Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Weekly Top Tens Part 2: The Ten Best Performances of Fictional Presidents

Earlier today, I posted my list of the ten best performances of real Presidents. This time, it's fictional Presidents. Yes, I used three from TV shows, but for me, they were undeniable choices, especially my number 1, which there was never any real debate on in my mind.
10. President Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen) in The Dead Zone (1983)
Greg Stillson may never actually become President in David Cronenberg’s The Dead Zone, except in the mind of the films hero Johnny (Christopher Walken), who awakens from a coma to find he can see into the future. When he shakes hands with then Senate Candidate Stillson, he sees that one day Stillson, a third party, who is heavily right wing, will eventually become President, and order a nuclear strike on Russia. Johnny sets out to kill Stillson before he can get that far. Sheen, who I normally associate with good characters, here plays a bad guy to near perfection. He is scary in the private scenes, but his populist politics make him popular. Johnny may not be able to kill Stillson, but he exposes him for the coward he truly is. A wonderful performance in a great little movie.

9. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho (Terry Crewes) in Idiocracy (2006)
Mike Judge’s Idiocracy is set in 2505, and the human race has devolved into a pack of idiotic mouth breathers – according to the movie because trailer trash reproduces at alarming rates, whereas intelligent people (i.e. those who know how to use condoms) don’t. The subject of a military experiment gone wrong, Luke Wilson, who was frozen in 2005 where he was of average intelligence, wakes up to discover he’s the world’s smartest man. So who is President of the USA in this future run by idiots? Where Starbucks has become a brothel chain? Dwayne Elizondo Moutain Dew Herbert Camacho, a porn star and five time ultimate smackdown wrestling champion. Judge’s film, which was all but buried by Fox, is an underrated comic gem, and Terry Crews as President gets a lot of laughs in his small part. It makes sense that a porn star would become President some day, doesn’t it?

8. President David Palmer (Dennis Haysbert) in 24 (2001-2006)
For the first three seasons of 24, we followed David Palmer from his days on the campaign trail – where terrorists try to assassinate him, right up until he is President, and running for a second term. Haysbert is an actor who projects authority and dignity with the best of them, and Palmer is the type of President we wish we had sometimes. He is unwilling to play the normal political games, and stands up for what it right. Along with Sutherland, Haysbert helped to ground season 1, making it more realistic than it really had any business being – and he continued that throughout his tenure on the show. In seasons four and five, Palmer was reduced to a smaller role (as, he was no longer President), yet he always commanded our respect. Anyone who can get Jack Bauer to trust him for that many years has to be a great man. When, in the opening minutes of Season 5, Palmer was assassinated, it was indeed a dark day, but it was in keeping with the spirit of the show – anyone, other than Jack, could be killed at any time.

7. President James Dale (Jack Nicholson) in Mars Attacks! (1996)
American would be a lot more fun if someone like Jack Nicholson’s James Dale was President. When Martians land in America, Dale insists on negotiating with them, even after they incinerate a large group of people who land to welcome them. Dale even arranges for one Martian to address congress, who then proceeds to kill everyone there as well. Ever the optimist, Dale tells America that they “still have two out of three branches of government working for you, and that ain’t bad”. Dale is one of the ultimate “idiot” Presidents in movies, a politician until the end, but one who cannot see what is blatantly clear to everyone else.

6. President William Mitchell/Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline) in Dave (1993)
President William Mitchell is not a very nice guy – in fact he’s a bastard, who is cheating on his wife (Sigourney Weaver) and about to sell out the Vice President (Ben Kingsley), in order to cover his own ass. Luckily for us though, Harrison falls into a coma fairly early in the movie, and for the rest of the running time, we get Dave Kovic, who looks exactly like the President, and who is being used by the scheming Chief of Staff (Frank Langella) to further his own agenda. Gary Ross’ Dave is a throwback to the movies of Frank Capra – particularly Mr. Smith Goes to Washington – where a regular guy takes on the Washington elite in order to change things for the better. When Dave arrives to play the President, the staff, and the First Lady, are cynics, and the public is apathetic towards their President. But in just a short time, Dave turns this around. Yes, Dave is a fantasy, but it’s a wonderful one.

5. President Charles Logan (Gregory Itzin) in 24 (2005-2007)
Introduced as the Republican Vice President in Season 4 of the show, Itzin became one of the shows best characters, particularly in Season 5 when he was elevated to President. During that day, which is supposed to be a banner day for Logan as he is to sign an anti-terrorist bill with Russia, but things go horribly wrong as a conspiracy, in which Logan was implicit in, backfires and causes death. Itzin played Logan brilliantly – with references to Richard Nixon throughout – Logan is a weak willed man, who makes his advisers make all his decisions, or retreats from the situation when the going gets rough. He never allows you to get a good read on him. The scene with Itzin that I will always remember comes after it has been revealed that he was involved in the conspiracy. Alone, and quiet, Logan pours himself a drink, and sits down at his desk, preparing to commit suicide. Without a word being spoken, Itzin delivers a devastating performance. He was back in Season 6 briefly, trying to atone for his sins, but as with everything Logan tries, he cannot really win. He is a corrupt little man, but one you cannot help but be riveted to.

4. President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges) in The Contender (2000)
Jeff Bridges’ Jackson Evans is one of the most interesting, and perhaps realistic, depictions of a President I have seen on the big screen. He is a consummate politician. When he picks Laine Hanson as his Vice Presidential nominee, after the real VP dies, he is doing so explicitly because she is a woman. She was once a Republican, but switched sides a few years before. There are other, more qualified, candidates, but Evans likes Hanson – and because she’s a woman, it will help bolster Evans’ “legacy”. Evans is a principled man, who refuses to back down when the going gets rough for Hanson, but this is not one of those guys who rests everything on principle – that wouldn’t have been as realistic. Watch how he dresses down a young congressman in his own party (Christian Slater) who plans to vote against confirming Hanson, and the way he humiliates his Republican opponent (Gary Oldman). Evans is perhaps the most realistic portrayal of a President on this list.

3. President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) in The American President (1995)
The American President is, like Dave on this list, a throwback to a different era of movies. Douglas’ Andrew Shepherd is a down to earth father and widower, who is also President. He takes a stand on issues that are important to him, but in some ways is a realist, in that he’ll back down if he senses he’ll lose. Through the course of the movie, he’ll fall in love with a lobbyist (Annette Bening), and be attacked by his Republican opponent (Richard Dreyfuss), for having no values. His approval ratings will drop, and he’ll have to back off what he really wants to do. But in the movies best scene, he makes an impassioned speech to the Press Corps, where he finally defends himself. This speech, one of the best in recent years, never fails to bring a tear to my eye no matter how many times I watch it (and I have seen it lots of times by now). Andrew Shepherd may not be a realistic view of what a President is, but we wish it was. It is one of Michael Douglas’ best performances.

2. President Merkin Muffley (Peter Sellers) in Dr. Strangelove (1964)
President Merkin Muffley is the ultimate ineffectual President. He cannot control his staff, he cannot recall a plane that has been sent to drop nuclear bombs on Russian, he cannot even prevent a fistfight from breaking out in his bunker (“Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here. This is the war room”). Sellers deft comic timing is on display throughout the entire performance, but nowhere near as much in what it perhaps the funniest scene in movie history – his one sided phone conversation with the Russian President, who is of course drunk and listening to loud music, where he has to tell him that his planes are about to bomb Russia (“One of our base commanders he had sort of a… well, he went a little funny in the head”). The conversation gets increasingly ridiculous as it goes along, and the two end up arguing over whom is more sorry about what happened (“I'm sorry, too, Dmitri... I'm very sorry... *All right*, you're sorrier than I am, but I am as sorry as well... I am as sorry as you are, Dmitri! Don't say that you're more sorry than I am, because I'm capable of being just as sorry as you are... So we're both sorry, all right?... All right.”). Sorry for all the quotes in this section, but reading them again makes me laugh out loud. This is perhaps the best comedy of all time, in my top ten favorite movies ever, and is the best performance Peter Sellers ever gave – and I love Peter Sellers!

1. President Josiah Bartlett (Martin Sheen) in The West Wing (1999-2006)
How can I possibly put anyone over Merkin Muffley? I’ll tell you. It’s not that The West Wing is “better” than Dr. Strangelove, it’s just that throughout the shows seven year run, we got to know President Josiah Bartlett better than any fictional President before. During the Bush year, Bartlett was an antidote for us liberals out there who were driven crazy by what the real President was doing. From his entrance in the pilot (where his first line was “I am the Lord, thy God, and you shall worship none before me”) to his final scenes in the finale, Bartlett was the President everyone wishes was real. Bartlett was an idealist, but a realistic one – he was willing to make sacrifices if need be for the greater good. He would argue and yell, but at heart he was a great man, and a great President. There are too many moments in his “administration” for me to pick a favorite, but I will always remember him yelling at God, alone in a church, after Mrs. Landenham died (a death that shook me up more than I like to admit), or how he told his Republican opponent (James Brolin) that he was going to kick his ass. Sheen exuded confidence, and intelligence, as Bartlett and was never less than brilliant. The West Wing is perhaps my favorite show in history. “What’s next?”

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