Presidents On the Big Screen

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By Larry Ratliff

 As a general rule, I prefer U.S. presidents I see on movie screens to the real thing.

They can’t raise taxes or cut health care benefits, for instance, and there are none of those pesky dangling chads to tip swing state elections one way or another.

Whether it’s a great actor portraying a historical figure – like Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon (“Nixon”) in 1995 – or a fictional character (Harrison Ford in “Air Force One” in ’97), all the president men are fun to revisit in a heated election year such as this.

Oscar winner Henry Fonda may have had the most varied experience as this country’s chief executive.  The late legendary star of “On Golden Pond” and “Grapes of Wrath” took on the early years of one of our most revered presidents in 1939.

In John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln,” young Mr. Fonda, in his mid-30s at the time, played the future ill-fated commander in chief in a fictional account of Lincoln’s early years; beginning his law practice, grieving over the death of his girlfriend Ann and meeting Mary Todd, Lincoln’s future wife.

Fonda would occupy the cinematic White House two more times in his long career, but as fictional U.S. presidents.  In 1964, he stared doomsday in the face in “Fail-Safe.”  A series of human and computer malfunctions led to a U.S. nuclear attack on Moscow.  The president (Fonda), in order to prevent Armageddon, played a drastic trump card that had moviegoers on the edge of their seats.

President Fonda faced the gloom of a pending doom one more time on the big screen.  Simply referred to as The President for the second time, Fonda ordered cooperation with the Russians to fend off a mankind-snuffing collision with an asteroid hurtling toward Earth in “Meteor” (1979).

It’s common for big-name stars to step into the cinematic Oval Office.  Harrison Ford, as fictional prez James Marshall, got to scream “Get off my plane!” during the climatic, terrorist disposing moment of “Air Force One” in 1997.  Michael Douglas, portraying single guy chief executive Andrew Shepherd, wooed Annette Bening’s Sydney Ellen Wade in “The American President” two years earlier.

Morgan Freeman brought somber grace to his President Beck in “Deep Impact” (1998), another doomsday meteor drama.  Freeman’s basic role as leader of this country was to go on television as the meteor hurtled toward the planet to announce that mankind was in deep yogurt, so to speak.

Those looking for odd presidential casting need only look as far as “Love Actually,” the romantic comic-drama of 2003 featuring an impressive ensemble cast led by Hugh Grant, Liam Neeson, Colin Firth, Emma Thompson and Keira Knightley.

Billy Bob Thornton played the U.S. president opposite Grant’s British prime minister in that holiday season tangle of tension and tinsel.  And yes, that’s the same Billy Bob (“Sling Blade”) Thornton who would soon portray Willie, the worst department store St. Nick you could imagine in “Bad Santa.”

My favorite movie president, though, has to be President Thomas J. Whitmore of “Independence Day.”  You may recall that aliens zoomed down on Earth in a devastating search-and-destroy mission in that 1996 sci-fi action thriller.

Will Smith drew much of the glory as a Marine fighter pilot who downed an alien ship.  But it was the president himself (Pullman), a former fighter pilot, who climbed into the cockpit to help Smith save the day just in time for Fourth of July festivities.

Pullman’s Thomas J. Whitmore took dead aim, and he didn’t waste time toying with dangling chads.

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