Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Weekly Top Tens Part 1: The Ten Best Performances By Actors Playing Real Presidents

I am a political junkie, and over the years I have seen many portrayals of both real life and fictional Presidents. So this week, for my two part top ten list, I decided to do my top ten performances of real life Presidents, and top ten performances of fictional Presidents. You could say I cheated a little bit, as I used a couple of TV movies in the real life section – and one performance of a President who goes under a different name – although we all know who he was – as well as including a few Presidents from TV shows for my fictional list. So be it. I picked my favorites, and will deal with the consequences. On to part 1 – real life Presidents.

10. Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in Amistad (1997)
I think that Steven Spielberg’s Amistad is actually quite underrated. Not the masterpiece of Schindler’s List or Saving Private Ryan, but a stirring historical epic in its own right. Hopkins role in the film is small. As the aging former President John Quincy Adams, he first refuses to get involved in the case against a group of African slaves, who rebelled against their captors and killed them while being brought to America. But Adams has a change of heart, and goes before the supreme court to argue their case. It is this scene that most people will remember Hopkins’ role for (and which garnered him an Oscar nomination). Hopkins brings a gravitas to the role, and makes his climatic speech the movie’s highpoint. He is full of dignity and courage, and Hopkins is, as always, great.

9. Henry Fonda as Abraham Lincoln in Young Mr. Lincoln (1939)
So what if Henry Fonda bares absolutely no resemblance to the real Abraham Lincoln? I cannot think of a better actor to capture Lincoln’s stoicism, and resolve, then Henry Fonda. Set long before Lincoln would become President, Fonda portrays Lincoln as a young lawyer in Springfield, Illinois, who stops the lynching of two accused murderers, because he wants to see them get a fair trial. He then goes on to defend the two brothers, and in a surprise twist, figures out who the real culprit is. Yes, in a sense, this is Abraham Lincoln as Matlock, but the film works surprisingly well because of Fonda’s great work in front of the camera. This is the type of earnest filmmaking that we don’t see very much anymore, but director John Ford does a great job. We admire Lincoln in the movie, and Fonda is very much the reason why.

8. Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon (2008)
In a may, Langella is essentially playing an exaggerated version of Nixon in the early stages of the movie. He is portrayed as petty and vindictive – a greedy, little S.O.B. But over the course of the movie, the character gets stronger, and deeper, and Langella lets Nixon’s humanity shine through as well. He can be charming and intelligent – think of him however you want, the man did win two elections – but underneath it all was the paranoia and rage that was his ultimate downfall. His most famous scene in obviously the phone call to Frost where he tells him that “they’re going to make those motherfuckers choke on our continued success. On out power and glory”, and Langella plays the scene to the hilt, but he is just as effective in his quieter moments, like the final scene in the film, where he seems to finally realize just how badly he screwed up.

7. Gary Sinise as Harry Truman in Truman (1995)
This 1995 HBO movie has the structure of a more classical movie, portraying Truman’s rise from humble farmer to the Presidency. It portrays Truman as a quiet, thoughtful man who put his country above all else, who wasn’t comfortable in the spotlight, and struggled with perhaps the key decision of his Presidency – whether or not to drop atomic bombs on Japan. The portrait that emerges is one of great empathy, and Gary Sinise does a marvelous job transforming himself into Truman. He disappears into the role and makes us struggle right along with him. Whether you ultimately disagree with Truman’s decision to drop the bomb – and realistically how many people still think it was necessary – the movie at least makes you see what Truman went through.

6. Michael Gambon as Lyndon Johnson in Path to War (2002)
Brit Gambon, best known as the second Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies, does an amazing job at becoming Texan Lyndon Johnson. The movie focuses almost exclusively on Johnson as President, briefly going into his accomplishments early in his Presidency, before everything gets overshadowed by American involvement in Vietnam. Johnson, much like Truman in the previous film, is portrayed as a man who struggles with the decisions, but is essentially led down the garden path by Robert McNamara (Alec Baldwin, letting his contempt for the character show a little too much). Johnson is disappointed that his vision for the country is never going to be realized. What emerges is a complex portrait of a skilled politician who gets in over his head. Gambon never misses a beat.

5. Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy in 13 Days (2000)
Of all the actors who have played JFK over the years, I don’t think anyone has captured him as closely as Greenwood did here. The movie focuses exclusively on the Cuban Missile Crisis, where Kennedy had to trust only his closest advisers – including Robert Kennedy played by Steven Culp in an equally great performance – or else push America to the brink of war with the USSR. Greenwood ignores the usual hallmarks of people playing Kennedy – the exaggerated Boston accent, the undeniable charisma, and instead focuses on building Kennedy from the inside out. The result is the best portrayal of one of American’s most beloved Presidents.

4. John Travolta as Jack Stanton (Bill Clinton) in Primary Colors (1998)
So what if I’m cheating here, as technically Travolta plays the fictional Jack Stanton is Primary Colors, and not Bill Clinton. The film mirrors reality about as much as any other of the films on this list (yes, there was in fact a pregnancy scare with a young African American woman – watch the great documentary The War Room if you don’t believe me), and Travolta’s performance leaves zero doubt about just who he is playing. Travolta captures the different sides of Clinton just about perfectly – the intelligent, impassioned man of ideas, the charming, effortless politician, the man who can’t keep his dick in his paints, and a sometimes petty, vindictive man (who we saw come out in full force last year once Obama secured the nomination over Hilary). After Primary Colors, I don’t think another movie on Clinton is necessary – they’ve already done it perfectly.

3. Philip Baker Hall as Richard Nixon in Secret Honor (1984)
The second actor on this list for playing Nixon, Philip Baker Hall’s performance in Robert Altman’s masterpiece is probably not as well known as many of these other films, but it’s just as great. Based on a one man play, the movie is Nixon by himself in the oval office on the day before he resigns the Presidency. He rages, and rants, screams and swears, and gets drunk, and blames just about everyone else for everything that went wrong. Not Nixon, oh no, he did nothing wrong. Philip Baker Hall, one of the best character actors of all time, delivers his best performance, in a rare leading role.

2. Josh Brolin as George W. Bush in W. (2008)
Perhaps the best compliment I can give to Josh Brolin in W. is that every time I saw George W. Bush on TV after the movie, he seemed fake. Josh Brolin was more real as W. then the real guy was. It would be easy to simply mock Bush – everyone from Will Ferrell to Jon Stewart do impressions of him – but Brolin isn’t interested in doing that. Yes, he gets the voice, the squint, the laugh, the mannerisms down cold, but all of that simply deepens his character. Watching the movie, you almost feel sorry for the poor bastard – he doesn’t seem like a bad guy, just someone who has no idea what he’s doing. He was born into a family of greatness, and his biggest sin was that he was no more than average. And the country paid for it.

1. Anthony Hopkins as Richard Nixon in Nixon (1995)
Yes, Oliver Stone directed what I think are the two greatest performances by actors playing a real life President. More than a decade before he made W., Stone made Nixon, a film that I think surprised a lot of people. Unlike Langella in Frost/Nixon or Hall in Secret Honor, Hopkins does not play Nixon as a snarling, paranoid villain, but a man struggling with his feelings of inadequacy. Nixon was never satisfied with who he was. He always wanted to be someone else. He looks up at a portrait of Kennedy and says “They look at you, and they see who they want to be. They look at me, and they see who they are”. The Nixon in this movie is paranoid, and petty and vindictive, but also strangely powerless. He cannot stop everything going on around him, and as he falls deeper and deeper into a trap he set for himself, he loses it. This is a deeply empathetic film about Richard Nixon, from the most unlikely source.

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