Presidential Movies: A Flattery Scale

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Last month’s Southside With You joins a long line of fawning narratives about American presidents — a list that offers an insightful look at Hollywood’s track record on depicting Republican versus Democratic leaders.

By Andy Hoglund


Last month’s Southside With You joins a canon of films including Nixon (1995) and PT 109 (1963) as a uniquely flattering presidential movie. (Photo: Buena Vista Pictures/Warner Bros./Roadside Attractions/Pacific Standard)

Last month, the romantic origin story Southside With You became the latest indication of President Barack Obama’s renaissance in popularity in the final year of his presidency. A warm-hearted retelling of Michelle and Barack Obama’s first date, “Southside With You is fan fiction of the least invasive, most psychologically astute variety,” Dana Stevenswrote in her review in Slate. While support for the president has wavered over the past eight years — his job approval rating hovered at 43 percent just last December — director Richard Tanne’s glowing take arrived at a time when public opinion had improved. “Mr. Obama hasn’t even left office, but the cinematic hagiography has begun,” Manohla Dargis added in the New York Times.

It’s hardly the first biopic to flatter an American president. Biopics like PT 109 (1963) and Primary Colors (1998) similarly canonized their subjects while they were still sitting in the Oval Office; period pieces like Give ’em Hell, Harry! (1975) and Hyde Park on Hudson (2012) have lauded past presidents’ personal qualities (in the former) and standing with the public (in the latter) at times when public trust in American leaders hit tough lows. These depictions have formed a stark contrast to satires like Dick (1999) and That’s My Bush!(2001), and have formed their own interesting category for analysis.

Hollywood has a reputation for being a liberal place, and the industry’s track record on flattering Republican versus Democratic leaders can tell us something about whether that’s well-earned. Below, we present an overview of the most adulatory takes to come out of American mainstream film, along with their subjects’ parties. As this list suggests, not all hagiographies are created equal, and the distinctions between them can prove insightful.

Young Mr. Lincoln(1939): A frequent tagline in Twentieth Century Fox’s 1939 Young Mr. Lincoln marketing campaign read: “The Story of Abraham Lincoln that has never been told!” That turned out to be true: The biopic highlights a partly fictionalized trial in Illinois that shows the soon-to-be president successfully defending two men wrongly accused of murder. By the time John Ford and Darryl Zanuck hired Henry Ford to play Lincoln, Hollywood had already reaffirmed his national-hero status in D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) and a series of films that recounted his life and adventures, starring George Billings. This humanistic look at Lincoln’s early life, however, was perhaps the first Hollywood film to show Lincoln calmly reason with two cowboys in a dispute. The film concludes with Lincoln seizing his destiny as a president who would guide America out of the Civil War, putting on his iconic stone pipe hat while walking into a (literal and figurative) rainstorm.

Flattery scale: 9/10

Political party: Republican

Sunrise at Campobello (1960): Made with the cooperation of the Roosevelt family (Eleanor approved the play’s script and appeared on set during the film’s production), this adaptation of Dore Schary’s Broadway play follows Franklin Roosevelt from his paralysis in 1921 (and resulting withdrawal from public life) through a rehabilitation process that culminated with his appearance at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Like Young Mr. Lincoln — and, later, PT 109 and Southside With You — Sunrise at Campobello zeroes in on a defining window of time before a future president’s ascent to the White House. But the film ultimately reflected just as well on the first lady due to actress Greer Garson’s performance as Eleanor: “Surpassing [Ralph] Bellamy … is Garson, who doesn’t play Eleanor Roosevelt, she becomes her,” James Monaco wrote in The Movie Guide in 1992.

(Note: 2005’s HBO film Warm Springs similarly depicts FDR’s “lost years,” with Kenneth Branagh replacing Ralph Bellamy as Franklin.)

Flattery scale: 7/10

Political party: Democrat

PT 109(1963): PT 109, the first movie ever released about a sitting president, was filmed with the cooperation of the White House, making the film a rare act of Hollywood-governmental collusion, and possibly propaganda. Kennedy made notes on the script and personally chose star Cliff Robertson who, according to historian Richard Reeves, remarked after viewing his audition, “He wears his equipment on the same side of his pants as I do.” The president was mostly pleased with the finished film, referring to it as a “good product” in a White House recording, even if he worried that its two-hour, two-minute running time was too long. Though critics weren’t as complimentary (the New York Timescalled Robertson’s Kennedy “pious and pompous”), PT 109 gets high marks here for unabashed flattery: Robertson plays Kennedy as a Steve McQueen-type action star.

Flattery scale: 10/10

Political party: Democrat

Give ’em Hell, Harry!(1975):An interesting subgenre for presidential portrayals has been the one-man show: Secret Honor(1984) portrays a 90-minute long monologue from a reflective Richard Nixon (Philip Baker Hall); You’re Welcome America — A Final Night With George W Bush (2009) is a solo performance from longtime Bush impersonator Will Ferrell. Perhaps the most distinguished and flattering of the bunch, however, is James Whitmore’s 1975 take on Harry Truman, the first presidential performance to land a Best Actor Oscar nomination. Whitmore’s Truman is pugnacious yet thoughtful: “To be a good president,” Whitmore begins the play, “I fear a man cannot be his own mentor…. He has to be a Machiavelli, a Caesar … a liar.” That could easily be the show’s thesis — Truman’s monologue on “the Big Lie” waxes on a politician’s ability to persuade voters to believe monstrous mistruths simply by reiterating them. Over the course of the play, Whitmore’s Truman (who died just three years previously) thus becomes a stand-in for old-fashioned, hard-nosed decency in a post-Watergate world.

(Note: In 1995, Gary Sinise offered a more traditional but equally compelling version of Truman in the HBO biopic Truman.)

Flattery scale:8/10

Political party:Democrat

Nixon (1995): Could the disgraced Richard Nixon be the most prestigious president for filmmakers? Nixon’s appeared in multiple critical darlings — take Robert Altman’s Secret Honor and Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon(2008) — and lurks in the fringes of one of the best films of all time, All the President’s Men(1976). Oliver Stone’s well-reviewedNixon — nominated for four Oscars — may well be the most flattering of the lot, simply for being the deepest psychological dive. Anthony Hopkins plays Nixon as a deeply troubled, paranoid, and Shakespearean figure who wrestles with childhood memories and lingering feelings of inadequacy and guilt over JFK’s death. Hopkin’s president self-destructs under Watergate’s weight, in one scene even openly weeping in front of Henry Kissinger (Paul Sorvino). In the end, it’s hard not to feel bad for the man.

Flattery scale:6/10

Political party: Republican

W.(2008): Released just weeks before the 2008 election, W.’s George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) isa sympathetic, happy-go-lucky everyman that stumbles into power. Director Oliver Stone’s biopic gives Bush a warm subplot involving his future wife, Laura—they meet at a Texas barbecue; later, she cheers him up by promising to get him tickets to the Broadway musical Cats—even though when W. came out, more than two-thirds of the country disapproved of his handling of domestic and foreign affairs. Given Stone’s well-documented liberal leanings, this charitable treatment is surprising, particularly given the film’s release date (it came three years after Hurricane Katrina and in the midst of the Iraq War, whose legacies taint the Bush family brand to this day). Still, the farcical tone suggests Bush was a pawn like everyone else in a largely absurd political system, where “truthiness” and “strategery” were real —and not just Bush-inspired— phenomena.

Flattery scale: 5/10

Political party: Republican

Lincoln(2012): Inspired by Doris Kearns Goodwin’s 2012 book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln examines the 16th president’s shrewd maneuvers to pass the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Though the majority of the film sees Lincoln working hard to abolish slavery, and its climax takes place at Ford’s Theater, director Steven Spielberg’s treatment doesn’t completely fawn: Paramount to the film’s success is its ability to craft a compelling story about an American icon “without ever slipping into a portrait of sainthood,” critic Dave Calhoun wrote in 2013 in Time Out. But perhaps it wasn’t meant to lionize the 16th president so much as the incumbent: Lincoln was released just three days after President Obama’s 2012 re-election and possessed a “clear parallel” to the re-election campaign and “associated race issues in the US,” Andrew Pulver wrote a few months later in the Guardian — which, he wrote, may have influenced the 12 Academy Award nominations it received.

Flattery scale: 9/10

Political party: Republican

Southside With You (2016): Some of Obama’s top 2012 re-election donors came from the entertainment industry, so it’s perhaps no surprise that the current president comes off pretty well in his major silver-screen debut. As a self-contained story about a single date with one of American history’s most beloved future first ladies, though, this film takes a particularly savvy and modern approach to flattering him. Southside With You positions Barack as a classic screen archetype — the romantic lead — while it simultaneously hints at its subject’s potential for greatness (“You have a knack for making speeches,” Michelle tells Barack in one scene). The end product aims to preserve the president’s legacy just as Hollywood endeavors to do the same with its donation dollars. In April, Reuters reported that over 80 percent of Hollywood donations this cycle have gone to Hillary Clinton.

Flattery scale: 9/10

Political party: Democrat

Donald Trump’s The Art Of The Deal: The Movie(2016): Donald Trump isn’t a president, and The Art of the Deal is a pretty brutal satire, not an obviously flattering biopic. Nevertheless, the fact that Oscar-winning director Adam McKay’s company Funny or Die saw fit to make a comedy starring the GOP candidate and his business and political career makes it worthy of inclusion on this list. The film, which sees Johnny Depp voicing Trump, runs through Trump’s legal troubles with the National Football League, his remarks about Senator John McCain, and his marriage to an immigrant, Melania Trump. Though this film, and the impending release of movies about Democrats Jackie Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, seems to indicate Hollywood is pretty pro-Democrat this race, ultimately Young Mr. Lincoln, Nixon, and W. indicate that this year’s releases are something of a historical anomaly. It seems glowing presidential movies generally aren’t a partisanbunch—no one party has an exclusive right to flattery onscreen.

Flattery scale: 1/10

Political party: Republican