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Hollywood’s Presidents

By Way Yu

It isn’t too hard to imagine Sir Anthony Hopkins, star of such hits as Silence of the Lambs and Mission Impossible II, as President of the United States. He has the charisma that we expect our fearless leader to have. His silver hair and strong facial features are typical of an elected official. Plus, his deep resounding voice is perfect for giving speeches.

Forget that he wasn’t born in America (although his British accent is charming and implies a sense of dignity) or that he’s older than most presidents. Who cares if he’d choose fava beans over broccoli? President Hopkins sounds pretty darn good.

But alas, he’s an actor, not a politician. The best we can settle for is having him play a President.

Hollywood has generally been on-the-mark in casting believable actors in the role of President of the United States, like they did when Hopkins portrayed President Richard Nixon in Nixon. We accepted Morgan Freeman (Nurse Betty) as the first African-American President leading a nation in crisis in Deep Impact.

But for every good casting, there’s a bad one: Jack Nicholson (As Good as it Gets) as the president in Mars Attacks! is just plain scary (presidents shouldn’t have such slanted eyebrows). Dan Aykroyd ("Saturday Night Live") as president in My Fellow Americans makes you wonder how many jokes would be cracked in his State of the Union address.

The person who fills the shoes of the President is as crucial to the movie as the script. Movies, after all, are about believing in the make-believe. For President’s Day, we’re honoring seven of the more memorable films Hollywood has made about the President. So head to your nearest video rental store this February 19th and check one of these out:

Anthony Hopkins does wonders as President Richard Nixon in Oliver Stone’s film Nixon. The movie was a box-office flop—viewers didn’t want to sit through a three hour-long drama about a story they already knew. Critics, however, hailed Hopkins’ performance. He convincingly portrays Nixon, the only President to resign rather than face impeachment, with the right combination of swagger, growl, and defeat.

A more impressive Oliver Stone flick involving a president is JFK, which earned him a Best Director Oscar nomination. The plot is centered on the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Kevin Costner (Dances with Wolves) is attorney Jim Garrison, who digs deep into the FBI files to trounce the lone gunman theory. Costner plays the man-on-a-mission routine with finesse and keeps you riveted despite the convoluted storyline. He makes you speculate that yes, the way those bullet holes were angled doesn’t look like the work of one man alone…

For more light-hearted fare, watch The American President, with Michael Douglas (Traffic). Many Hollywood heavyweights worked on this film: Annette Benning (American Beauty) plays the President’s love interest, Rob Reiner of A Few Good Men fame directs, and the script was crafted by Aaron Sorkin, creator of the hit television series “The West Wing.” Douglas is President Shepard, a single parent who lost his wife a few years before his presidential election. Now that re-election is approaching, he finds that he is falling in love, with a Washington lobbyist no less, and this infuriates his opponents. Part romance, part drama and part comedy, this is a wonderfully executed film that combines strong acting and a great script. When Douglas proclaims, “My name is Andrew Shepard, and I AM the President,” you believe.

One might not expect Kevin Kline (In & Out) to be a convincing President. The truth is, he’s not if you watch Dave. As President Mitchell, he’s hard, cold, and never cracks a smile—which doesn’t convince you that the American public could have chosen this character to lead the nation. However, he shines as Dave Kovic, the man who looks so similar to President Mitchell that, when Mitchell has a stroke, is asked to “fill in” until the real President is back on his feet. Dave sweeps into the White House and gets caught up in his new role, winning over the nation and the First Lady. The script, which could have been a mess of one-liners, surprisingly never gets tiresome. There are holes in the story (wouldn’t the Vice President know an impersonator of his boss when he sees one?), but watching Dave ease into Washington is so pleasurable, you won’t care.

Looking for a president with muscles? That would be in Air Force One, where Harrison Ford (Indiana Jones) makes a fantastic hero-slash-President. While flying home with his family and crew, the President’s airplane is hijacked by terrorists. Turns out the president has brawns and brains--punches out the enemies, then saves his family and the world. This is purely an action film, so don’t expect political drama. It’s more of a Saturday night movie to watch with friends and popcorn.

A pre-1980 film worth watching is All The President’s Men (1976). Dustin Hoffman (Rain Man) and Robert Redford (The Horse Whisperer) star as Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, the team who broke open the Watergate Scandal for the Washington Post. This film is not about the President, but about the journalists following tips that end in the downfall of one. The star however, is not the actors, but the storyline (which is based on Bernstein’s book about the incident). It is riveting because it is true, and as the story unfolds, you half wish for a happier ending for the President than what truly occurs.

What better way to end this list than with Wag the Dog? This satire about movies, media, and politics stars Dustin Hoffman (All the Presidents Men) and Robert DeNiro (Meet the Parents). When the current President’s numbers begin to slide and re-election year is around the corner, Hoffman and DeNiro are called upon to generate a fake war because, polls suggest, wars boost presidential approval ratings. This is a well-crafted screenplay (which earned an Oscar nomination); the great acting by the legendary DeNiro and Hoffman is an added bonus. Does their scam work? You bet. Does it convince you that the media can manipulate politics? It certainly makes you wonder….

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