Rewind: Hail To The Cinematic Chiefs

'American Dreamz' adds a new face to the semi-venerable Hall of Movie Presidents.

In “American Dreamz,” President of the United States Joe Staton (Dennis Quaid) stoops to acting as a guest judge on an “American Idol”-esque reality show in order to reach an increasingly apathetic voting public. The idea behind this social-political satire is that if our commander in chief isn’t Us Weekly-ready, most Americans just don’t care. But Hollywood has been installing some pretty extreme personalities in the Oval Office for years. And so, our fellow Americans, we present the Mount Rushmore of the 10 Most Memorable Movie Presidents.

10. President Tom Beck: Morgan Freeman in “Deep Impact” (1998)

Remember the late 1990s, when it was still cool to see major American cities being destroyed in movies? Ah, simpler times (“The Day After Tomorrow” notwithstanding). In “Deep Impact,” one of two 1998 meteor-threatens-Earth flicks (along with “Armageddon”), the plan to save the world is only semi-successful, but the film ends with a hopeful speech by President Beck about people rebuilding the world together. It’s a nice thought — but honestly, we just love the idea of Morgan Freeman as the president.

9. President Richard Bensen: R. Lee Ermey in “Megiddo: The Omega Code 2″ (2001)

Full disclosure: We’ve never seen this film, one of a series of Christian thrillers warning of the impending apocalypse. But just the thought of R. Lee Ermey, the Marine-turned-actor (best known for his seminal depiction of Gunnery Sergeant Hartman in Stanley Kubrick’s “Full Metal Jacket”), as the prez is enough to make our heads swim. Imagine a commander in chief who makes Ulysses S. Grant look like Jimmy Carter!

8. President Leslie McCloud: Polly Bergen in “Kisses for My President” (1964)

The 1964 comedy “Kisses for My President” is widely regarded as a slim, dated trifle, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the first film to feature a female American president. Singer/actress Polly Bergen portrays a more-than-competent leader, and in a bit of tribute casting, she recently played the mother of Geena Davis’ President Allen on the TV show “Commander in Chief.”

7. President Mays Gilliam: Chris Rock in “Head of State” (2003)

Widely considered a cinematic misfire, Chris Rock’s 2003 comedy is notable for advancing the notion that a man could get elected by not playing politics and speaking not only truthfully, but in the vernacular of the “common man.” Who was the last president to swear in public (knowing his mic was on)? “Give ‘Em Hell” Harry S. Truman, maybe? It’s a cynical thought, but maybe a commander in chief who dropped the F-bomb every now and then would capture the attention of certain non-voting sectors of the public.

6. President Lindberg: Tiny Lister in “The Fifth Element” (1997)

It used to be a joke to imagine celebrities holding public office. And then Ronald Reagan was elected governor of California in 1967, paving the way for future victories by Clint Eastwood, Sonny Bono, Jesse Ventura and, of course, Ah-nuld. If the voting public continues to treat local, state and national elections like the popularity contests for high school class president, is the notion of pro-wrestler Tiny Lister as President Lindberg in Luc Besson’s sci-fi epic “The Fifth Element” really all that ludicrous?

5. President Manfred Link: Bob Newhart in “First Family” (1980)

If showbiz celebs are going to hold office, we’d much prefer someone like Bob Newhart taking the oath. In Buck Henry’s 1980 satire, “First Family,” the stammering everyman plays President Manfred Link who, while being undeniably inept, is at least likable. But then again, that’s a shallow criterion for judging presidential timbre, isn’t it? Let’s move on.

4. President James Marshall: Harrison Ford in “Air Force One” (1997)

Ah, now this is better: Likable and able to kick ass. In this ridiculous Wolfgang Peterson thriller, Russian terrorists hijack Air Force One, causing Harrison Ford’s character to call on his military training and wage a one-man war on the bad guys, in the process uttering what might just be the blandest tagline ever: “Get off my plane!” Still, it gives one a sense of security to envision Indiana Jones as the leader of the free world.

3. President Merkin Muffley: Peter Sellers in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964)

Purportedly modeled after failed 1950s presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, the brilliant Peter Sellers’ performance as President Merkin Muffley is just one of three roles he plays in Stanley Kubrick’s satirical Cold War masterpiece. Muffley is sincere and intelligent, but soft and ineffective (as his metaphorically pubescent name implies). Sellers’ (often improvised) interactions with the Soviet premier are hilarious yet eerily believable, while one of filmdom’s all-time greatest lines is also his: “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!”

2. President Chet Roosevelt: John Ritter in “Americathon” (1979)

“Americathon” is another broad satire that has grown less implausible with time. In the near future (actually now the recent past, 1998), America is close to bankruptcy and facing foreclosure from a group of Native Americans who’ve taken control of the now-omnipotent Nike Corporation. As a last-ditch effort to save the country, President Roosevelt (John Ritter) throws a telethon to raise enough money to stave the foreclosure. Now that’s refreshing — a goofball president who thinks outside of the box!

1. “President” Dave Kovic: Kevin Kline in “Dave” (1993)

By far the biggest fantasy on this list (yes, even more than “The Fifth Element”), “Dave” tells the story of a small-town temp agency owner (Kevin Kline) who, due to his uncanny resemblance to the president, is secretly installed as a figurehead replacement when the head of state falls into a coma. While the evil chief of staff (Frank Langella) plots to use Dave for his own Machiavellian purposes, the idealistic Dave takes advantage of his temporary power to actually do some good. He redistributes portions of the Federal Budget to pay for homeless shelters and speaks his mind about issues too hot-button for entrenched politicians.

The idea of any politician, let alone the president of the United States, being completely free of ties or allegiance to any special interest group, able to act on his conscience and beliefs without the fear of political reprisals, cutting through the entrenched bureaucracy of government using little more than common sense and the advice of a good accountant, is as appealing as the idea of being able to fly and deflect bullets. Sadly, it’s just as unlikely.

As American politics become more and more the purview of special interest groups, and while fewer and fewer citizens take part in the process, it seems as if all bets are off when it comes to predicting what’s going to happen to what remains (for now) the most powerful job in the world. Will future presidents resemble the macho alien-fighting Bill Pullman in “Independence Day” (1996), or the Christian fundamentalist (Cliff Robertson) who changes the Constitution in order to become president for life in “Escape From L.A.” (1996)? Or something even more heinous and perilous? The choice (honestly) is ours.

Check out everything we’ve got on “American Dreamz.”

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