Recently, I was listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts The West Wing Weekly, in which former cast member Joshua Malina, and musician and super-fan Hrishikesh Hirway celebrate and analyze the Aaron Sorkin political drama #TheWestWing.
The podcast's roster of guests includes not just actors and crew involved in the creation of the show, but also members of various governmental agencies and nongovernmental public policy organizations.
One such guest on an episode from a few moths ago related that he and his coworkers had a bit of an axiom in their office related to The West Wing. When they had a good day, they would call it a "West Wing Day," and when they had a bad day, they would call it a "House of Cards Day."
Check out Martin Sheen's President Josiah Bartlet in action below.
Unlike The West Wing, which presents an idealistic outlook on governance and civil servants, the #Netflix program #HouseofCards explores political corruption and features protagonists more interested in self-advancement than the greater good.
Thinking about how these two series present very distinct representations of people involved with government and public service, it seems that many television shows and films that feature the presidency self-select into one of two categories: The virtuous and the villainous. Presidential administrations are often either full of hopes and good intentions, or are dens of corruption and depravity.
So let's get optimistic and hopeful with an exploration of some of these films about the American presidency; the virtuous, fun movies about people with inspirational dedication to their office.
The American President (1995)
Before The West Wing, this mid-'90s movie was #AaronSorkin's first foray into US politics. The American President follows widower President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) as he struggles to deal with his blossoming relationship with lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) in the face of dwindling public support and legislative hurdles. This film features excellent performances by the likes of Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox and Richard Dreyfuss.
President Shepherd is cut from an ideological cloth. Even if one doesn't agree with his personal values or positions on political issues, it's impossible to doubt that he wants the best for his country. He's a caring father, a dedicated public servant, and an inspiring leader.
When President Bill Mitchell is left comatose due to a massive stroke, two senior White House aides recruit presidential impersonator Dave Kovic to take his place. Dave stars Kevin Kline as both president and impersonator, with Sigourney Weaver as first lady Ellen Mitchell.
Despite essentially being an usurper, Dave is one of the most caring, compassionate, pure-hearted people ever to set foot in the Oval Office. He genuinely tries to do good for the people most in need, bringing in a personal friend to help read and balance the federal budget and find money to save a children's shelter.
The Contender (2000)
In The Contender, Joan Allen plays Senator Laine Hanson, who is nominated by President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) to be the US vice president. Her nomination is blocked by Congressman Sheldon Runyon (Gary Oldman) after some questionable stories surface from Hanson's time in college. The sexual innuendos pile up during the senator's confirmation hearings, and Laine refuses to address the questions out of principle.
Bridges is fantastic in his supporting role as President Evans. He has a fun running gag throughout the movie, trying to stump the White House kitchen staff with increasingly strange and exotic food orders. Evans supports his nominee throughout her battle against their antagonists in the legislature, which culminates in a climactic address to Congress.
Abraham Lincoln remains a pillar of moral integrity in the landscape of American history. In this film, Daniel Day-Lewis plays the Great Emancipator alongside Sally Field as Mary Todd Lincoln, with David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Tommy Lee Jones leading a robust supporting cast.
Directed by Steven Spielberg, Lincoln details the work done to secure the passage of the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution at the end of the Civil War, partially based on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. President Lincoln is portrayed as shouldering the immense burdens of caring for both his office and his country with compassion and wit.
Air Force One (1997)
#HarrisonFord stars as President James Marshall, in this Die-Hard-in-the-sky thrill ride. President Marshall is not afraid to shoot from the hip, whether with a new policy initiative or actual guns, which is what happens when his plane is hijacked by a group of Russian terrorists on its return from a diplomatic summit in Moscow. Gary Oldman leads the terrorists, who take the crew and passengers of Air Force One hostage to make demands on the US government.
While there have been other movies that portray the president as an action hero, this one also contains a compelling subplot about the office of the presidency itself. Glenn Close's vice president and the secretary of defense debate invoking the 25th Amendment to remove Marshall from office while he is under threat.
What virtuous movie presidents have we left out? Let us know in the comments.
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[Main image credit: Warner Bros.]