Six Great Movies About Presidents

When a new president is inaugurated, it’s traditionally an occasion for pageantry and pomp, showcasing the splendor of Washington and reminding the country and the world of the United States’ democratic promise: that power ultimately rests in the will of the people. As we head into these ceremonies next week, it’s a good time to let these movies remind us that the mechanisms of American politics and the institution of the presidency — at their best and worst — have endured for centuries.

These six entertaining films are about real and fictional presidents, and are set against the backdrop and complicated culture of our nation’s capital.

‘Lincoln’

The director Steven Spielberg and the screenwriter Tony Kushner take an unusual approach to telling the story of one of America’s most beloved presidents, focusing mostly on the first months of Abraham Lincoln’s second term, when he cajoled a reluctant Congress into passing a constitutional amendment to abolish slavery. Daniel Day-Lewis gives an Oscar-winning performance as Lincoln, capturing the man’s gentle good humor and shrewd — sometimes ruthless — political instincts. The “Lincoln” creative team make the figures from history books look and feel like real people, with complex personalities and motives.

Watch it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

[Read The New York Times review.]

‘Thirteen Days’

The title of this film refers to the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, when the Soviet deployment of nuclear weapons not far from the Florida coast pitted John F. Kennedy and his inner circle against both the Russians and their own Joint Chiefs of Staff. The outcome of this story is well-known. (Spoiler alert: The missiles were removed and a potential catastrophe was averted.) But the director Roger Donaldson and the screenwriter David Self still successfully dramatize the tension and paranoia brewing when Kennedy (Bruce Greenwood), his brother Robert (Steven Culp) and his adviser Kenneth O’Donnell (Kevin Costner) scrambled to out-negotiate their rivals.

Watch it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

[Read The New York Times review.]

‘Seven Days in May’

The characters in this jittery 1964 thriller are fictional, but the situation — particularly of late — feels all too real. Kirk Douglas plays a Marine colonel who suspects that a hawkish Air Force general (Burt Lancaster) is organizing a coup against a pacifist president (Frederic March). The director John Frankenheimer (who two years earlier made the similarly pulse-pounding “The Manchurian Candidate”) and the screenwriter Rod Serling adapt a novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel into an offbeat war movie, where the soldiers fight in boardrooms instead of battlefields, attacking using clandestine meetings and phone calls.

Watch it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

[Read The New York Times review.]

‘All the President’s Men’

Richard Nixon is at the center of this newspaper drama, even though he mostly stays offscreen. Based on Carl Bernstein’s and Bob Woodward’s account of how they investigated the Watergate scandal for The Washington Post, this film conveys the day-to-day business of gossip, leaks and social networking in the nation’s capital. But it’s also a rousing story about how citizens and journalists can serve as a check on the executive branch, whenever presidents and their staff start imperiously ignoring or bulldozing over federal laws.

Watch it on HBO Max, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

[Read The New York Times review.]

‘Dave’

One big appeal of movies about presidents is the chance to see how the leader of the free world lives. In this 1993 comedy “Dave,” Kevin Kline plays an ordinary guy who looks just like the president. When the White House staff asks him to pose as POTUS while the real one recovers from a stroke, Dave soon finds himself embroiled in a plot involving scandal, chicanery and romance. What makes this picture so delightful is Kline’s endearingly upbeat performance as someone who genuinely enjoys the privileges of the presidency — from the perks of the White House to the power to improve people’s lives.

Watch it on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

[Read The New York Times review.]

‘The American President’

The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has a knack for creating charismatic and inspiring politicians, as seen in his hit TV series, “The West Wing.” In this 1995 romantic drama, Michael Douglas plays the title character, a Bill Clinton-like centrist Democrat prone to push for popular legislation rather than taking controversial stands. Sorkin’s story (directed by Rob Reiner) is mostly about the widowed president’s love affair with an environmental lobbyist played by Annette Bening. But the movie also imagines an idealized Washington, where the right speech at the right time can change minds and perhaps save a nation.

Watch it on Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Vudu, YouTube

[Read The New York Times review.]

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