I’ve always wanted to see a star-studded, big-screen treatment of the life of Franklin Pierce, arguably the worst president in American history. With movie star good looks before movies even existed, Pierce ranks with JFK as the chief executive whose striking appearance most impressed his contemporaries. Pierce looked splendid in his uniform as a general in the Mexican War, though his problems with alcohol led critics to dismiss him as “hero of many a well-fought bottle.” The hopelessly deadlocked 1852 Democratic convention produced his surprise nomination, but before moving into the White House he saw his only surviving son perish in a gruesome train wreck. This experience left his wife a half-mad recluse while President Pierce drank heavily and made disastrous decisions that led inexorably toward Civil War.
Okay, that movie probably won’t happen. But plenty of films about presidents have been made. Here are the five best.
1. Lincoln (2012)
Fortunately, Honest Abe took over the White House just four years after Pierce left, and Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln counts as the most satisfying film ever made about any U.S. president. In his Oscar-winning performance, Daniel Day Lewis transforms the familiar, marble-monument figure into a character of unfamiliar passion, depth, and even vulnerability. Sally Field is so well cast as Mary Todd Lincoln and David Strathairn so persuasive as Secretary of State William Henry Seward that they make these two major figures of Lincoln’s life more sympathetic than they’ve ever appeared in history that’s merely written. Above all, Spielberg’s rich, lyrical masterpiece counts as a love letter to American politics, in all its shabbiness and grandeur, as the president wheels and deals to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to end slavery.
2. John Adams (2008)
No rating of chief executives would place John Adams at Lincoln’s level, but the second president nonetheless received epic treatment in HBO’s eight-hour miniseries. John Adams covers its subject’s incalculable contributions to revolution and independence, without undue focus on his single, turbulent, and mostly frustrating term as president. Paul Giamatti captures the hero’s truculence, brilliance, and stubborn nobility, while Laura Linney as Abigail drives home the point that you don’t have to qualify as the greatest president to have experienced the greatest American love story.
3. Give ’em Hell, Harry! (1975)
This film can’t compare to Lincoln or John Adams in terms of epic sweep or historical recreations, but it stands in a class of its own as a riveting character study and display of transcendent acting ability. James Whitmore toured the country in a triumphant one-man stage show, and producers Bill Sargent and Joseph E. Bluth filmed a Seattle performance of that unforgettable theatrical event. The resulting movie won an Oscar nomination for Whitmore and left audiences feeling all the immediacy of live theater or, even better, of a private visit to the White House for an intimate chat with President Truman. Whitmore speaks directly to the audience and to other historical characters who never appear on stage. All the controversies of an embattled, eventful administration (including the dropping of the A-bomb, McCarthyism, recognition of Israel, and the allegedly doomed campaign against Thomas Dewey) present the main character as a decent, unshakable example of down-to-earth Americanism.
4. The Missiles of October (1974)
The year before Give ’em Hell, Harry! earned well-deserved Academy Award attention, a stunningly effective docudrama electrified audiences on ABC-TV. The Missiles of October offered two-and-a-half hours of masterful storytelling in covering the thirteen days of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the United States and the Soviet Union came closer than ever before (or ever since) to thermonuclear annihilation. With William Devane as President John F. Kennedy and the young Martin Sheen as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, the television play shows the leaders of the Camelot era agonizing to defend America’s place in the world while still avoiding war. The focus on high-level strategy meetings inside the White House never becomes claustrophobic thanks to the quality of the acting and the brilliance of the script (by Stanley R. Greenberg, based on a book by RFK).
5. Sunrise at Campobello (1960)
Ralph Bellamy, another member of the Missiles of October cast (he played UN Ambassador Adlai Stevenson), had a prior brush with presidential greatness when he starred as Franklin Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello. This sentimental if irresistible story of FDR’s struggle to overcome the paralysis that suddenly afflicted him on a family vacation in 1921 also stars the luminous Greer Garson as Eleanor. The real Mrs. Roosevelt actually visited the set, no doubt pleased to see the glamorous actress bringing more elegance and serenity to her role in the movie than the actual First Lady could muster for her role in the White House. Franz Waxman wrote the stirring, and suitably soupy, musical score.
If Ralph Bellamy served as an effective FDR, it’s worth noting that Bill Murray emphatically did not: his role as a randy Roosevelt in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) stands as one of the worst examples of presidential miscasting. Another instance thrust the fleshy, gravel-voiced Nick Nolte into the part of the sleek, slender aristocrat Thomas Jefferson in the well-intentioned but disappointing Jefferson in Paris in 1995. As I commented at the time, casting Nolte as Jefferson because they both had vaguely southern accents would be the equivalent of asking Pee Wee Herman to play James Madison because they shared small stature.
At times, however, asking contemporary entertainers to fill presidential shoes can work better than expected. Even the strange notion of a blustery TV reality star credibly occupying the Oval Office can, on occasion, win more than its share of positive reviews.
Film critic and historian Michael Medved hosts a daily, nationally syndicated radio talk show. His latest book, The American Miracle: Divine Providence in the Rise of the Republic, will be published in November.