Sure, there's a big election tomorrow, but there's another contest that's gotten far less attention:
Who's the best movie president of all time?
Daniel Day Lewis throws his stovepipe hat into the ring this month when Steven Spielberg's much anticipated "Lincoln" opens Nov. 9. Lewis' poetic portrayal of the 16th president is the stuff Oscar nominations are made of, and it helps that he all but transformed into Lincoln by never stepping out of character during months of filming.
But when it comes to trumping commanders-in-chief of films past, he's up against some tough competition. Before heading to the polls, relive nine of the best movie presidents ever, and tell us who you think is No. 1 in the comments:
Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd in 'An American President'
Never has there been a more desirable man in the movie White House than Andrew Shepherd. The widowed father is running for reelection, but in between campaigning and being a doting dad to his pre-teen daughter, he finds time to fall in love with an environmental lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening).
Their romance plays out over the course of many cute phone calls, movie nights and of course, snags that threaten to cost Shepherd his girlfriend and another four years in the White House. But this being an Aaron Sorkin-scripted romantic comedy, love and a Democratic victory triumph in the end.
John Travolta as Jack Stanton (aka President No. 42) in 'Primary Colors'
He loves doughnuts, he makes a great speech, he has a very smart wife, he has a problem keeping his hands off other women, he's governor of a Southern state, and he's running for president.
That's right, Bill Clinton, in the fictional form of Jack Stanton, played compellingly by John Travolta. (Emma Thompson, in a bit of odd casting that nevertheless works, plays the Hillary character. And Billy Bob Thornton is perfectly cast as chief adviser, although, one could argue, nobody plays James Carville better than James Carville.)
So if you haven't had enough of President Obama's explainer-in-chief in this election, the movie is, in current campaign-ese, a good surrogate. As Lisa Schwarzbaum wrote in Entertainment Weekly, "Travolta's eyes pool with Clintonian dew, he smiles with Clintonian good feeling, his hair is grayed and feathered into Clinton's distinctive just-stepped-out-of-a-salon 'do, and his body is pillowy, just like the avoirdupois of the factual man on whom the fiction is based."
Kevin Kline as President Bill Mitchell in 'Dave'
It's hard to imagine a modest, well-meaning mensch like Dave Kovic making it to the White House. That's where corruption comes into play. When the actual president suffers a massive heart attack while cheating on his wife, White House chief of staff and wannabe commander-in-chief Bob Alexander (Frank Langella) recruits Dave, a Bill Mitchell lookalike, to stand in for the Pres.
Yes, this kind of switcheroo could never actually happen. But the unbelievable premise blossoms into a fun, touching movie. Dave goes from being a puppet to a leader who actually wants to make a difference in Washington. He creates an unprecedented jobs plan and rewrites the federal budget. He befriends a Secret Service agent (Ving Rhames) and woos the first lady (Sigourney Weaver), two connections that follow him out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue when he gives up the charade and launches his own, real political career.
Harrison Ford as President James Marshall in 'Air Force One'
Today's politicians are notorious for sending people into war without having fought themselves, but fortunately for the people aboard "Air Force One" (1997), Harrison Ford's President James Marshall is a decorated Vietnam War hero.
So when a Kazakh terrorist masquerading as Russian press (hello, Mr. Press Secretary, how about an ID check?) boards the president's plane in Moscow en route to the U.S., the I-don't-negotiate-with-terrorists president can spring into some bad-ass action. (Infused, of course, with his sense of The Right Thing To Do.) Not surprisingly, Gary Oldman plays the terrorist, who's wily, ruthless and capable of great flashes of temper.
Remember, this is pre 9/11. "Air Force One" is white knuckles all the way. Maybe even as tense as, say, the real-life White House's Situation Room during the Navy Seals' raid on the Osama bin Laden compound in Abbottabad. Maybe not.
Richard M. Nixon as Richard M. Nixon in 'All the President's Men'
Pounding on typewriter keys, making phone calls and meeting raincoat-clad guys in dark underground parking lots never looked so cool. "Nothing's riding on this except the first amendment of the Constitution, freedom of the press, and maybe the future of this country," Oscar winner Jason Robards, playing Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, tells Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford.
The movie, of course, is "All the President's Men" (1976), and two hungry young reporters, Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, are bringing down our 37th president, Richard Nixon. A local break-in at the Watergate apartment complex in Washington, D.C, leads to the CIA, which leads to the Oval Office, where the president has authorized a campaign of dirty tricks. The movie won four Academy Awards and spawned a generation of journalists.
Nixon does appear, in newsreel footage, but for a remarkable portrayal of Tricky Dick by an actor, you have to go to "Frost/Nixon."
Frank Langella as Richard M. Nixon in 'Frost/Nixon'
"When the president does it, that means it's not illegal."
So said the ethically challenged Richard Nixon to British TV talk show host David Frost during their 1977 interviews.
Frank Langella's performance as Nixon in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon" (2008) received universal kudos: Reporters who covered Nixon -- who resigned in disgrace in 1973 -- during the Watergate era were duly impressed by how Langella convincingly became Nixon: the mannerisms, the paranoia, the social awkwardness, the lack of personal warmth, the tics, the grunts.
When asked by the Los Angeles Times to describe his character, Langella, who was nominated for an Academy Award for his performance, called Nixon a "modern day Lear… He is about as larger-than-life a figure as one can think of in American politics. There aren't very many of them. You might think of Tip O'Neill as a great larger-than-life figure, but not a tragic figure. Certainly [Franklin] Roosevelt had a larger-than-life quality but he didn't have that tragic element that Nixon had."
Morgan Freeman as President Tom Beck in 'Deep Impact'
Long before President Obama got to the White House, Morgan Freeman broke the race barrier as the first black man to play the president … in a sci-fi film. (James Earl Jones was the bonafide first with 1972's "The Man.")
Tom Beck calmed the nerves of a chaotic country as a 7-mile wide comet sped down to the earth. He greenlit a plan to have a team destroy the comet with nuclear weapons. When that didn't work, he declared martial law and revealed that -- surprise! -- the U.S. and other governments around the world have been building underground shelters in preparation for the comet's crash. Sadly, the limestone caves of Missouri couldn't accommodate everyone, and there were mass casualties when a fragment of the comet landed in the Atlantic.
Freeman's role is said to have influenced Dennis Haysbert's portrayal of President David Palmer in "24." Freeman also apparently learned enough about the office to offer a controversial comment about President Obama in July. On NPR's "Tell Me More," he said Obama isn't "America's first black president - he's America's first mixed-race president," saying some people "conveniently forget that Barack had a mama, and she was white."
Paul Giamatti as John Adams in 'John Adams'
Yes, it ran on TV but HBO pulled out all the stops (and $100 million) for this high-culture seven-part miniseries on Founding Father and President No. 2, casting Paul Giamatti as Adams, Laura Linney as wife Abigail, Tom Wilkinson as Benjamin Franklin and Stephen Dillane as Thomas Jefferson. Washington Post critic Tom Shales called "John Adams" (2008) "unmistakably relevant in its evocation of a tumultuous era not entirely unlike our own, and a great moment for a medium that is itself in the throes of revolution."
Highlights are the palpable tensions at the Continental Congress as the rebels debate secession and reconciliation; Abigail's admonishing her husband to "mask your impatience with those less intelligent than yourself"; and the witty bon vivant Ben Franklin, who was as comfortable in Paris as the squarer Adams was uncomfortable, tossing off aphorisms ("Fish and guests stink after three days") and bathing with his French mistress.
Martin Sheen as President Jed Bartlet in "The West Wing"
Yes, the headline says movie presidents. But any list of the best pop culture versions of the commander-in-chief would be incomplete without Jed Bartlet, the driving force of Aaron Sorkin's iconic White House TV drama. In a 2000 interview, Mike McCurry, a former press secretary for the Clinton administration, described Bartlet as the perfect president, one with "the compassion and integrity of Jimmy Carter," the "shrewd decision-making and hard-nosed realism of a Richard Nixon," the "warmth and amiability and the throw-the-arm-around-the-shoulder of a Bill Clinton," and the "liberal passion of a Teddy Kennedy." We'll just call him great.