Streaming: the best movie portrayals of US presidents

Guy Lodge
·5-min read

At long last, Donald Trump is out of the White House. His story, one suspects, is far from over: any screenwriters hovering eagerly to write the quintessential film about America’s 45th president would be best advised to keep their powder dry. But write they eventually will – the presidential biopic practically being the due of most men who have held the position, however eventfully or otherwise. Few stick around for long in the popular imagination: when last did you have the urge to watch Merchant Ivory’s dreary Jefferson in Paris (1995; not even streamable) or Ron Howard’s righteously bland Frost/Nixon (2008; iTunes)?

Cinema has certainly done a lot for Richard Nixon, who got one of the funniest of all Hollywood political satires in Andrew Fleming’s smart, fleet Dick (1999; Google Play), as well as the greatest of all “straight” presidential biopics in Oliver Stone’s wild, wavy Nixon (1995; Chili). A brashly ambitious, messy sprawl about a brashly ambitious, messy man, it takes great liberties of psychological interpretation to humanise Tricky Dick while still holding him rigidly to account. Stone couldn’t quite summon up the same dark majesty for George W Bush in 2008’s cartoonishly absorbing but strangely lightweight W. (YouTube), a strike-while-the-iron’s-hot effort that gave itself no distance from Dubya’s reign to really consider his legacy – though it’s already a fascinating time capsule.

Even John F Kennedy, history’s most glamorous president, has yet to be nailed by Hollywood

The Obama presidency hasn’t been so speedily brought to screen, but we’ve already had two portraits of the leader as a young man. Obama can certainly claim to be the only president ever portrayed as a romcom hero – in Southside With You (2016; iTunes), a mellow, affable if somewhat inexplicable speculative portrayal of his and Michelle’s first date. From the same year, Netflix’s sturdy, earnest Barry, meanwhile, took a little more interest in his formative political education as a student at Columbia.

As for Bill Clinton, perhaps nobody thinks they can do better than Mike Nichols’s briskly amusing, thinly disguised takeoff Primary Colors (1998; BBC iPlayer), which was released mere months after the Lewinsky scandal broke and is now ageing rather well as a window into that mid-90s era of slippery liberalism.

Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as Michelle and Barack Obama in Southside With You.
Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers as Michelle and Barack Obama in Southside With You. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

Other 20th-century presidents haven’t fared as memorably on screen. Tom Wilkinson’s Lyndon B Johnson is rightly a secondary figure in Ava DuVernay’s rousing Martin Luther King study Selma (2014; Netflix), though at least he has a first-rate film surrounding him. Which is more than can be said for Bill Murray’s Franklin D Roosevelt in the bizarre throwaway romp Hyde Park on Hudson (2012; Chili) – FDR fared better in 1960’s stately, well-acted and hard-to-access Sunrise at Campobello – or the parade of stars-in-their-eyes presidential impressions (Robin Williams as Eisenhower! Alan Rickman as Reagan!) in Lee Daniels’s The Butler (2013; Amazon), which is ropy as drama but high on camp value. Even John F Kennedy, history’s most glamorous president, has yet to be nailed by Hollywood: instead we have Pablo Larraín’s eerily magnificent Jackie (2017; Amazon), a White House tour haunted by his absence.

For now, no one seems likely to top Abraham Lincoln as cinema’s most generously depicted president, for sheer variety of approaches alone. As a straightforward biopic, Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012; Microsoft) is as meticulous and dignified as it gets, graced as it is by Daniel Day-Lewis’s artistry. Yet I prefer the less expected vision of AJ Edwards’s The Better Angels (2012; Amazon), an impressionistic boyhood portrait with a heavy but worthy debt to Terrence Malick, or, from 1939, John Ford’s surprisingly pacy Young Mr Lincoln (Amazon again), which fashions the future president’s early legal career as a straight-up courtroom drama.

A film of George Saunders’s 2017 Booker-winning Lincoln in the Bardo is doubtless forthcoming, but in the meantime, it’s been unusually adapted as a rather beautiful VR video, commissioned by the New York Times and available on YouTube. All that, and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (Rakuten) to boot? Donald Trump should be so lucky.

Also new on streaming and DVD

Bill and Ted Face the Music
(Warner Bros, 15)
The 1980s nostalgia machine continues apace, cranking out this amiable but oddly low-energy new instalment of adventures for Keanu Reeves and Alex Winter’s time-travelling dimwit dudes. The stars are obliging, but 30 years on, their goofy connection feels just a tiny bit forced. Fans, however, will feel duly serviced.

The Furnace
(Signature, 15)
The Australian outback western has evolved over the decades into a rich independent genre in its own right, and it gets another fine entry in Roderick MacKay’s robust debut feature. Portraying the unlikely partnership between an Afghan camel driver and a white gold thief in the wild days of the late 19th century, it’s a satisfying fusion of revisionist politics and old-school adventure.

23 Walks
(Parkland, 12)
Two lonely pensioners meet while walking their dogs on Hampstead Heath and after bristly beginnings a tentative romance blossoms. Paul Morrison’s exceedingly mild film counts heavily on the down-to-earth warmth of stars Alison Steadman and Dave Johns to take it up a level: they only get so far, but many viewers will ramble happily along with it.

The Masque of the Red Death
Given a sleek 4K restoration by Martin Scorsese’s Film Foundation, Roger Corman’s 1964 Edgar Allan Poe adaptation gets a welcome Blu-ray rerelease. Always a high point of the B-movie maestro’s career, it’s never looked a more ravishing exercise in grand guignol: the revived colours of Nicolas Roeg’s cinematography all but melt the screen.