It is now the era of the Biden presidency. That office, whoever holds it, and all its awesome power and challenges have long been a great subject for movies, whether the focus is on real or fictional presidents. Here is a list of films worth your time. I tried to steer clear of more obvious titles like “Lincoln” and “W,” concentrating instead on some fun alternatives.
“The American President” (1995, PG-13) and “LBJ” (2017, R): What connects these two engaging, star-driven works is director and progressive activist Rob Reiner. “The American President” brings a nice Hollywood sheen to an early, earnest screenplay by Aaron Sorkin about a widower president (Michael Douglas) who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening). While the political fallout of their romance captivates the nation, Sorkin’s real focus is on Douglas’ once-principled president, who seems to have lost his bearings and needs to find his way back. (Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, YouTube, Google Play)
Woody Harrelson is wonderful as Lyndon Baines Johnson, whom we see struggle for relevance in the John F. Kennedy administration, and then take the reins of a fallen JFK’s unfinished civil rights agenda. (Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV)
“Independence Day” (1996, PG-13), “Mars Attacks!” (1996, PG-13) and “Deep Impact” (1998, PG-13): A pandemic crisis for the Oval Office? How about an extraterrestrial invasion or a comet on a collision course with Earth? Roland Emmerich’s audacious “Independence Day” sees the White House blown up by space aliens, but the U.S. president (Bill Pullman) pushes back by personally flying a fighter jet and delivering an inspiring rewrite of the St. Crispin’s Day speech from Shakespeare’s “Henry V.”
That same year produced Tim Burton’s nutty “Mars Attacks!,” a spoof of 1950s sci-fi B movies. Jack Nicholson facetiously portrays a corrupt president who sees political opportunities in appeasing chattering (“Ack! Ack!”) creatures here to occupy us.
Director Mimi Leder tries to make the most of “Deep Impact,” but a misguided story about random characters dealing with a killer comet is only redeemed whenever a magisterial Morgan Freeman as president is telling the nation like it is. (All on Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Fandango Now)
“Fail Safe” (1964, mature audiences): Here is a Cold War-era nightmare that never quite leaves you. Sidney Lumet’s “Fail Safe,” with an adapted screenplay written by formerly blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein, is a somber affair about a technical glitch that triggers a U.S. nuclear attack on Russia. Henry Fonda is the outwardly calm, composed president on whose big shoulders rests unthinkable choices to prevent World War III. (Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Apple TV)
“Dave” (1993, PG-13): Perhaps the ultimate work of political wish fulfillment, Ivan Reitman’s 1993 “Dave” stars Kevin Kline in the title role as a small-town activist who just happens to perfectly resemble the current philandering, self-interested and sour president. When the latter is incapacitated and the nation is kept in the dark about that fact, Dave is pressed into service as a replacement told to keep his opinions to himself. But it isn’t long before the altruistic hero begins inspiring Americans with his natural joy, while rewriting bills and balancing the budget on his own compassionate terms. (Vudu, Amazon Prime Video, Apple TV)
“The Contender” (2000, R): In a crowd of terrific performances (Joan Allen, Gary Oldman, Sam Elliott, Christian Slater, William Petersen), Jeff Bridges stands out as a quirky, often inscrutable president anchored by deep convictions and hard-earned shrewdness. Allen plays a U.S. senator whose front-runner status as a new vice president is threatened by a sex scandal. Writer-director Rod Lurie (“The Last Castle”) nearly drowns everything in moral tenets, but Bridges keeps us grounded. (Microsoft, Google Play, Amazon Prime Video)
“Elvis & Nixon” (2016, R): There are several good films about Richard Nixon. But Liza Johnson’s fanciful “Elvis & Nixon” magnifies aspects of the disgraced president revealed in a speculative, comic tale about what might have happened during a real-life 1970 encounter in the Oval Office between Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) and Nixon (Kevin Spacey). What emerges through brilliant performances and Johnson’s sensitivity is a sad portrait of two massively prominent figures who are actually quite lonely, awkward and isolated. (Fandango Now, Amazon Prime Video)
“Wilson” (1944, all ages) and “Hyde Park on Hudson” (2012, R): Henry King’s “Wilson” is an uneven yet ultimately rewarding story about Woodrow Wilson’s rise to the White House, serving as president from 1913 to 1921. Alexander Knox is splendid as the bookish academic who becomes the 28th president, a man of rectitude and strong opinions about the virtues of trustbusting and staying out of World War I as long as possible. Most of the film’s substance is in its second half, so you have to be patient. It’s worth the wait to see Wilson dress down a German ambassador as a prelude to America’s entrance in the war. (Amazon Prime Video)
At first blush, Bill Murray seems like a peculiar choice to play Franklin D. Roosevelt, but accuracy is not the point of Roger Michell’s “Hyde Park on Hudson.” This version of Roosevelt imagines him as a serial seducer with multiple mistresses, but also a take-charge personality who extracts some royal pride from England’s king (Samuel West) and queen (Olivia Colman, playing the mother of her queenly character in “The Crown”) as the price for America’s help defending their country against Hitler. (Amazon Prime Video, Vudu, Apple TV)