Today is Presidents Day and there is no better way than to celebrate some of our favorite presidents to have graced the big screen in film.
In addition to the classic offerings, new releases this Presidents Day weekend include Lincoln’s Dilemma on Apple TV+ and Abraham Lincoln on the History Channel.
I saw this film back in 2018 during a 25th anniversary screening in 35mm at the historic Music Box Theatre in Chicago. The late Ivan Reitman directed the political comedy from Gary Ross’ hilarious Oscar-nominated screenplay. There are so few comedies that work in a way that this script does. The result? One of the greatest presidents ever on film!
The film holds up really well nearly 25 years later much thanks to a strong performance from actor Kevin Kline in the duel roles of civilian Dave Kovic and President Bill Mitchell. Frank Langella plays the role of Bob Alexander with such a dramatic feeling to it. It’s as if he came onto the set expecting a drama but nobody told him he was in a comedy movie. The interplay between him, Alan Reed, and Dave is just one of the reasons why the comedy works so well.
Paying an homage to the prior work of the great Frank Capra, Dave offers a fresh contemporary take on a classic trope. It’s the wonderful characters that make the film what it is and why it’s such a classic some 29 years later. With Reitman’s recent passing, it certainly makes for appropriate viewing today.
The American President (1995)
To say that The American President is a prelude to television’s The West Wing would not be an understatement. After all, Aaron Sorkin penned the screenplay to the Rob Reiner-directed dramedy starring Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. The film also starred Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, and Richard Dreyfuss.
The gist of the film is that President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is pursuing a relationship with environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). On the one hand, it’s okay because Shepherd is a widower. On the other hand, Wade is a lobbyist and this just reeks of scandal. President Shepherd wants a crime control bill passed into law by Congress so it’s a good thing that Wade isn’t working for one of those teams involved.
I watched it a few years ago but never wrote a formal review.
My Fellow Americans (1996)
This film wasn’t seen as a particularly great film when it opened in December 1996. Neither financially or with the critics. Because Jack Lemmon’s film sparring partner Walter Matthau wasn’t in the greatest health, James Garner stepped up to the plate. Not to take anything away from Garner but Lemmon and Matthau tend to bring comedy gold when they act together.
Lemmon and Garner star as a pair of feuding ex-presidents, Russell Kramer and Matt Douglas–Republican and Democrat, respectively. Kramer’s former VP, William Haney (Dan Aykroyd) is now president with an idiot of a vice president in his administration, Ted Matthews (John Heard). Given the cast at hand, there’s no shortage of comedy. There’s the serious side of things with the political bribery, assassinations, and assassination attempts! Remind you, this film was billed as a comedy. Maybe the film would have been better suited as a comedy thriller?
With everything going on in the United States in the last few years, this one is worth revisiting.
Air Force One (1997)
If you’re wanting a presidential thriller, look no further than Air Force One. The film holds up as it approaches its 25th anniversary in July.
Harrison Ford is one of our nation’s greatest action stars. It’s not often that action films revolve around the President of the United States in a leading role. Recently, such films have had the president in a supporting role rather than a prominent role. This film may be almost 25 years old but it also makes one long for a classic action film that isn’t full of explosions at every turn. In this case, Ford’s President James Marshall is adamant that his administration does not negotiate with terrorists. When given the chance to escape to safety, Marshall refuses to leave his wife and daughter. He stays behind and fights not just for his family but for the safety of every American aboard Air Force One.
Behind the camera, director Wolfgang Petersen keeps up with the action in the air and the commotion on the ground at the White House. Vice President Kathryn Bennett (Glenn Close) holds ground at the White House. That being said, there is some debate about the 25th amendment between her, Defense Secretary Walter Dean (Dean Stockwell), and Attorney General Andrew Ward (Philip Baker Hall). Ultimately, it becomes a moot point as Marshall is able to retake the plane.
Jerry Goldsmith’s score is fully patriotic in every sense of the word. The main themes are full of the brass horns that come to represent such scores. I don’t want to say it’s a cliché but I feel like every film with a patriotic plot is required to have a similar main theme. Meanwhile, Goldsmith also scores the action with percussion pieces.
Air Force One is one of the greatest presidential action thrillers to grace the big screen.
Primary Colors (1998)
I last watched Primary Colors back in 2019 since awards season meant missing out on the film’s 20th anniversary when it took place.
Mike Nichols directed from an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Elaine May. The two were comedy partners going back to their days with The Compass Players (predating The Second City). This was one of a few films in which they teamed up as director and screenwriter.
Primary Colors was a hit with the critics but the film bombed at the box office. Perhaps because of how close John Travolta’s performance as Arkansas Governor Jack Stanton was to then-President Bill Clinton. At the end of the film, Stanton had been elected president with Emma Thompson by his side as First Lady Susan Stanton. Jack Stanton probably could not get elected today.
John Adams (2008)
It’s funny. I started watching this miniseries last year but never finished for some reason. I spent yesterday rewatching the first three episodes before ultimately finishing the miniseries. It’s a solid series, don’t get me wrong but at the end of the day, I just can’t get past how much history was butchered. They did not need to change as much as they did! Listen, I can cede the point on letters becoming face to face conversations. But moving things to a different year and changing someone’s attitude altogether? Absolutely not!
My gripes on history notwithstanding, this cast is deserving of every accolade they received. Paul Giamatti, Laura Linney, and Tom Wilkinson are top-notch in the miniseries. Their performances really make us believe that we’re watching the real people. Obviously, some of the “letters” are now in-person encounters but they have to take some dramatic liberties.
John Adams the miniseries should not be viewed as a definitive take of the president’s life. David McCullough’s book is still the best resource.
Finally we have Steven Spielberg’s biopic of my fellow Kentucky native, Abraham Lincoln. I might watch this one again today depending on my schedule. Daniel Day-Lewis owned the role of the nation’s 16th president. It’s no surprise that he took home just about every acting award. After all, Spielberg’s Lincoln was an outright critical and financial success. The film took home 40 wins in 130 nominations. Day-Lewis accounted for 17 awards!
Tony Kushner’s script was based on historian Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln biography, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. Where this film went right is focusing on a narrow point in time rather than extend the film over a 20-30 year period. This is where biopics truly become make or break. In this case, the focus is on passing the 13th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. To do this, Lincoln needs Republican Party founder Francis Preston Blair (Hal Holbrook) to help win over the conservatives. As for the Democrats, Lincoln works with Secretary of State William Seward (David Strathairn) to win their support.
Republican Congressman Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) of Pennsylvania prefers actual equality to that of legal quality. He tones his rhetoric down if it means getting any type of bill passed. As we later learn, this cause is important to him because he’s in love with a person of color, Lydia Hamilton Smith (S. Epatha Merkerson).
As with any historical biopic, the film was not without criticism.
The History Channel just premiered their newest presidential documentary series, Abraham Lincoln, on Sunday night. The doc series continues tonight on Presidents Day and will finish on Tuesday night. It’s based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book, Leadership: In Turbulent Times. I probably won’t get to the doc series until this weekend in all likelihood. However, I did just watch Lincoln’s Dilemma on Apple TV+ and highly recommend the four-hour doc series, which is based on Abe: Abraham Lincoln in His Times by David S. Reynolds.
Other History Channel documentaries, both available on DVD, include Washington and Grant. Later this year, History will premiere their newest presidential documentary series on Theodore Roosevelt. With the amount of presidential biographies out there, the network can probably release a few doc series per year. They shouldn’t just limit them to Presidents Day weekend and other federal holiday weekends!