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Top 20 movies about American presidents

Dec. 26, 2012
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Lincoln, 2012
With the nasty, contentious, divisive 2012 presidential election now history—and a movie about Abraham Lincoln in theaters—here’s an intriguing question: Which actors, over the years, were most effective portraying the president of the United States in a motion picture, television movie or mini-series?

As a long-time devotee of vintage films, here are my choices as the 20 best films about America’s presidents.


Sunrise at Campobello (1960)

Wheelchair-bound President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy) wields political power while living with his debilitating polio. This was inspiring work by look-alike Bellamy and Greer Garson as Eleanor, the First Lady.


The Contender (2000)

After the vice president dies, cunning Jeff Bridges, as President Jackson Evans, nominates a senator (Joan Allen) as the new vice president. A vindictive congressman (Gary Oldman) dredges up a sex tape to humiliate her in public hearings.


The Day Reagan Was Shot (2001)

On March 30, 1981, a deranged John W. Hinckley nearly killed Ronald Reagan. The Day features stunning work by Richard Crenna as the stricken Reagan and an oily Richard Dreyfuss as Alexander Haig.


The Missiles of October (1974)

The taut account of the Cuban Missile Crisis features dead-ringer William Devane as John F. Kennedy, plus Martin Sheen as RFK and Howard Da Silva as Nikita Khrushchev.


The American President (1995)

A horny, Bill Clinton-like president (Michael Douglas) foolishly misbehaves with a lobbyist (Annette Bening), ignoring election year implications. The American President also stars Martin Sheen and Richard Dreyfuss.


Twilight’s Last Gleaming (1977)

As president, Charles Durning is forced to act when an ex-Air Force general (Burt Lancaster) takes over a missile site with escaped convicts and threatens to launch a strike against Russia. Tingling suspense.


MacArthur (1977)

MacArthur dramatizes the firing of Gen. Douglas MacArthur (Gregory Peck) by Harry S. Truman (Ed Flanders) during the Korean War. Flanders’ dig at Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s political ambition is a highlight.


Fail-Safe (1964)

A nuclear exchange looms as a computer glitch sends U.S. bombers to attack Moscow. Henry Fonda, as a JFK-like president, is faced with no good choices. Walter Matthau, Frank Overton, Dan O’Herlihy and Dom DeLuise offer strong support.


Tennessee Johnson (1942)

Headstrong VP Andrew Johnson (Van Heflin) becomes president when Abraham Lincoln is assassinated. He clashes with Congress and is impeached. With Lionel Barrymore, Marjorie Main and Ruth Hussey.


Nixon (1995)

Anthony Hopkins’ brooding portrait of Richard M. Nixon is a riveting performance that captures the president’s insecurities. Co-stars include Joan Allen, Ed Harris, Powers Boothe and J.T. Walsh.


World War III (1982)

Russian paratroops sabotage an Alaskan oil pipeline in response to a U.S. grain embargo. Tough president (Rock Hudson) meets Soviet premier (Brian Keith) in Iceland. David Soul and Jeroen Krabbé are opposing combat officers.


Abraham Lincoln (1930)

This sincere, all-encompassing biography of Lincoln features the great Walter Huston at his peak as the Great Emancipator. Among the many portrayals of Lincoln, this is probably the best.


The Man (1972)

James Earl Jones is president pro tempore of the U.S. Senate and reluctantly becomes America’s first black commander-in-chief after a freak disaster in Europe kills many of the nation’s leaders.


 ■ Wilson (1944)

Superb biography of America’s star-crossed World War I-era president, Woodrow Wilson (Alexander Knox), who saw his vision for a League of Nations rejected by his own country. With Charles Coburn and Geraldine Fitzgerald.


By Dawn’s Early Light (1990)

Renegade Soviets fire nukes from Turkey at Russia. NATO is blamed and America is attacked. The president (Martin Landau) and the Soviet boss talk. Powers Boothe, Rip Torn and James Earl Jones provide tension.


Seven Days in May (1964)

Fredric March is a Cold War president with bad poll numbers facing a hero general (Burt Lancaster) plotting a military coup. Kirk Douglas as the general’s aide uncovers the plan. With Ava Gardner and Edmond O’Brien.


Collision Course: Truman vs. MacArthur (1976)

During the Korean War, Harry S. Truman (E.G. Marshall) meets Douglas MacArthur (Henry Fonda) on Wake Island. When the general urges nuclear strikes against China, the president goes home and fires him.


Dr. Strangelove (1964)

Peter Sellers plays the president, a mad scientist and a British captain. Loony general (Sterling Hayden) sends nukes against Russia. James Earl Jones and Slim Pickens lead an attack while George C. Scott tries to stop it. It’s both funny and scary.


Advise & Consent (1962)

An inside look at big-time politics as a dying president (Franchot Tone) nominates a new secretary of state (Henry Fonda). Fine work by Walter Pidgeon, Charles Laughton, Lew Ayres and Don Murray, who hides a dirty secret.


The Best Man (1964)

An influential ex-president (Lee Tracy) dangles his endorsement. The contenders—Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson—ponder using damaging info on each other in Gore Vidal’s smug examination of political conventions.


Richard G. Carter was a Milwaukee Sentinel reporter, Milwaukee Journal columnist and local radio commentator, a New York Daily News columnist and has appeared on “Larry King Live” and “Donahue.”


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