Here in the final weekend before the 2012 presidential election, figuring out who will occupy the Oval Office seems all too real. Perhaps a brief respite is in order. To that end, here is a selection of fictional presidents for your politically-overloaded pleasure.
JAMES EARL JONES IN “THE MAN”
In 1972, the idea of a black president made for gripping drama. Here’s the premise for this TV movie that was released as a feature film: the President and Speaker of the House are killed, and the Vice President is in ill health and declines the job. Suddenly, the president pro tempore of the Senate – the great James Earl Jones – is president. What follows is a morality play about racial fears, idealism and political hardball. Guess who wrote the screenplay? Rod Serling.
JEFF BRIDGES IN “THE CONTENDER”
Speaking of political hardball, I greatly enjoyed this 2000 movie that had Jeff Bridges as a wily Commander in Chief. The film was primarily about Joan Allen as a senator being considered for vice president, but Bridges also stood out. Partly it had to do with his cutthroat deal making; partly it was his strange obsession with sandwiches.
ABRAHAM LINCOLN IN “STAR TREK”
Oh yeah – fictionalized versions of real presidents are still fiction, in my book. Now some of you may prefer “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter,” or even “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” but to me nothing beats seeing Honest Abe (Lee Bergere) battle bad guys with Kirk and Spock on an alien planet. If you need to know the rationale for this scenario, then you clearly don’t understand the crazy vibe of “Star Trek,” season 3, 1969.
MARTIN SHEEN IN “THE DEAD ZONE”
Please, you didn’t think I was going to use “The West Wing,” did you? This is The Jimbo List, not The Obvious List. Here’s a different sort of Sheen presidency. In 1983’s “The Dead Zone,” based on the Stephen King novel, Sheen is a nutjob Senate candidate. When the movie’s main character, a psychic, touches Sheen’s hand, he sees a vision of a future in which Sheen is president. Let’s just say it isn’t pretty.
FREDRIC MARCH IN “SEVEN DAYS IN MAY”
March had just the right formality and gravitas to ground this 1964 political thriller. He played a U.S. president who dared to negotiate a nuclear disarmament treaty with the Soviets during the Cold War. This, in turn, leads to a potential overthrow of the U.S. government by a mad general. It’s a little melodramatic, in the way movies used to be, but still satisfying.
TERRY CREWS IN “IDIOCRACY”
By no means is this a recommendation of the 2006 comedy, “Idiocracy.” I actually found it a little depressing. But it accurately reflects a fear many people probably have, that our culture is elevating stupidity and celebrity at the expense of essential institutions. Crews, who I generally get a kick out of, is a kick-ass, gun-toting Prez here.
JOHN TRAVOLTA IN “PRIMARY COLORS”
As anyone who saw “Primary Colors” knows, it’s a thinly-veiled look at Bill and Hillary Clinton, complete with habitual womanizing and feel-your-pain empathy. I thought Travolta did a very good job playing a fictional version of someone we all think we understand.
TIMOTHY BOTTOMS IN “THAT’S MY BUSH!”
Remember this 2000 Comedy Central series? It lasted only a couple of months, using George W. Bush as fodder for a merging of sitcom cliches with current events. It was created by the “South Park” guys, and it had plots that included gun control, abortion, wacky neighbors and trying to impress the in-laws.
JACK NICHOLSON IN “MARS ATTACKS!”
The Martians were by far the coolest part of 1996’s “Mars Attacks!” Nicholson, overacting with wild abandon, was front and center as the president in this all-star comedy extravaganza. A few laughs, nothing more.
MARY McDONNELL IN “BATTLESTAR GALACTICA”
Believe it or not, McDonnell was a more realistic president in this TV space opera than many of the other examples on this List. She was pragmatic, deceptive, ruthless and driven. She also happened to be on a space ship.
CHARLES LINDBERGH IN “THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA”
In this 2004 novel, Philip Roth envisions a world in which Charles Lindbergh beats Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1940 election. The country quickly unravels in a frightening spiral of antisemitism. Roth adds his own family members into the alternate history, to great effect.
HENRY FONDA IN “FAIL-SAFE”
The burdens of the presidency weigh heavily on Fonda here, with good reason. There’s been a malfunction on one of our war planes – it’s about to nuke Moscow out of existence. Can we stop it? And if we can’t, what does the president do next?
ROBERT CULP IN “THE PELICAN BRIEF”
Pure potboiler, but lots of fun. Culp gives his supporting role as a villainous president a whiff of Ronald Reagan. He’s grandfatherly and let’s his staff do a lot of the heavy lifting.
KELSEY GRAMMER IN “SWING VOTE”
This somewhat minor 2008 comedy had a presidential election coming down to the vote of one dude out in New Mexico (Kevin Costner) who needed to recast his ballot. Grammer played the sitting president, running for re-election. I include this one mainly because it gives you a sense of what Grammer would bring to his fantastic portrayal of a Chicago mayor in TV’s “Boss.” In both comedy and drama, he’s believable as a powerful politician.
OLD RICHARD NIXON IN “WATCHMEN”
In the movie and comics versions of “Watchmen,” Richard Nixon has remained president right into the 1980s. It’s a chilling and cynical view of politics and public opinion, on a grand scale. With superheroes, of course.
PETER SELLERS IN “DR. STRANGELOVE”
What is it with these fictional 1964 presidents and their phones & nukes? Anyway, I loved Sellers in this role. His president, Merkin Muffley, was a mild-mannered guy handling an international crisis with all the bureaucratic pomposity we’ve come to expect from Washington, D.C. Here’s a typical line: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”
So there you have it – a plethora of fictional presidents. Now, back to our regularly scheduled election!