ByJon Miller, writer at
A caffeinated commentator obsessed with political pop culture and then writing about it. "Don't talk unless you can improve the silence."
Jon Miller

To put it in the words of the unconventional novel that was the late, great Robin Williams: “People say that satire is dead. It’s not dead; it’s alive and living in the White House.”

With the 2016 Presidential Election and reality TV show heating up to an all-time boiling point, we feel that we should look back at some of the best presidents we have ever had. Of course, it comes to no one’s surprise that most of the best presidents do not come from the history books. Would we rather have Jed Bartlet from The West Wing call the shots? Or even better — Harrison Ford’s James Marshall from Air Force One in the Oval Office, 'cause he could definitely get things done (especially on his own).

History has its kindness and atrocities, and on the forefront are the people who were in charge when it call happened. Since the beginning of film, the biographical picture has been a popular. Cool, calculated, and filled to the rim with a variety of complexities — being in charge of a country is not as entertaining as watching someone be in charge of the country.

Instead of pulling a Samantha Bee and projecting our own personal ideologies towards everyone and condemning those who might dare to have another opinion (or none at all), I think we should look back at some our past presidents and consider how unfortunate we are right now. Here are the top 10 American President performances that we would much rather have back in office in 2016.

10. James Whitmore As Harry S. Truman, Give ‘Em Hell, Harry! (1975)

It is reported that Harry S. Truman was giving a speech where he heavily criticized the Republican party. This is when a supporter of the 33rd President of the United States shouted the above title. Truman replied with, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s Hell.” Give ‘Em Hell, Harry! became the slogan for Truman’s re-election, which proved quite fitting for the man.

Also fittingly, Samuel Gallu chose the slogan as the name for his new Truman play. Played by James Whitmore, it was later filmed and released in theaters, garnering Whitmore an Academy Award nomination. The film is everything that a history buff would look for. While it only takes place in the Oval Office, and Whitmore’s Truman is the only person in it, it still remains a powerful piece of stellar writing and a career-defining performance from Whitmore.

The play/film is an emotional tug-of-war that handles some of Truman’s most accomplished feats (such as the formation of the United Nations) while also not being afraid to delve into the guilt that came with his controversial decisions. While we listen to Truman contemplate his possible errors in the Truman Doctrine, which attempted to contain Communism and his decision to drop both atomic bombs, Whitmore gives a captivating performance that has yet to be surpassed, making any other depiction of Harry S. Truman merely an impersonation.

9. Ken Howard As Thomas Jefferson, 1776 (1972)

This is a weird one. 1776 is a historical musical of sorts, with a whole cast of historical figures from John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, John Hancock and Edward Rutledge, to Caesar Rodney. However, it is Ken Howard’s performance as Thomas Jefferson that stands out the most. It is a challenging part for any young actor, which certainly affirms Jefferson role in penning the Declaration of Independence.

The film takes place in the following days of its inception and follows a young, distraught man who is given the responsibility of writing the new nation’s constitution. The film obviously takes place a number of years before Jefferson took over as the third President, and at 33 years old was tasked with writing the most important document in America (when all he wanted to do was go back home to Virginia). It’s a shame that Howard did not get any sort of recognition for his performance. Depicting Jefferson as a well-articulated scholar who is suffering from writer’s block is an especially complex performance, which makes Ken Howard’s rendition of Thomas Jefferson both fresh and daunting.

8. Dan Hedaya As Richard Nixon, Dick (1999)

The 37th President has a whole slew of nicknames, from “Tricky Dick” to a full-out liar, and this film — as well as Dan Hedaya’s performance — does the man no favors. Richard Nixon was actually quite an accomplished president and diplomat, but it will forever be his Watergate scandal that overshadows any of that. Dick is an even weirder movie than 1776. This is a chick flick of sorts that plays into a bizarre approach to history as opposed to a Bernstein and Woodward political conspiracy thriller.

Speaking of which, the two do make an appearance in the film (played by Bruce McCulloch and Will Ferrell), and they are quite different in this version. The film follows two girls who are hired during the Watergate scandal and, unknowingly, witness many real-life historical events. Now, while Frank Langella and Anthony Hopkins gave perfectly fine Academy Award nominated performances in Frost/Nixon and Nixon, respectively, it is Dan Hedaya’s performance as Richard Nixon that gets it right with Nixon’s rigid and commanding voice as well as his mannerisms of charisma and manipulation. Hedaya gives the ideal portrayal in this romantic comedy that was way better than it ever should have been.

7. Henry Fonda As Abraham Lincoln, Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)

Abraham Lincoln is the most iconic American president of all time. His look and his accomplishments have become synonymous with 19th century history. Before he was the 16th president, Lincoln was an equally accomplished lawyer in Illinois. Young Mr. Lincoln is just that: a story that follows the youth of Abraham Lincoln as he defends a man accused of murder. It is actually based on real events — William Armstrong was a family friend of Lincoln’s who was accused of murder. True to the brilliance of his reputation, Lincoln was able to use judicial tactics not yet used in court (such as using common sense facts) to acquit Armstrong of his charges. Henry Fonda brilliantly conveys Lincoln’s abstract demeanor — showcasing a man who is young and still has a lot to learn while also giving off the impression that he can run the country without breaking a sweat.

6. Nick Nolte As Thomas Jefferson, Jefferson in Paris (1995)

Thomas Jefferson is probably one of the most complex figures in American history. He was lauded for years, only to be despised in recent times, and there is still a lot we learn about the man even today. A completely different rendition of the third President, Nick Nolte portrays Jefferson as the United States Minister to France during the French Revolution in the 1780s. The film is renowned for its first portrayal of Sally Hemmings, an enslaved young woman who was rumored to be having an affair with Jefferson for decades.

Of course, it was merely a rumor until after the release of this film, when it was eventually confirmed that Jefferson fathered Hemmings’s children and the history textbooks had to be rewritten. Nick Nolte is a much more grumpy and confident Jefferson than Ken Howard, offering up a more experienced and calculated Thomas Jefferson that truly drives the forgotten piece of history to great effect.

5. Alexander Knox As Woodrow Wilson, Wilson (1944)

From governor of New Jersey to President of the United States, Wilson has everything you need to in a standard biography picture. However, it is Alexander Knox’s commanding performance as the 28th president that will stand out. Mainly focusing on Wilson’s presidential career during and after World War I and ending with the Wilson’s rejection to the League of Nations, it is a powerful film that only succeeds on the actor’s performance.

Knox was nominated for an Academy Award for his portrayal, and we follow him every step of the way, experiencing all of his haunting experiences of disappointment, guilt, misjudgment, and success. The ending was an especially somber one as Wilson’s cabinet all shake his hand one by one during the last few minutes of his presidency. Sure, it is a pretty cliched ending, but Knox’s performance makes it all the more subtly dramatic.

4. Anthony Hopkins As John Quincy Adams, Amistad (1997)

Unlike any of the other performances here, this one takes place after John Quincy Adams had vacated the fourth presidency spot. Anthony Hopkins’s Academy Award-nominated role depicts a much older, more sleepy and impatient diplomat who is no less youthful in his talents than he was before. In Steven Spielberg’s Amistad, we follow the trial of several African slaves who kill and take over their captor’s ship. Adams comes in at the end to save the day with a brilliant closing argument monologue (because it wouldn’t be a courtroom drama without one) that showcased Hopkins’s vivid performance. The film definitely gets props for staying true to history. Adams, a 73 year-old abolitionist, jumped at the offer of defending the enslaved prisoners and gave a nine-hour-long argument critiquing Congress. It is an enthralling film that truly relies on Hopkins’s scene-stealing acting.

3. Ralph Bellamy As Franklin D. Roosevelt, Sunrise On Campobello (1960)

Campobello Island is a Canadian destination where both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt would spend their summers. Sunrise on Campbello takes place during the summer of 1921 and depicted FDR’s emerging polio. Both Bellamy and Greer Garson received Academy Award nominations for their intimate portrayals of the iconic couple. It is an interesting premise, especially since many consider FDR to be the one of the greatest presidents in American history, only to have Sunrise at Campbello be about FDR fighting his illness. Bellamy is up to the challenges of portraying both a real-life and important figure as well as rightfully showing the brutal effects of polio.

2. Sidney Blackmer As Theodore Roosevelt, This Is My Affair (1937), The Monroe Doctrine (1939), Teddy The Rough Rider (1940), In Old Oklahoma (1943), Buffalo Bill (1944), My Girl Tisa (1948), Never Kick A Man Upstairs (1953)

If you have a movie and Teddy Roosevelt makes an appearance, you call up Sidney Blackmer. At least that was the memo that was sent around in Hollywood during the time. Blackmer played Roosevelt a whopping seven times, and there could be more, since movies in the early twentieth century had a history of being “lost films.”

Besides Teddy, The Rough Rider, which was a short film, Blackmer was never the lead in any of these movies. Instead, filmmakers had a thing for characters played by John Wayne or Barbara Stanwyck doing something amazing and then getting an award by Teddy Roosevelt towards at the end of the movie. Blackmer spent more than 10 years portraying the 26th president at different stages of his life. More importantly than that, no matter whether in a western, crime drama, or romantic comedy, Blackmer was always there to remind audiences of the significant accomplishments of the lead characters by congratulating them for something. Blackmer not only shared a physical resemblance to Roosevelt, but it was a part that no one could take away from him — not even Robin Williams — and that is certainly saying a lot.

1. Daniel Day-Lewis As Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln (2012)

Come on, now! Could this have gone to anybody else? Lincoln was not only an entertaining Spielberg epic — which is also saying a lot considering it is mostly a bunch of middle-aged white guys in wigs talking in courtrooms and offices — but Lincoln was also a much-needed history lesson. Not many people knew what Abraham Lincoln sounded like. We had Henry Fonda’s commanding performance in Young Mr. Lincoln, but we never got a full documentation of the man’s shrill, but overly determined voice.

When you think method acting you usually think Daniel Day-Lewis. He ate, slept, and breathed Lincoln — fully embodying not only the man, but the historical figure that he was. The film, as opposed to following the standard cradle-to-the-grave format of biographies, traces Lincoln as he stacks up the votes to abolish slavery with the 13th Amendment; resorting to intimidation and eloquent manipulation to do so, which only corroborates Lincoln’s unprecedented persistence and heroism. It also helps that, rightfully so, Daniel Day-Lewis was award his third Oscar for his towering performance.

Finally, while it's not a biographical portrayal, we can't forget one of the greatest presidents who delivered one of the greatest speeches in American history:

Which of these performances did you think best brought the portrayed presidents to life?


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