Films about real life American Presidents offer actors the chance to celebrate the pros and cons of the most powerful man on the planet. In this piece I am celebrating the great performances by actors portraying US Presidents on film, from as far back as 1939 through to today. It is fascinating to see different men portray the same position of power, bringing different aspects of their character to the role.
At some point perhaps we will get great films about Presidents Kennedy, Reagan, Washington, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and yes even Trump. For now, let’s list down top actors who played United States Presidents the best.
10. David Morse, John Adams (2010)
Though it is a supporting role in a film about another man, the presence of Morse and his Washington cannot be denied. Quiet, dignified, barely speaking above a whisper, he gives us the man who was a brilliant leader, a natural leader, and the father of the country. The actor, a fine character actor, disappears under the skin of the character, to inhabit the role. He is remarkable. You find yourself, as good as Giamatti is, that we were watching a film about Washington, however fleeting.
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9. Bryan Cranston, All the Way (2016)
An extraordinary performance from a truly gifted actor, well cast as LBJ, the film focusing on his Civil Rights Bill, but allowing an exploration of him as a character. Vulgar, incredibly blunt, sly and whip smart, Johnson was a quietly controversial President, taking office when Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, ironically in Johnson’s home state of Texas. He could be a vicious bully, or pour on the honey to get what he wants. In the years since his term ended and he decided not to take office, in retro he looks like a damn fine President. Cranston brings that to the role, every aspect of the Texan who rose to this office.
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8. Josh Brolin, W. (2008)
To make a film about a President released the year his successor was sworn in, was a gutsy move by Oliver Stone. By not shying away from the many questions about his intellect, his Daddy issues, his strange relationship with his Vice President, Chaney, and of course his decisions during 9/11 and going to war with Hussein all make for interesting viewing. Josh Brolin is perfect as Bush, giving him just enough dullness to be considered stupid, but enough indignation at being attacked to make him appear great. He was anything but great, but the film is endless fascinating, Brolin makes it that way.
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7. Henry Fonda, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
Capturing Lincoln before he was a man for the ages, Henry Fonda brings dignity and great sincerity to his performance as Lincoln as a man on the rise. John Ford directed the film, guiding Fonda to one of his greatest early roles. We can feel the great man lurking within Fonda as Lincoln, the Presidential way of the man who would become arguable the greatest man to hold the office. Day-Lewis was the perfect bookend to this excellent performance.
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6. James Whitmore, Give ‘Em Hell Harry (1975)
In this filmed adaptation of his one man stage show, Whitmore is exceptional as Truman, earning an Academy Award nomination. Capturing the genius of the President who followed Roosevelt, perhaps the greatest President of the 20th century. Truman ended the war, dropping the atomic bomb, stunning the world with the staggering destruction America wielded. Whitmore brings to the role, the joy of being a President, but also the shame of killing hundreds of thousands in one fell swoop. A stunning performance from a great actor, though I am not sure it quite qualifies as a film.
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5. Frank Langella, Frost/ Nixon (2008)
In a recreation of the famous interviews between David Frost and disgraced President Richard Nixon, Ron Howard directed one of his best films guiding two great actors to exceptional work. Frank Langella is sublime as Nixon, bringing to his role the anger, rage and yes, shame of what happened to Nixon. He looks nothing like Nixon, but quietly, with subtle nuance becomes him, the speech pattern, the smile, those penetrating eyes. This is a Nixon we have not seen before, one that is eventually contrite and forever shamed. Superb.
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4. Paul Giamatti, John Adams (2010)
HBO spared no expense in this magnificent film, directed by Tom Hooper, about the earliest Presidencies in the United States, and the astounding life of John Adams. Portrayed perfectly by Paul Giamatti, Adams is a true patriot, a good and decent man willing to go to the ends of the earth for the new America. Selected as the Vice President by General Washington, he would become the second President after Washington resigned the office. Giamatti is just astonishing as Adams, a remarkable piece of acting.
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3. John Travolta, Primary Colors (1998)
Though he is portraying Jack Stanton, make no mistake this is Travolta as Bill Clinton before he was elected, and he was brilliant. Extraordinary, nomination worthy. With that raspy voice, southern accent, Easy smile and good ol’ boy charm, Travolta nailed everything about Clinton. I mean the cheating, the womanizing, the cover ups, the donuts, the constant sexual conquests that his wife pretended not to see, everything is on display here as well as that keen political mind that would make him the great president he was.
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2. Anthony Hopkins, Nixon (1995)
As the deeply flawed President who left the office in disgrace, just eighteen months after winning in the greatest landslide in American history. “When they see you” he tells a portrait of Kennedy, “they see what they want to be. When they see me, they see what they are.” Hopkins captures the broken, wounded soul of Nixon, who fought with issues of self-esteem his entire life, eventually those very issues of self-worth brought him down. Walking with that stoop, speaking in that Nixon speech pattern, he inhabits the soul of this controversial patriot.
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1. Daniel Day-Lewis, Lincoln (2012)
The greatest living actor in one of his greatest performances, one that took him a year to research, in a superb film directed by Steven Spielberg. Retro historians will tell you Lincoln (2012) and Spielberg should have won Oscars for Best Picture and Director for the film. Day-Lewis went far beyond performance, his first appearance displaying a real life Lincoln we have not seen before. Speaking in the high reedy voice he was written to have, he simply nails it. You leave the picture knowing, not believing but knowing, you have encountered the living Lincoln. An astonishing piece of acting.
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