The President of the United States of America isn’t just seen as the ‘leader of the free world’ or the Commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military. As time has shown, the position is also one that movies and TV often turn to for dramatic, comedic, or action-packed stories.
With this week’s Olympus Has Fallen, the responsibility falls to Aaron Eckhart, portraying a head of state taken prisoner in his own home, and whose country stands on the brink. But how will his performance as president measure up to the men and women who came before him?
As the list of Our 10 Favorite Fictional Presidents proves: he’s got some big shoes to fill.
“Life will go on. We will prevail.”
Appeared In: Deep Impact (1998)
It goes without saying that Morgan Freeman’s performance as (insert any profession he’s played here) ranks among our favorites, so his turn as Commander-in-Chief for Deep Impact is one we’ll never forget. Not only because he blazed a trail of African-American presidents in film – but also the scale of disaster he had to face while in office.
An Extinction-Level Event (ELE) is something even the dinosaurs and their heads of state couldn’t overcome, but President Beck successfully spearheaded a plan to save America’s best and brightest from annihilation – sadly, leaving the rest to uncertain fates. That’s a job no one would envy, but Beck performed more heroically than most people would have been able to.
“Mr. Bauer: you resigned from government service and the Senate regards you as having been a renegade agent. How am I supposed to know where your loyalties really lie?”
Appeared In: 24 (2001)
Defined by her integrity, 24 Season 7’s President Allison Taylor (Cherry Jones) showed America’s first female president as a leader so necessary, we wondered why there hadn’t been one already. The role also earned Cherry Jones an Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama – one of the series’ later bright spots.
Sure, President Taylor ended up straying from her path (thanks in no small part to President Charles Logan), but she found her way back by the end, reminding us all of why we trusted in her leadership to begin with.
“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room.”
Appeared In: Dr. Strangelove (1964)
The impending outbreak of total nuclear annihilation isn’t usually grounds for comedy or satire, but with Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, the assumption that the end of the world and laughter weren’t compatible was shattered.
Much of the credit for President Merkin Muffley lies with Peter Sellers’ performance (which earned him a Best Actor Oscar nomination) as a pensive audience member to his numerous advisors, not the act-first leader some might hope for. But even with a surrounding cast of characters far more offbeat and outrageous, President Muffley and his ominous War Room never fail to entertain, even after half a century.
“Seven trillion dollar communications system at my disposal, and I can’t find out if the Packers won.”
Appeared In: The American President (1995)
As the White House’s first (official) bachelor president, Andrew Shepard (Michael Douglas) not only lost his wife, but was forced to endure the struggles of any widower while also leading the free world. Did he let his duty to the country override his personal life, or let love interfere with governing? No: he found a way to do both better.
President Shepard found time to be a father, a friend, a lover, and the most active head of state the world had ever seen in the areas of global warming and gun violence. Regardless of whether or not you agree with his stances, he made it clear that serious times call for serious people, not petty politics – a lesson all on our list would agree with.
“She’s really exotic! She’s a princess! She’s Polynesian – well, half Polynesian, and half American. She’s… Amnesian.”
Appeared In: Dave (1993)
Being president is something politicians spend their entire lives preparing for. So what happens when the president falls ill, and an everyday citizen must take the reins? If you’re Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), you tackle bureaucracy head on.
Masquerading as (comatose) President Bill Mitchell, Kovic was called on to prevent panic and rock the boat as little as possible. Instead, he used his authority to balance the budget and give money to those Americans who were earning it, and in most need. Kovic’s time in office may have been brief (and unofficial), but acts as proof of what can be accomplished when the people in power stop talking and start working.
“Get off my plane!”
Appeared In: Air Force One (1997)
Terrorists hijacking Air Force One to negotiate the release of their ‘wrongfully-imprisoned’ leader is typically the premise for a daring covert rescue operation. But not when it’s President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) you’re dealing with. Proving that the campaign trail is when he’s at his most docile, President Marshall took the fight to his attackers.
Forgetting the actual smarts it would take to move silently within a commercial airliner (we get turned around going back to our seats), the fact that a sitting president had the skills to pick off members of a terrorist cell one-by-one is staggering. Courageous killing sprees are usually what legendary action heroes are made of, not presidents. He really, really wanted them off his plane.
“I will use every cannon, every bomb, every bullet, every weapon I have down to my own eyeteeth to end you. I swear it! I’m coming for all of you!”
Appeared In: Battlestar Galactica (2004)
President; prophet; survivor. Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell) was all these things, despite only answering the call to Secretary of Education of the Twelve Colonies. Yet when the smoke cleared from a massive attack, Secretary Roslin found the fate of mankind resting squarely on her shoulders, despite being 43rd in the line of presidential succession.
Rather than cracking under the pressure, she thrived. As the one politician the cast of Battlestar Galactica actually listened to, President Roslin is also the president every living human owes thanks to. For that, we’re even willing to forget that she was never elected.
“They’re saying it’s liberalism with a grenade launcher. But they’re not saying it was badly written, so that’s something.”
Appeared In: The West Wing (1999)
Fictional presidents that offer laughs, stirring speeches and action are, as our list proves, fairly common. But a pretend prez that audiences would actually vote for are rarer. As a witty, Nobel Prize-winning family man, President Josiah Edward ‘Jed’ Bartlet (Martin Sheen) was exactly that, helping The West Wing show the world how the President of the United States should act.
Though the show was originally intended to follow the employees surrounding the president, Bartlet’s charisma was impossible to ignore, becoming a pivotal figure in the series before long. Not to mention one of the longest-serving fictional presidents in history.
“You’re not even interesting enough to make me sick.”
Appeared In: 24 (2001)
There have been few men capable of standing in Jack Bauer’s way, but Senator – and later President – David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) never seemed intimidated. Though he may lack the pop culture cache of Bauer’s take-no-prisoners approach to defending America, President Palmer proved just as effective in leading a nation through crisis.
Settling for nothing less than honor and loyalty, Palmer’s presidency cost him his marriage, and countless friendships as those around him proved to be lacking the integrity he felt necessary for leadership. Fiction is one thing, but political analysts maintain that President Palmer helped convince America that an African-American man could not only act as president, but do so as well as any other in history.
“We’re going to live on. We’re going to survive. Today, we celebrate…our Independence Day!”
Appeared In: Independence Day (1996)
We recognize that President Thomas Whitmore (Bill Pullman) being allowed to lead an air assault against an alien ship is one of the least likely elements of Independence Day, but nobody can argue with his results.
Being president is never easy, and the media attacking Whitmore based on his “wimpy” policies is the kind of beating every elected official must endure. But few are forced to see aliens invade, America’s biggest cities burned to ash, and lose their wife all in the same week. Great men endure, but greater men use that kind of loss as motivation. In Whitmore’s case, to save humanity and make July 4th a global holiday. That’s a victory even George Washington would applaud.
Despite a solid performance and bravery in the face of adversity, Eckhart’s ‘President Benjamin Asher’ may not be quite as memorable as his predecessors. Still, one thing is clear: the America living under these fictional presidents has been through some trying times. Let’s all count ourselves lucky.
Which of these presidents holds the highest spot in your own catalog of movies and TV? Are there any that you feel should make the list? Name them in the comments.
Olympus Has Fallen releases today.
Follow Andrew on Twitter @andrew_dyce.