death: realism, in the sense that he makes you feel as if you could actually talk to perhaps the most revered figure in American history. He feels like a real person, which is the greatest compliment I can pay to the actor for the wonderful performance that commands this film.
In addition to the other terrific performances of Lewis and other cast members like Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln, Tommy Lee Jones as Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, James Spader as William N. Bilbo, and Jackie Earle Haley as Confederate vice president Alexander H. Stephens, Lincoln has an extraordinary attention to detail in its production design, definitely helping to bring history to life. By the end, when Lincoln meets his eventual fate at Ford’s Theatre, the loss feels far more personal than the loss of a president: the assassination of Abraham Lincoln feels instead like the loss of a dear friend.
If you’re enjoying the day off, or just have a craving for some patriotic fare on this particular holiday, these are just a few ideas for you. However you spend your President’s Day, we hope that it treats you well.
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