It's Presidents’ Day again, when we get a sorely needed three-day weekend, a bonanza of price-slashing mattress sales, and a tip of the ol’ tricorn to our first commander in chief, George Washington. But it's also a great excuse to hunker down on the sofa and watch some great movies about U.S. presidents, both factual and fictional. Consider this list of 12 must-see movies a veritable Mount Rushmore of streaming options.
Steven Spielberg forgoes the traditional cradle-to-grave Great Man Hollywood biopic treatment and instead zeroes in on one brief-but-telling four-month chapter of the Great Emancipator's time in office: namely, the fight to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in 1865. Daniel Day-Lewis’ performance as Abraham Lincoln is nothing short of a magic trick — a brilliant sleight of hand that conjures both the dreamy idealist and the shrewd political animal behind the beard and stovepipe hat. What could have easily been a dry history lesson instead unspools like a masterpiece that feels vital and alive.
Oliver Stone's biopic about the nation's 37th president is exactly what you'd expect from the conspiracy-minded provocateur behind JFK — but also so much more. No, Anthony Hopkins looks nothing like Richard Milhous Nixon, but his performance reaches beyond sheer mimicry and is so layered that you forget about the performance of it all after the first 15 minutes. This is a biopic as star-studded psychohistory that lays out in time-leaping fragments the full sweep of Nixon's hard-scrabble life in order to explain his insecurity, paranoia, persecution complex and restless ambition. Joan Allen is quietly devastating as Pat Nixon. And James Woods, J.T. Walsh, and Paul Sorvino are note-perfect as all the president's men.
The American President (1995)
Aaron Sorkin and Rob Reiner's Oval Office comedy is a light-as-meringue liberal fantasy about a decent, recently widowed Democrat president (Michael Douglas) named Andy Shepherd who falls in love with a daffy environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening), putting a target on his back for his political adversaries. If you want to know where the seeds for Sorkin's The West Wing come from, look no further than this delightful, Capra-eque film.
Southside With You (2016)
Long before they were the president and first lady, Barack and Michelle Obama were a seemingly mismatched pair who went out on a first date — a first date that would end up defining the rest of their lives. Set over the course of a sunny afternoon on the South Side of Chicago in 1989, the two walk and talk, get ice cream, see a movie, and spark a connection that will one day lead all the way to the White House. As played by the dead ringers Parker Sawyers and Tika Sumpter, Barack Obama and Michelle Robinson are a study in contrasts. Think of this charming, opposites-attract indie as Before Sunrise with an eye on history.