Cinematic commanders-in-chief: A look at our finest movie presidents

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Election Day is just around the corner. Democracy! But all the coverage can be exhausting. So, if you’re looking for a break from endless election news but also want some good presidential entertainment, then I have you covered. Here are three of Hollywood’s fine presidential offerings.   

“Fail Safe” (1964)

If central casting were to pick a president, you would probably get Henry Fonda. Honest and compassionate with that folksy charm, Fonda fits into the role of movie president like a glove. We’d love to meet him on a happier day, but the script has decided otherwise. In “Fail Safe,” accidental communication orders an American bomber to drop a nuclear bomb over the Soviet Union. 

Millions of lives are at stakes as he talks via phone to his Air Force Command Center and with the Soviet Premier. But none of that is readily apparent; Fonda is as cool as a cucumber. We only see him talk to these centers over the phone. The only person who he talks to in person is his young Russian translator, Buck. 

I won’t spoil it, but the ending of this film is a true gut punch. It shocked and made me angry, but thinking more about it, one realizes that it was probably the only decision that could have happened. But it makes you wonder what kind of man the supposedly nice Fonda really is.

The film also makes an interesting companion piece with “Dr. Strangelove,” also from 1964. Except instead of a tense thriller, “Strangelove” is a dark comedy about nuclear war. That film features the weak-minded President Merkin Muffley, played for great comic effect by Peter Sellers. Watch both and see which president-responds-to-nuclear-doomsday movie you prefer. I’m partial to “Fail Safe,” but all opinions on this matter are welcome.

“Welcome to Mooseport” (2004)

Gene Hackman and Ray Romano face off in “Welcome to Mooseport” (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

In “Welcome to Mooseport,” Gene Hackman plays a divorced but popular ex-president who retires to the small town of Mooseport, Maine. When the town’s mayor dies, the council asks Hackman to step in. One problem arises, though: Ray Romano, a local handyman, also runs for mayor. And just to make things more complicated, both Hackman and Romano both compete for the affection of a local woman. 

I am in the minority in advocating for this film. It bombed at the box office and has a whopping 13% on Rotten Tomatoes. However, it is great to see Hackman and Romano face off against each other and duke it out for the office and the girl. I genuinely switched who I was rooting for multiple times in this movie, a testament to both actors’ charm. Sure, it’s quite corny, predictable and a bit stale. But it has a few good lines and some compelling stars, and for a picture like this, that’s enough. 

“Dave” (1993)

Dave Kovic impersonates the president in “Dave” (Photo: HBO)

Time for a feel-good president movie that starts with the commander-in-chief suffering a debilitating stroke, as happens to President Bill Mitchell. But instead of having the vice president step in (which the Constitution requires), Mitchell’s handlers hire Dave Kovic, played by Kevin Kline, to play the part of President Mitchell. Dave bears a shocking resemblance to the president and even impersonates the man at weekend nightclubs, a small side-gig that became his full-time job. 

“Dave” is a Capra-esque president flick. Our honest and hard-working everyman, played with wit and humility by Kline, comes into the highest office in the land and tries to do good by the American people. He shows empathy to the homeless in Washington and helps revive the president’s broken marriage with the First Lady (played by Sigourney Weaver). Dave’s agenda was also one that I’m sure most people could get behind; as president Dave worked to expand employment opportunities and get government spending under control.

Dave stands out among the cast of swarmy Washington insiders who try to puppeteer him. And more than that, the film reminds us that good people can still serve in government: people who are brave, far-sighted and good-hearted. If you’re feeling down about the current state of politics, then “Dave” is the perfect film for you.

Do you approve of my presidential film picks? Are you part of the 87% who think that “Welcome to Mooseport” is utter garbage? Are you dismayed that 1997’s “Air Force One” is not included in a list of presidential flicks? If you feel any of these, don’t just scream aimlessly at your computer screen. Write to me, and let me know what some of your favorite president movies are.

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