The President of the United States is one of the most powerful individuals on the planet and the “leader of the free world,” and consequently it is a role that is frequently written into films and TV shows. There have been many fantastic fictional presidents who have had to face issues such as alien invasions, asteroids hurling towards Earth, nuclear war, personal tragedy, assassination attempts and much more. Some have been heroic and noble with bags full of charisma, whilst there have also been a few less admirable presidents who would not get our vote, but are no less entertaining and intriguing. These are 12 examples of the former.
12. President Andrew Shepherd – The American President
Before there was Jed Bartlet, there was President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in Rob Reiner’s The American President. The romantic comedy sees widowed Shepherd become the first bachelor President of the United States, effectively making him the most eligible bachelor in the world. He sets his sights on an environmental lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), and they soon fall for each other. Much of the humor from the film comes from seeing the president attempt to romance Wade from his position of incredible power, such as trying to have an intimate moment whilst surrounded by security and paparazzi. The film was a hit at the box office and deemed a critical success, and this is certainly helped by Michael Douglas’s portrayal of the likeable president. Writer Aaron Sorkin also wrote The West Wing and the film’s influence can clearly be seen throughout the popular TV show.
11. President Jack Stanton – Primary Colors
Whilst President Jack Stanton is a fictional character, there is no doubt that he is the fictionalized version of the 42nd President, Bill Clinton. The movie is based on the novel Primary Colors: a Novel of Politics, which is a roman a clef about Clinton’s first Presidential campaign. There are many obvious similarities between Stanton and Clinton, and these are portrayed masterfully by John Travolta. There are also many differences, and again Travolta does a wonderful job of bringing these to light as we see him as a Southern Governor attempting to win the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States. His campaign is constantly rocked by his past indiscretions (particularly his womanizing), and all of this unravels the dark and ugly side of politics. Just about counting as a fictional President, Stanton is very charismatic and likeable, but also has his flaws which are all laid out here.
10. President Jimmy Dale – Mars Attacks!
Although far from the most convincing and effective President, you can’t help but feel for President Jimmy Dale who is simply in over his head in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks! Also, being played by Jack Nicholson, he immediately becomes one of the greatest fictional Presidents of all time. With an impressive ensemble cast, parodies of b-movies and plenty of political satire, it is a highly entertaining film and Nicholson is a very likeable and comical president. He can also be admired, as he tries to foster a treaty between Earth and Mars and delivers a passionate speech in an attempt to bring peace in a seemingly unwinnable situation. Unfortunately, Dale’s kind heart is also his downfall as he is killed by a prank handshake after agreeing to a truce. There may be more heroic presidents on this list, but few that are as genuinely likeable and sympathetic as Jimmy Dale.
9. President Dave Kovic – Dave
Many people believe that they could be the President of the United States, and this theory is put to the test in Ivan Reitman’s 1993 comedy Dave. President Bill Mitchell (Kevin Kline) suffers a stroke whilst cheating on the First Lady, and this sees the Secret Service ask Dave Kovic (also Kline), a man with a side job impersonating the president, to step into the role. Unlike Mitchell, Kovic is compassionate and sentimental, which sees his popularity soar, particularly because of his work for a homeless shelter and job creation. With the help of his accountant friend, Murray Blum (Charles Grodin), he is also able to balance the federal budget. The White House Chief of Staff has plans to become President himself, but Kovic manages to out the corruption below him and paves the way for the honorable Vice President, Gary Nance (Ben Kingsley), to be sworn in.
8. President Laura Roslin – Battlestar Galactica
Often the President of the United States will come into office in difficult circumstances, but none have had it harder than Laura Roslin in Battlestar Galactica. As the Secretary of Education under President Richard Adar, Roslin learns that she has breast cancer and just a year to live. Then, the Cyclons attack and humanity is nearly wiped out. As the highest ranking surviving member of the presidential line of succession, she is sworn in as president. She manages to lead the remnants of humanity as they travel the galaxy searching for Earth, whilst simultaneously battling breast cancer, and this makes her an incredibly strong and admirable leader. However, she also comes to believe that she is the spiritual leader and this irritates many and even sees her temporarily removed from power. She is such an inspirational figure, that apparently the former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings kept a picture of Roslin on her wall.
7. President Tom Beck – Deep Impact
You really don’t need to know more than the fact that President Tom Beck is played by Morgan Freeman, who would certainly have many votes for head of state. If you had to hear somebody tell you that a seven mile-long asteroid was hurtling towards Earth and likely to wipe out civilization, Morgan Freeman would be the man for the job thanks to his calm and soothing voice. President Tom Beck doesn’t have a huge amount to do in the classic science fiction disaster movie Deep Impact, but he certainly makes his presence felt through his speeches. He reveals the USA and Russia have been working together to divert the asteroid, and we then follow the team on their mission (which doesn’t entirely work). He makes a few other what would be terrifying addresses throughout the film before a powerful final speech, leaving the crowd hanging on his every word.
6. President Frank Underwood – House of Cards
A fantastic Machiavellian anti-hero, Frank Underwood is not a man that you would want as head of state, but this only makes him a more fascinating and entertaining character. Through cunning, manipulative and conniving behavior, Underwood climbs the ranks and becomes vice president. He then murders a reporter to cover his tracks and orchestrates the president’s downfall, before succeeding him as president at the end of season two. Underwood’s actions are incredibly shocking and underhanded, making him a menacing and frightening character that is straight up evil. However, this is all hidden behind his Southern charm, which only makes him a more intriguing and thrilling character. Kevin Spacey is the perfect fit for the role and has helped to create one of the greatest modern TV characters (antiheroes have proven very popular in recent times), and his portrayal rightfully earned him a Golden Globe and several nominations for other awards.
5. President David Palmer – 24
Charismatic, honorable and with a voice almost as reassuring as Morgan Freeman, President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) is a fan favorite from the hit action series 24. He is the second protagonist behind Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland), and often has to make the difficult call in the face of adversity. He has great faith in Jack, but he also has no problem confronting him. It is clear that he has values, and he and Jack have great respect for one another which is evident throughout each season. He survives an assassination attempt, has serious problems with his family (including a divorce), faces multiple terrorist threats and has a critical nation, but remains a charismatic character with principles. He was so popular with fans of the show that many commented that many Americans became more open to the idea of an African American President thanks to Haysbert’s portrayal (the “Palmer effect”).
4. President Thomas J. Whitmore – Independence Day
Not the only (fictional) president to face an alien invasion, President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman) is exactly the type of president you would want in charge, and he even gets involved with the battle himself by leading the attack against an alien destroyer. He is a former Persian Gulf War fighter pilot, and his experience, attitude and quick thinking helps the world to a hard fought victory over the alien race. The thrilling film relies heavily on action rather than characters and dialogue, but that is not to say that Whitmore is not an excellent head of state and a likeable character who continues to fight even through the loss of the First Lady. There is a cowboy-ish quality to this president which makes him highly entertaining, and also the best man for the job if aliens attack.
3. President Merkin Muffley – Dr. Strangelove
Although not exactly who you would want in charge during a nuclear war, President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in the 1964 political satire Dr. Strangelove remains one of the greatest fictional presidents. He is a character that has the charisma, but unfortunately he is also completely clueless. Directed and co-written by Stanley Kubrick, Dr. Strangelove sees an unhinged Air Force General who orders a nuclear strike on the Soviet Union. The president and his advisors must then recall the bombers in order to avoid a nuclear apocalypse. In addition to playing the president, the late Peter Sellers also does a fantastic job playing a British RAF exchange officer and the title role, a nuclear war expert and former Nazi. It is full of great characters, but perhaps it is President Muffley who steals the show with brilliant lines such as “Gentlemen! You can’t fight in here! This is the war room.”
2. President Jed Bartlet – The West Wing
There is good reason that President Andrew Shepard was the inspiration for Jed Bartlet, and President Bartlet (Martin Sheen) proved to be hugely popular throughout The West Wing’s seven-year run. He is an extremely intelligent and witty man who believes in the goodness of people, and on the show they explore the side of the president that the public generally do not get to see. This makes him very human and likeable throughout, and Sheen was so convincing in the role that he was awarded two SAG Awards, as well as a Golden Globe for Best Actor. President Bartlet serves two terms, and in this time he negotiated a peace settlement between Israel and Palestine, created millions of new jobs, appointed the first female Chief Justice and even survives being shot. He combines the best aspects of many real life Presidents, and certainly gets our vote.
1. President James Marshall – Air Force One
There have been many great words spoken by the president (both in real life and fiction), but perhaps none better than “GET OFF MY PLANE.” These words were famously delivered by President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) in the 1997 political action-thriller Air Force One. Most presidents are used to being inspirational and noble, but rarely do they get involved in the action themselves. Not President James Marshall, however, who stands up for his country and family and becomes a bona fide action star once his plane is held hostage as he, his family, Secret Service agents and press corps fly from Moscow to the United States. He manages to save all the hostages, kill all of the leader’s men and deliver his famous line before throwing Korshunov off the plane. Brave, honorable, protective, a family man and able to kick terrorist butt—who wouldn’t vote for President Marshall?