The President of the United States is a fictional job. No, that doesn’t mean that the President doesn’t exist, nor does it mean that anyone who holds the office doesn’t have enormous responsibilities. However, the presidency does become the focal point for the hopes and fears of American citizens, who (rightly or wrongly) project their ideas about the job onto the person.
For that reason, the presidency lends itself well to cinema, even before screen star Ronald Reagan held the job for eight years in the 1980s. Like their real-world counterparts, movie presidents often appear larger than life, whether they're punching out terrorists with their own two fists, guiding their children’s romantic misadventures, or, you know, leading the country. There’s a time and a place for every manner of movie president, as seen with these twenty-five greats.
1. Andrew Shepherd (The American President, 1995)
With the idealism of Clinton’s first term fading into the national memory, the high-minded nature of writer Aaron Sorkin’s political scripts can seem unfashionable, if not laughable. But even the most cynical viewer has to sigh a bit when President Andrew Shepherd (Micheal Douglas) announces a bold environmental plan during the State of the Union address. Aided by Rob Reiner, still in his miracle run of great films, and a soaring score by Marc Shaiman, The American President makes viewers long for the past. Not so much for the president we had during the 90s, but the president we thought we would get.
2. Dave (Dave, 1993)
Written by Gary Ross and directed by Ivan Reitman, Dave operates according to the fantasy at the heart of all democracies: what if a regular guy became the leader of the free world? That premise doesn’t stray too far from fairy tales about servant girls becoming princesses, but Dave avoids veering into ridiculousness with a sweetness that remains aspirational but never false. Played by Kevin Kline with a naïveté that never deserves mockery, Dave proves himself to be not just a better husband to First Lady Ellen Mitchell (Sigourney Weaver) and a better friend to Secret Service agent Duane Stevenson (Ving Rhames), but also a better president than anyone who came before him.
3. Douglass Dilman (The Man, 1972)
Midway through The Man, new president Douglass Dilman calls his disinterest in the office his “only unique quality.” Of course, that’s not true. Dilman has many unique qualities, including the way he came to power (a series of accidents that made him next in line of succession) and the fact that he’s Black. Played by James Earl Jones, Dilman struggles with the responsibilities thrust upon him, whether they be expectations of greater action from his activist daughter (Janet MacLachlan) or the conservative Congress, which tries at every turn to undermine him. Originally shot as a tv movie, The Man sometimes buts up against the limitations of the intended form (despite the best attempts by director Joseph Sargent) and the screenplay by Rod Serling slips from righteous fury to milquetoast centrism, but The Man gives us a picture of the awe inspired by a good man becoming president.
4 – Chet Roosevelt (Americathon, 1979)
To be sure, nobody wants Chet Roosevelt to be in the White House. The affable stoner played by John Ritter fits well in the satirical world that director Neal Israel and writers members Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman designed for Americathon. However, nobody can deny the appeal of a laid-back leader of the free world, a man who doesn’t respond to the oncoming bankruptcy of the nation not by declaring war on other countries but by hosting a telethon, appealing to his media-obsessed constituency. Maybe we don’t want Chet Roosevelt running the real U.S.A., but our presidents could learn something from his chilled personality.
5. Judson Hammond (Gabriel Over the White House, 1933)
President Judson Hammond (Walter Huston) seems like a swell guy for the first third of Gabriel Over the White House. Whether bantering with political operatives or teasing children, Hammond has an acuity that makes his rise to the White House a foregone conclusion. That cheery disposition drops after he recovers from a car accident, but he replaces that jocularity with a commitment to the common American. “Save your sympathy for the people of the United States, who are in dire need of it,” Hammond barks at one glad-hander before launching his expansive social agenda. Director Gregory La Cava and screenwriters Carey Wilson and Bertram Bloch (adapting a novel by T.F. Tweed) lack the emotional touch that makes Frank Capra’s populist films resonate still today. Still, even a grouchy agent of the people would be a welcome replacement for most modern politicians.
6. Tom Beck (Deep Impact, 1998)
In our imagination, we turn to the president in times of crisis to provide words of wisdom, leadership, and hope. Few world leaders have faced a problem quite like an oncoming asteroid that will obliterate the planet, as seen in Mimi Leder’s Deep Impact, written by Bruce Joel Rubin and Michael Tolkin. Whether authorizing plans to stop the asteroid or comforting the people in the face of death, Beck exceeds our expectations for the Commander in Chief. Played by Morgan Freeman in his late 90s paternalist mode, President Beck looks toward the camera with resignation and grace as he shepherds the country through the end of the world, something few would expect of real politicians.
7. David Stevens (Twilight’s Last Gleaming, 1977)
When rogue Air Force General Lawrence Dell (Burt Lancaster) and his men capture a missile silo in Montana, they contact President David Stevens (Charles Durning) with two demands: $10 million and the release of evidence about the country’s mistakes in Vietnam. Neither a blustering hawk nor a simpering dove, President Stevens does the more believable thing, spending much of the movie weighing the possibilities and considering his options. That sense of realism raises the stakes of Twilight’s Last Gleaming, elevating it above most political thrillers.
8. James Marshall (Air Force One, 1997)
With his grouchy disposition on and off the screen, few could believe Harrison Ford would win enough votes to secure the presidency. But when terrorists hijack his plane in the ridiculous Wolfgang Petersen classic Air Force One, there’s no better choice. The script by Andrew W. Marlowe gives Ford plenty of grandstanding moments as President Marshall defends the plane from Soviet terrorist Egor Korshunov, enacting his policy of punching baddies in the face. Realistic? No. But thrilling? Absolutely.
9. Art Hockstader (The Best Man, 1964)
We often think of former presidents as lame ducks, people who hold ceremonial roles after leaving their positions of power. But in the Franklin J. Schaffner film The Best Man, former President Hockstader (Lee Tracy, in an Oscar-nominated performance) carries more power than those vying to be his successor. Written by Gore Vidal, The Best Man follows two potential party candidates (Henry Fonda and Cliff Robertson) courting former President Hockstader’s approval, constantly proving that the next generation lacks the class of former choices.
10. The President (The Werewolf of Washington, 1973)
“I think your father’s a cross between Abraham Lincoln and Jesus Christ,” political reporter Jack Whittier (Dean Stockwell) tells his would-be fiancé Marion (Jane House), who happens to be the daughter of the President of the United States. Through most of The Werewolf of Washington, written and directed by Milton Moses Ginsberg, the President (Biff McGuire) treats his potential son-in-law with kindness and dignity, partially because he doesn’t realize that the boy is the lycanthrope terrorizing the capital city. But by the end of the film (Spoilers for a fifty-year-old movie nobody has seen), the President transforms into a new wolfman, putting any other leader who plays at toughness.
11. The President (Being There, 1979)
Nobody comes out looking great in Being There, the satire from director Hal Ashby and writer Jerzy Kosiński, not even the fool Chance (Peter Sellers), who everyone mistakes as a genius. When Presidential Advisor Ben Rand (Melvyn Douglas) brings Chance into the White House, the dim-witted gardener becomes a key advisor to the President (Jack Warden), offering advice to one of the most powerful people in the world. While this might seem like a knock against the president, Hartley uncovers a gentility in the President’s interactions with Chance, revealing a sensitive and possibly even sensible side to the politician.
12. Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Idiocracy, 2006)
The quality of a president can only be properly measured within their time. Such is the case for Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, the world’s first adult film star/pro-wrestler/president, played with glee by Terry Crews. The American president in the Mike Judge comedy (co-written by Etan Cohen) Idiocracy, which takes place in a future dominated by dimwits, President Comacho represents the ultimate end of populist politics. But even within his spectacular boasts, Comacho at least has the wisdom to choose the average Joe (Luke Wilson) to solve the country’s drought, allowing him to enact the brilliant plan of giving plants water.
13. The President of the United States (Fail Safe, 1964)
Directed by Sidney Lumet and written by Walter Bernstein, audiences remember Fail Safe as a serious counter to Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, released earlier that year. Where Kubrick’s movie responded to the threat of nuclear holocaust with a joyless laugh, Fail Safe casts a sober eye, portraying the national mechanisms called into action by a near-nuclear event. Nowhere is that more clear than with the latter movie’s president, played with quiet intensity by Henry Fonda. Watching the breakdown of controls intended to prevent a war between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, Fonda’s president tries every available option, desperate to keep the system in place while preserving as many lives as possible.
14. Charlotte Field (Long Shot, 2019)
True, Charlotte Field (Charlize Theron) only becomes president during the final scene of Long Shot, with the movie following instead the complications caused by her romance with reporter-turned-speechwriter Fred Flarsky (Seth Rogan). But the script by Dan Sterling and Liz Hannah, directed by Jonathan Levine, uses the courtship and candidacy to comment upon the nature of the presidency. When Field and Flarsky come under scrutiny, they become avatars of a less traditional majority, one not often represented by the nation’s leaders, not by the conservatives who oppose the couple.
15. John McKenzie (First Daughter, 2004)
Through the eyes of the romantic comedy First Daughter, President John McKenzie (Michael Keaton) is most important as the father to Samantha (Katie Holmes), the titular daughter. Despite able direction by Forest Whitaker, the script by Jessica Bendinger and Kate Kondell felt a bit too fantastic for viewers at the time, who preferred 2004’s other president’s daughter rom-com Chasing Liberty. But First Daughter makes the list here because of Keaton’s ability to retain an edge, even playing a paternal president.
16. Ellen Claremont (Red, White, & Royal Blue, 2023)
Upon hearing her son (Taylor Zakhar Perez) come out to her and reveal his relationship with an English prince (Nicholas Galitzin), President Claremont (Uma Thurman) reassures him with love and support, and even offers some embarrassing but well-meaning advice. To be clear, this is the bare minimum of human decency one would expect of a parent, but how many times have fictional presidents failed to clear even this low bar? Thurman’s take on the president provides a refreshing but flawed humanity to a movie directed by Matthew Lopez — who co-wrote this adaptation of the Casey McQuiston novel with Ted Malawer — that too often indulges in soap opera tropes.
17. James Sawyer (White House Down, 2013)
Even at his most charming, Jamie Foxx always has a bit of an edge to him, making his President James Sawyer one of the most realistic in Hollywood history, even if it comes in a crazed Roland Emmerich action flick. Throughout White House Down (written by James Vanderbilt), Sawyer just needs to stay alive, a task complicated by an attack by white supremacist terrorists. Rather than let veteran and Capitol cop John Cale (Channing Tatum) do all the hard work, Sawyer gets involved himself, helping to save the day.
18. Presidents Kramer and Douglas (My Fellow Americans, 1996)
In a list full of two-fisted heroes and people who follow their conscience, Presidents Kramer and Douglas (Jack Lemmon and James Garner, respectively) stand out. Constantly bickering and incessantly petty throughout My Fellow Americans, the two former executives cannot drop their rivalry, even long after their administrations have ended. As irritating as that premise might sound, director Peter Segal keeps the audience on the duo’s side, even when the screenplay by E. Jack Kaplan, Richard Chapman, and Peter Tolan tries for harder satire. That soft hand might make for a frustrating overall watch, but audiences can’t help but pull for Kramer and Douglas, especially when portrayed by such likable actors.
19. President Jordan Lyman (Seven Days in May, 1964)
At the start of the John Frankenheimer-directed thriller Seven Days in May, President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) does the unthinkable: he signs a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union at the height of the Cold War. That decision drives the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs (Burt Lancaster) to plan a coup against the unpopular president, much to the chagrin of Colonel Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas). As fantastic as that premise sounds, it has its roots in the real world, as authors Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II drew from their experience as political reporters to write the novel Seven Days in May. Unsurprisingly, the screenplay by Rod Serling veers a little too much toward the idealistic, but that combination makes Lyman an effective combination of the optimal and the real.
20. Thomas J. Whitmore (Independence Day, 1996)
Throughout Independence Day, we hear that President Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is too young, too much of a fighter jockey, too family-oriented to be a good president. And then, he proves his critics wrong by leading a jet squadron against alien invaders. No, it doesn’t make sense, nor does President Whitmore’s rousing “Independence Day” speech at the end of the movie. But like the best parts of Roland Emmerich’s disaster-heavy sci-fi flick, which he co-wrote with Dean Devlin, Whitmore’s plot works best when audiences shut off their brains and enjoy the spectacle. In such a thoughtless state, President Whitmore looks like Lincoln.
21. The President of the United States (Canadian Bacon, 1995)
Michael Moore made his name by putting himself at the center of left-leaning and agitating documentaries such as Bowling for Columbine. Moore carries much of that same approach to Canadian Bacon, his sole narrative feature, which follows the rise of a new Cold War between America and its neighbor to the north, Canada. To his discredit, Alan Alda’s President of the United States goes along with the plan, hoping to bolster his sagging approval ratings. But he has a strange logic to his approach, hoping that a fake war will allow him to serve the country’s children, which is as good as it gets in Moore’s cynical worldview.
22. The President (National Treasure: Book of Secrets, 2007)
Played by the ever-impressive Bruce Greenwood, the President in National Treasure: Book of Secrets makes perhaps the bravest decision of anyone on this list: he listens to Nicolas Cage. Of course, this is Nicolas Cage as treasure hunter Ben Gates, the hero of the National Treasure movies from director Jon Turteltaub and screenwriters Cormac Wibberley and Marianne Wibberley. As expected, Book of Secrets has a ridiculous plot, involving a book of secrets passed along to presidents and hidden passages in the White House. But somehow, Greenwood keeps his dignity, even when the President plays along with Gates’s nutty theories.
23. President Jack Neil (Murder at 1600, 1997)
1997 was a bad year for movie presidents, with both Murder at 1600 and the Clint Eastwood film Absolute Power involving foul play in the White House. While the latter reveals the president as the killer right from the beginning, the former poses that possibility just to disprove it. As Detective Harlan Riggs (Wesley Snipes) investigates the murder, he uncovers a greater plot to move against President Neil, which underscores his decency as a world leader.
24. Jackson Evans (The Contender, 2000)
Within the black-and-white worldview of writer/director Rod Lurie’s The Contender, there are good people and bad people. In the latter falls Representative Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman), who invokes a moral panic against Vice Presidential nominee Laine Billings Hanson (Joan Allen) in order to secure his more favored choice. In the former falls President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) who not only chooses Hanson over more popular men but stands by her during Runyon’s manhunt. The Contender isn’t the most complex vision of Washington to ever hit the screen, but Bridges’s simple and principled take has an exciting quality.
25. President John Harker (Escape from New York, 1981)
Of all the presidents on this list, John Harker is the most questionable. He spends most of John Carpenter’s Escape from New York captive in the titular city, which has become a giant prison in the movie’s dystopian future, and he’s not even an American, played by Donald Pleasence in his natural English accent. Despite these knocks against him, Harker holds his own, even when matching wits with Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), the coolest tough guy to ever grace the screen. And any president who holds his own with Snake deserves their place on this list.
Greensboro, North Carolina resident Joe George writes for Den of Geek, Sojourners Magazine, The Progressive, Think Christian, and elsewhere. Joe's areas of geek expertise include horror, science fiction (especially Star Trek), movies of the 60s and 70s, and all things superheroes. He posts nonsense from @jageorgeii on Twitter and from @joewriteswords on literally every other social media site in the world.