As the US presidential election season finally winds down and nears its end, a sense of relief for many different reasons soars throughout the country. What’s interesting is how much faster jokes and commentary on political figures age more than regular people in history or pop culture.
The current US president, Donald Trump, is one of the more polarizing and divisive leaders in recent history and the topic of many discussions. Yet I remember that the year he was elected, a lot of comedy writers and comedians claimed it’s hard to satirize someone who’s already considered a joke to a lot of people, and that’s why there haven’t been many parodies of him (with Saturday Night Live being an exception). That was interesting to me since there didn’t seem to be much holding the comedy back when parodying George W. Bush, another divisive president, during his eight years in the White House.
It will be interesting to see if in the next few years Trump is given his own cinematic portrayal in biopic form, like Bush was with Oliver Stone’s “W.” (2008) and Adam McKay’s “Vice” (2018).
Another polarizing president who is popular in film is Richard Nixon. Whether it’s a serious biopic like Stone’s “Nixon” (1995) and Ron Howard’s “Frost/Nixon” (2008) or a silly comedy such as Andrew Fleming’s “Dick” (1999), Tricky Dick has been the subject of many a film since his disgraced tenure in the White House.
The late ’60s and early ’70s seem to be a prime eras for politically-themed movies, especially when it comes to past events. This was also seen with Alan J. Pakula’s “All the President’s Men” (1976) and Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate” (1972) — the latter loosely inspired by former California senator John V. Tunney.
Barry Levinson’s “Wag the Dog” (1997) and Mike Nichols’ “Primary Colors” (1998) are both clever and witty satires of the Bill Clinton years, which lasted throughout the 1990s.
The president portrayed most positively through filmmaking has to be Abraham Lincoln by far, with a handful of well-received period dramas including John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), John Cromwell’s “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940), Rob Thompson’s “Tad” (1995), and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” (2012), which show the former beloved leader in an optimistic and well-intended light.
The fictional political leader I’ve always used as a blueprint for my ideal president is Jimmy Stewart’s Jefferson Smith from Frank Capra’s classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939). To others, it’s Martin Sheen’s Pres. Bartlet of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing” (1999-2006).
It’s really a toss-up when it comes to how ex-presidents are portrayed in film. Some get ignored, others get a heavy dose of criticism, and some problematic historical figures, like Honest Abe, get revered in film.
You never know what approach will be taken by Hollywood. It’s a toss-up. Still, it would be wise for any future leader to tread carefully on how they come across. One wrong move and it could resonate forever on screen. And nobody wants to watch that, in film or otherwise.