In a time-travel Simpsons episode, Bart to the Future, outgoing president Donald Trump hands a bankrupt White House to Lisa Simpson, the world’s first “straight 2. president”. Of course, when Trump was first elected President of the United States in that 2000 Simpsons series, it was the stuff of satire. Not any more. If you’re finding it hard to take the actual, real-life Commander-in-Chief seriously, here is my slate of 11 fictional yet far more believable and statesmanlike POTUSes from the movies, in the order in which we first saw them in the cinema.
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1. President Merkin Muffley
Peter Sellers in Dr Strangelove… (1963)
Every world leader’s worst nightmare, an accidental nuclear endgame with Russia, drives Stanley Kubrick’s black comedy, in which Sellers plays blandly smooth Muffley, negotiating by phone with the Soviet premier from the Pentagon bunker, as if dividing the bill at the golf club. Sellers based him on Illinois governor Adlai Stevenson, UN Ambassador during the very real Cuban missile crisis. And it’s Muffley who delivers the explosive line, “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
2. The President (unnamed)
EG Marshall in Superman II (1980)
The first Superman sequel involves three Kryptonian criminals in black, Aladdin-style attire – led by General Zod (Terence Stamp) – unexpectedly freed from the Phantom Zone by an H-bomb exploding in space. Bulletproof, they storm the White House and demand Earth’s surrender. A decoy president prepares to “kneel before Zod”, until the real one (Marshall) makes himself known: “What I do now, I do for the sake of the people of the world.” A selflessly noble display, it is spoilt only by an obvious wig.
3. President Bill Mitchell/Dave Kovic
Kevin Kline in Dave (1993)
In this much-loved early-Clinton-effect comedy, employment agent Dave Kovic (Kline) acts as a lookalike for secretly philandering President Mitchell (also Kline). Recruited to the post to cover for POTUS falling into a coma, Dave goes on to blackmail the administration in order to remain in office and, despite his lack of experience, fix America: “I’m going to make it the responsibility of this government to find a job for every American who wants one.” He’ll have to go.
4. President Andrew Shepherd
Michael Douglas in The American President (1995)
A West Wing romance in which Michael Douglas’s widower Democrat faces re-election with a 63 per cent approval rating (not hindered by the sympathy generated by his wife dying of cancer). Things get complicated when he falls for Annette Bening’s eco-lobbyist. Martin Sheen plays the Chief of Staff. He must have thought: nice set, I’ll take it, and sure enough he moved behind the desk four years later when it was re-used for The West Wing.
5. President James Dale/ President Taffy Dale
Jack Nicholson and Natalie Portman in Mars Attacks! (1996)
Nicholson delivers a show-stopping speech of statesmanlike unity after a bubble-gum-cardstyled alien invasion in Tim Burton’s wacko fantasy (“Isn’t the universe big enough for both of us?”). The bug-eyed Martian leader, seemingly moved, shakes Dale’s hand… then kills him. This implicitly makes Natalie Portman’s first daughter, Taffy, the first female US president, a rarity in this frustratingly male list.
6. President Thomas J Whitmore
Bill Pullman in Independence Day (1996)
Pullman’s interplanetary war president is also an ex-Gulf War pilot who delivers unifying rhetoric on 4 July in this apocalyptic UN-flagwaver. The self-appointed President of the Entire Planet promises “we will not go quietly into the night”. Air is punched from all corners of the globe. We should also salute successor President Elizabeth Lanford (Sela Ward) in 2016’s Independence Day: Resurgence.
7. President James Marshall
Harrison Ford in Air Force One (1997)
A definitive “action president”, Ford’s Marshall defies Air Force One’s Kazakhseparatist hijacking (led by Gary Oldman, now the definitive British statesman) by faking a mid-air escape and hiding out in the hold. A Vietnam vet and former airman – aren’t they all? – he leads the covert fightback. No spoilers, but President Ford does say this to an unfortunate interloper: “Get off my plane!”
8. President Tom Beck
Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact (1998)
The first black president in a major Hollywood movie had to be Morgan Freeman, but even he couldn’t sweeten the announcement (“It’s a bit complicated”) that a seven-mile-wide comet weighing 500 billion tons is headed for Earth: he freezes all wages and prices to prevent profiteering while we fix this. Hooray! His next address is less practical: that God hears all prayers.
9. President (unnamed)
Billy Bob Thornton in Love Actually (2003)
During the George W Bush administration, Richard Curtis played out the liberal fantasy in his Christmas selection-box, with Hugh Grant’s PM offended on behalf of Number Ten junior Natalie (Martine McCutcheon) when Billy Bob’s Texan oaf makes inappropriate comments about her (imagine that!). Hugh rejects the louche president’s policies, announcing, “This has become a bad relationship… a friend who bullies us is no longer a friend.”
10. President Schwarzenegger
Voiced by Harry Shearer in The Simpsons Movie (2007)
A bored President Arnie is given five blind options by the Head of the EPA (Albert Brooks), who convinces him that “knowing things is overrated”. “OK, I pick three!” says Arnie. “Try again… go higher.” “Five?” “Too high.” “Three?” “You already said three.” “Six?” “There is no six.” “Two?” “Double it!” “Four!” “As you wish, sir.” Genius.
11. President Benjamin Asher
Aaron Eckhart in Olympus Has Fallen/ London Has Fallen (2013/16)
Asher is surely the unluckiest president in history, having endured a North Korean terrorist attack on the White House, led by disloyal members of his own security detail, and, three years later, a mass assassination of world leaders and bombing of landmarks at a state funeral in London. On both occasions, he has troubled bodyguard Gerard Butler to sneak him out of danger.