Not all presidents have an equal place in history (looking at you, James Buchanan), and not all fictional presidents have an equal place in Hollywood. If you were a great President, you get Daniel Day-Lewis portraying you on screen. If you were a terrible President, Hollywood would rather make up a fake President than make a movie about you.
There are two criteria for this list. First, this about fictional U.S. Presidents, so even though Daniel Day-Lewis’ Abraham Lincoln was the greatest President to appear on screen ever, he doesn’t qualify. Also, the most consequential aspect of the U.S. Presidency to WATM’s military audience is the President’s role as Commander-In-Chief of the armed forces, so as much as we all loved Kevin Kline’s Dave Kovic’s Bill Mitchell from the 1993 movie “Dave,” America never really faced a crisis in the film.
Josiah Bartlet – “The West Wing”
Jed Bartlett was Plato’s ideal philosopher king. Not content to simply make America the best country it can be on the home front, he deploys peacekeeping troops to finally take care of that pesky Israeli-Palestinian Conflict everyone has been talking about. He also confronts terrorists by assassinating their patron, ends a genocide in Africa, and deploys 140,000 troops to Kazakhstan. 140,000? That’s a lot of troops.
Thomas J. Whitmore – “Independence Day”
Despite some early setbacks (like nuking Houston), some dubious advisors (he only learned about Area 51 because of an old widower who somehow got aboard Air Force One), and waking up for work at 10 am, President Whitmore is a Commander-In-Chief who wanted to take the fight to the enemy at the first opportunity. Sure, his administration wasn’t the best (approval rating was 40 percent before the invasion … how do you like him now?) but he sure disproved the pundits who called him a wimp when he led freaking fleets of aircraft against aliens with shields and lasers.
Tom Beck – “Deep Impact”
Yes, that guy from Armageddon hatched some cockamamie scheme to send oil rig workers to an asteroid. Morgan Freeman’s President Tom Beck did come up with a similar plan, but also planned on that first plan not working, because honestly, does it sound like the best plan for averting a global catastrophe? The answer is no. The President of the United States had to try something. He couldn’t just send 800,000 Americans underground to rebuild civilization later and bid good luck to the rest. He did that, but he tried to save everyone else too.
David Palmer – “24”
When confronted with the possibility that a loose nuclear weapon could be detonated in the United States, President Palmer does exactly what every other President, real or imagined, probably wishes they could do: Call Jack Bauer. He reinstates Agent Bauer, who finds the bomb and detonates it in a safe place, within 24 hours. He’s also smart enough not to start bombing countries because of some fake recordings. For all his trouble, he’s removed from office, then assassinated. We didn’t deserve President Palmer anyway.
President Henry Fonda – “Fail-Safe”
Imagine being President and accidentally ordering a nuclear attack on Moscow in response to a perceived missile attack. Now imagine that missile attack isn’t real, but you can’t call off the bombing of Moscow. When your bombers nuke the Russian capital, would you be able to make a deal with the Russians to nuke New York yourself in order to avert a global war? Could you do it while your wife is in New York? I’m guessing not. But Henry Fonda could.
Honorable Mention: Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho – “Idiocracy”
Some might argue that President Camacho both enabled his stupid people while being one of them, but realizing the problem of not being able to grow food while being smart enough to enlist a smart guy to fix that problem is some good Presidenting.
Merkin Muffley – “Dr. Strangelove”
If someone is the President of the United States during a time where nuclear annihilation was just a button push (or case of mistaken identity) away, one would think they might learn everything there is to know about how nuclear war could be triggered from their side. President Muffley had no idea. Granted, he tries to talk everyone down and prevent the attack on the USSR, but it would have been averted entirely if he had just known what the hell his own military was capable of in the first place.
Benjamin Asher – “Olympus Has Fallen”
North Koreans take over the White House, execute the South Korean Prime Minister, and take President Asher and some of his Cabinet hostage, looking to remove U.S. forces from the Korean Peninsula and detonate American nuclear missiles in their silos. To do this (why is this even an option?), he needs three sets of “Cerberus codes,” which he promptly orders two of his cabinet secretaries to give up in exchange for their lives, obviously not realizing there is a situation where millions of American lives are at stake, and is bigger than just what’s happening in front of him.
James Dale – “Mars Attacks”
Even in the face of unprecedented violence, a Martian invasion, and the Martians slaughtering Congress, President Dale still sought a diplomatic solution.
America can do better. I mean, we *could* have, but now we’re enslaved by Martians.
James Marshall “Air Force One”
Harrison Ford plays President James Marshall, a Medal of Honor recipient in his previous time in the U.S. military. Now, Air Force One is hijacked by Russians posing as journalists (because anyone can get aboard Marshall’s Air Force One, apparently). After allowing many on board to get killed, he almost brings down the Air Force pararescue jumpers and C-130 crews who rescue him in the end because he just won’t leave the stupid plane. Also, for a Medal of Honor recipient, he sure doesn’t fight, move, or hold a weapon like someone trained to fight.
The President from ‘Escape from New York’
If you’re going to allow the borough of Manhattan to be a contained prison just for inmates with life sentences, why would you allow Air Force One to fly over it? Also, how are so many people taking over Air Force One in these movies? It’s so easy for people in movies to take that plane, unless you’re the good guys. Steven Seagal died trying to sneak aboard the President’s jet in “Executive Decision,” but some dudes can take it over while the POTUS is carrying secret bomb plans in “Escape from New York.”
Dishonorable Mention – Julian Navarro – “The Brink”
Tim Robbins’ Secretary of State Walter Larsen should have been the President on this show. It was like the actual President didn’t know anything at all about the modern world’s trouble spots, his intelligence assets, or how to deal with any of it. His first response is just to bomb the crap out of everything at the suggestion of his Secretary of Defense.