9 Fascinating Presidential Documentaries to Watch Now
From Jefferson and Lincoln to Bush and Obama, check out these extraordinary glimpses into the seat of American power, all streaming now
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images; NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images; Wally McNamee/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
This Memorial Day Weekend, the History Channel presents the two-night, five-hour documentary Theodore Roosevelt, based on the best-selling book Leadership: In Turbulent Times, by Pulitzer Prize winner Doris Kearns Goodwin. Coproduced by Leonardo DiCaprio, the film will highlight every facet of the life of America’s youngest president — who was also a conservationist, a reformer, a soldier and a cowboy — with interviews from the likes of author Douglas Brinkley and Teddy’s great-grandson Tweed Roosevelt. If you want to spend the holiday weekend bingeing even more presidential content, these nine illuminating documentaries make for a watch list that’s worthy of a landslide victory.
The subject: John F. Kennedy (1961-63)
The premise: Many of the techniques used in this groundbreaking cinema verité work may seem old hat by now, but they were truly revolutionary at the time. Using mobile cameras and lighter sound equipment, the documentarians were able to get up close and personal with the players in the 1960 Wisconsin Democratic primary, as John F. Kennedy and Hubert H. Humphrey duked it out for the nomination. Thirty years later, the Library of Congress selected the film for preservation in the United States National Film Registry.
Watch it: Primary on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO Max
Four More Years (1972)
The subject: Richard Nixon (1969-74)
The premise: You might be shocked at how unfiltered this view of the 1972 Republican National Convention feels. As the network news focused their attention on the choreographed political theater of the convention, the San Francisco–based guerrilla video collective TVTV instead shot everything else happening in the periphery around Miami: the after-parties, discussions among delegates, the anti-war demonstrations outside, the journalists covering the proceedings. The first independently produced film ever shown on national TV, the countercultural documentary included interviews with the likes of Nixon’s daughters, Mike Wallace and Walter Cronkite, and one pundit marveled that TVTV beat the networks at their own game — “for the money CBS spent on coffee.”
Watch it: Four More Years on Amazon Prime
The War Room (1993)
The subject: Bill Clinton (1993-2001)
The premise: Directed by husband-and-wife duo D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus (now 70), this eye-opening film gives a behind-closed-doors look at the Clinton campaign during the 1992 presidential election, from the points of view of two future media stars: lead strategist James Carville (now 77) and communications director George Stephanopoulos (now 61). The directors had hoped to cover the entire election, but when Bush and Perot declined to participate, they focused instead on the “war room” at the Little Rock campaign headquarters, as the team rode the highs and lows of the Gennifer Flowers scandal, the New Hampshire primary, the Democratic National Convention, Bush’s “Read my lips” speech and Clinton’s eventual victory on election night. The film went on to be nominated for best documentary at the 66th Academy Awards.
Watch it: The War Room on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, HBO Max
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Thomas Jefferson (1997)
The subject: Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)
The premise: In this two-part documentary, Ken Burns, 68, contends with the complicated legacy of America’s third president, who both wrote the Declaration of Independence and was a lifelong enslaver. Narrated by Ossie Davis, the film features readings by major performers, including Sam Waterston (now 81) as Jefferson, Blythe Danner (now 79) as his wife Martha, and Gwyneth Paltrow as Jefferson’s granddaughter. Note that, back in 1997, discussion of Jefferson’s relationship with the enslaved woman, Sally Hemings, was still inconclusive; it wasn’t until a 1998 DNA study that many historians began accepting it as fact.
Watch it: Thomas Jefferson on Amazon Prime, PBS
Man From Plains (2007)
The subject: Jimmy Carter, 97 (1977-81)
The premise: Jonathan Demme, the late Oscar-winning director of The Silence of the Lambs, turns his lens from fictional baddies like Hannibal Lecter to one of the most truly decent men to ever hold the office of president. In this intimate documentary, Demme follows Jimmy Carter (now 97) and former first lady Rosalynn (now 94) as he embarks on a national tour to promote his book Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. While he’s certainly earned a little R&R over the decades, Carter seems to be on an almost spiritual quest to find peace in the Middle East. And as Roger Ebert wrote, the film “shows a man whose beliefs, both political and religious, seem to reinvigorate him; he even carries his own luggage in airports and hotels.”
Watch it: Man From Plains on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, YouTube
By the People: The Election of Barack Obama (2009)
The subject: Barack Obama (2009-17)
The premise: Back in 2006, when Barack Obama (now 60) was merely a U.S. senator on the rise, filmmakers Amy Rice and Alicia Sams approached him about following his team with a crew. They must have had a premonition — or a particularly astute political sense — because eight months later, he announced his candidacy for the Democratic nomination. What results is a front-row view of a winning campaign, as they trail Obama and his grassroots team for 19 months, from his upset win in the Iowa primaries to his eventual historic victory.
Watch it: By the People: The Election of Barack Obama on HBO Max
The Roosevelts: An Intimate History (2014)
The subject: Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09), Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45) and Eleanor Roosevelt
The premise: Ken Burns returned to the subject of the American presidency with this sprawling, seven-episode miniseries that traces the rise of the Roosevelt clan over more than a century, from Teddy’s birth in 1858 to Eleanor’s death in 1962. In typical Burns style, he’s wrangled a who’s who of A-listers to read historical documents, including Paul Giamatti (now 54) as Theodore and Meryl Streep (now 72) as Eleanor. As critic James Poniewozik wrote in Time: “The Roosevelts tells the story of the American 20th century in triptych. Teddy (who became president in 1901) is progressivism, expansionism and reform. FDR is the rise of American power and the rewriting of the social contract. Eleanor looks ahead to postwar globalism and the move of women and minorities in from the margins.”
Watch it: The Roosevelts: An Intimate History on Amazon Prime, PBS
Journeys With George (2002)
The subject: George W. Bush (2001-09)
The premise: Journalist Alexandra Pelosi — yes, Nancy’s daughter! — spent 18 months following the younger Bush, from the launch of his campaign in June 1999 to his inauguration in January 2001. The HBO documentary went on to be nominated for six Emmys, winning one for editing, and it was said to have inspired the last two seasons of The West Wing, and the fictional presidential campaigns of Matt Santos (Jimmy Smits, now 66) and Arnold Vinick (Alan Alda, now 86).
Watch it: Journeys With George on HBO Max, Hulu
Living With Lincoln (2015)
The subject: Abraham Lincoln (1861-64)
The premise: There are plenty of straightforward biographical documentaries about the life of the Great Emancipator, including last year’s Sterling K. Brown–narrated Lincoln: Divided We Stand on CNN and the three-night Abraham Lincoln, which premiered on the History Channel this February. For a much more interesting lens on the legacy of Lincoln, check out this film by documentarian Peter Kunhardt, in which he charts five generations of his family and their obsession with collecting and preserving Honest Abe memorabilia, including the portraits that inspired the penny, the five-dollar bill and Mount Rushmore. Kunhardt knows a thing or two about the presidency: His films JFK: In His Own Words and Teddy: In His Own Words both won Emmys.
Watch it: Living With Lincoln on Amazon Prime, HBO Max
Nicholas DeRenzo is a contributing writer who covers entertainment and travel. Previously he was executive editor of United Airlines’ Hemispheres magazine and his work has appeared in the New York Times, Conde Nast Traveler, Travel & Leisure, Sunset and New York magazine.