Ever since the moment George Washington became America's first president, there have been depictions of fictional alternatives to the real-life president. Some of these have been flattering and idealized, while others are flat out ridiculous. Some are based on an individual president, while others inhabit the narrative of the movie or show in which they are depicted.
One of the lovely things about TV and movie presidents is that, unlike real-life presidents, their incompetence and corruption can be amusing without being terrifying. Real-life presidential scandals impact governments; real-life presidential errors jeopardize life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Fictional presidents are thus a safe way to explore how society would handle a given scenario of presidential malfeasance.
On the contrary, of course, fictional presidents can also be far better than anything real life is likely to deliver. They don't have to take money from sinister donors or compromise sincerely-held beliefs in order to get things done. They can stand on unfettered principle and tell it like it is even when it's not convenient, a privilege that real presidents rarely enjoy. They're also, as a group, a heck of a lot more diverse, eloquent and better-looking than real presidents.
How many fictional presidents can you name? It's time to say hail — or "who?" — to the chiefs!
Aaron Sorkin test-ran a lot of the ideas that later became "The West Wing" when he wrote this movie. It's about a widowed president falling for an environmental lobbyist seeking to take on his administration. Watch out for literal lines of dialogue that you'll hear in the "West Wing" pilot.
This movie came out the same year as the similarly-themed "Armageddon" and was often considered the more thoughtful (but possibly less stimulating) of the two. It tells the story of an asteroid strike that wipes out the eastern seaboard -- something that would indeed be very scary if you didn't have Morgan Freeman to see you through it.
President Kirkman is a former housing secretary elevated to the presidency by the death of the entire administration. He's an independent and a nice guy, which of course means that he's on a very steep learning curve in the White House.
The Underwoods are the co-leads of Netflix's hit show. "House of Cards" fired Kevin Spacey, who played the first President Underwood, after he was embroiled in scandal, but co-lead Robin Wright stepped up as wife Claire and brought the show to a successful conclusion without him.
Aaron Eckhart is probably best known for his roles in Neil LaBute screen adaptations, so it was a pleasure for many of his fans to see him playing a sexy president in this action flick. Terrorists take over London and the president teams up with his security team to fight back.
"Veep" introduced a level of cynic about the presidency that many found a refreshing counterbalance to the patriotic and sunny optimism of "The West Wing." Selina Meyer is a venal, grasping, manipulative monster surrounded by malevolently incompetent jerks, but she ends up in the top job anyway. Some DC insiders say it's one of the more accurate depictions of what politics is like.
This 1996 movie wasn't very well-received, despite having a rather good premise. President Haney, played by Dan Akroyd, tries to pin a scandal on his predecessors, who hate one another. They have to team up to fight back, and wacky hijinks ensue.
"Man of the Year" deserved a better script than it had, considering the quality of the cast. It's about a comedian, played by Williams, who runs for president because he thinks the system is a joke. Flawed voting machines hand him the job, but the movie has the plot exposed before he gets inaugurated. The movie didn't do well, though Robin Williams is, of course, delightful in the role.
"24" was a show that ran in sort-of real time (allowing for commercials), covering a day in the life of agent Jack Bauer. The show was criticized for its controversial depictions of torture as both justified and effective, though it received somewhat less scrutiny over its depiction of a global economy that is entirely unaffected by constant nuclear disasters.
The Lego Movie received some flack for straight-up calling the villain "President Business," which some pundits said was rather on-the-nose. The movie did incredibly well and immediately enjoyed a sequel in a triumph of multi-platform marketing. It certainly moved a lot of Lego!
Speaking of very handsome presidents, the first "______ Has Fallen" movie had a striking one in the figure of Jamie Foxx. When terrorists infiltrate the White House, he has to team up with hot secret service agent Channing Tatum to fight back. The sequel features the exact same plot, moved to London, and both are good popcorn fun.
This movie really had eye candy for everyone, with Bill Pullman as a gorgeous president turned fighter pilot. It also featured Jeff Goldblum and Will Smith wisecracking their way through saving the world, a recipe for a monster box office hit.
This show about a Washington DC "fixer" in love with a married president recently finished an incredibly successful run. It was popular for its cliffhangers and good, soapy fun, in which every character betrayed everyone else and the lead, Olivia Pope (played by Kerry Washington), was as beautifully-dressed as she was brilliant.
Charles Lindbergh was an American hero in his day, but these days he is equally noted for his incredible racism; he was a white supremacist and a fascist. The premise of this movie is that he becomes president of a fascist America, which historians now know was something that the real man would certainly have aspired to achieve.
"The West Wing" was incredibly well-researched, using real-life Republican and Democrat consultants to give a fair shake to multiple points of view. It was also supremely optimistic about the kind of person who achieves high office. It won a great many awards and was most noted for its "walk-and-talk" tracking shots as two characters engaged in speedy banter.
Lisa Simpson is shown to be president in the future depicted by "The Simpsons" in the episode "Bart To The Future," which aired in the year 2000. The Simpsons is a comedy with an outstanding track record of accurately predicting the future; it depicted the administration of Donald Trump, who at the time had only run for president once (as the Reform Party) and was considered a joke candidate. The show is now being watched carefully in case their other predictions come true.
This movie is about a presidential daughter who rebels against the suffocating presence of secret service agents and absconds to Europe. She enjoys a romantic adventure while the Secret Service comes after her to try to ensure her safety.
"The Simpsons" had a win with predicting Donald Trump's political future, but it's not as clear how their prophecy regarding the Governator is going to come true. As a foreign-born citizen, Schwarzenegger is banned from the presidency and would require a constitutional Amendment to run. However, we live in strange times, so who knows what will be possible in the future?
"Hot Shots!" is a very silly movie in which Charlie Sheen plays a fighter pilot and spoofs everything about "Top Gun." "Part Deux" was a sequel in which Sheen's character has to save hostages, including Rowan Atkinson, from Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. It's an incredibly silly movie, but good fun all the same!
"Commander In Chief" was sadly short-lived, which critics attributed to its soapy approach to a show set in the White House. It starred Geena Davis as the president, which many fans felt was a natural evolution for her, but it was canceled after a single season.
"24" featured Dennis Haysbert -- currently known for very successfully selling car and home insurance as a speaker for AllState -- in the role of its first president. He brought a gravitas to the show that anchored the first couple of seasons and won wide applause.
"2012" is an action movie in which the world's tectonic plates and magnetic field realign themselves over a very short period of time, resulting in the deaths of millions. Humanity has to seal itself into three Arks, which are launched from the Himalayas just as the oceans flood over the very high mountains. President Thomas Wilson, played by Danny Glover, suffers a rather improbable death in the movie, which is just one reason why "2012" is among the least scientifically accurate disaster movies on our list.
"Air Force One" is a fun action flick about terrorists hijacking the president's plane. Harrison Ford plays the president, who refuses to abandon the plane in an escape pod designed for that purpose, and instead stays on board to fight back, assisted by brave members of his team. The movie grossed over $300 million in 1997, against an $85 million budget.
Martians attack the Earth in this intentionally very silly movie, in which Jack Nicholson and Glenn Close play a hilarious and abhorrent First Couple. The president is depicted as a grasping, opportunistic politician whose first comment when the Martians murder Congress is, "Two out of three branches of government are working, and that ain't bad."
"Dave" is a sublimely charming comedy starring Kevin Kline as a corrupt and selfish president who suffers a stroke while cheating on his wife, played by Sigourney Weaver. Lookalike Dave Kovic -- also played by Kline -- is shanghaied into pretending to be the president by an evil chief of staff, but instead of being a mere puppet, Kovic brings common sense and good ol' American decency back to the White House. It's a comedy with heart that holds up more than 25 years after its release.
As we've noted, "24" is a show in which a series of major disasters occur, with a number of them resulting in a president having to leave office. This opens up the role, which meant that Cherry Jones was in a position to step in and play the show's first female president, Allison Taylor.
There are a number of movies featuring presidents in which the leader of the free world takes the opportunity to drop their political mask and connect authentically with the people. Chris Rock plays President Mays Gillam in "Head of State," a movie which plays on this trope successfully when his character, unexpectedly nominated for president as a major party candidate, takes the opportunity to stand up for what he really believes in.
"Primary Colors" was adapted from a book originally written anonymously by Joe Klein, a "Newsweek" staffer who covered President Bill Clinton's 1992 run for president. The movie presents a shockingly cynical view of the presidency and the kind of person who can win it, which some critics did not like and others found deeply refreshing.
Gene Hackman plays a former president who returns to his small town roots in this 2004 farce about local politics. The ex-president is nominated to run for mayor and decides to bring everything he learned from Washington politics to the campaign, but soon realizes that decent small town folk don't actually like that sort of thing.
Billy Bob Thornton plays the president in this movie, which features multiple love stories about different types of couples. Hugh Grant plays the Prime Minister, who stands up to the overbearing president in a moment that helps him win the heart of Martine McCutcheon's salt-of-the-earth tea lady.
The "Scary Movie" franchise was a series of films designed to spoof popular horror movie tropes, starting primarily with the "Scream" franchise. "Naked Gun" star Leslie Nielsen played the president, who is a major character in the third and fourth movies in the series.
This romantic comedy deals with the trials and tribulations of being the president's daughter while trying to date. Just as "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" came out at the same time, "First Daughter" coincided with "Chasing Liberty," which tackles the same subject. Both movies feature a love interest who is suspected of being a secret bodyguard, which understandably meant they received double the comparisons.
President Devlin was the former head of OSS, or the "Organization of Super Spies." The casting of Clooney is not the only attempt the movie makes to appeal to the grownups accompanying its core demographic; the movie's OSS is named for the precursor of the CIA, the Office of Strategic Services, a real-world OSS that was significant in World War II.
"The Contender" achieved a number of Oscar nominations, which is an impressive feat considering that it was changed in ways that made its own co-producers angry before its release. It features a second-term president who has to nominate a new VP after the death of his original running mate, and who finds that his preferred choice doesn't align with his party's ideals.
"Independence Day: Resurgence" is about the return of the aliens from "Independence Day." President Lanford lost her whole family in that attack, and is thus a hawk who seeks to attack the aliens immediately. She is personally tortured by the aliens and holds up bravely.
"1600 Penn" only lasted one season on NBC. It starred Bill Pullman as a veteran and widower who is now the U.S. President, and aired in 2012-13. While this wasn't an ideal outcome for anyone involved, it did wonders for Josh Gad, who came to it fresh from his success in the Broadway show "Book of Mormon" and later starred as everyone's favorite snowman in "Frozen," Olaf.
The premise of this movie is that the presidential election comes down to a single man's vote. Kevin Costner plays a salt-of-the-earth everyman who finds himself courted by both major candidates seeking his vote. The movie doesn't take a position on who he should vote for, and is more about an apathetic man realizing that he needs to stand up, get engaged, and fight for the things that matter in life.
"Dr. Strangelove: Or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love the Bomb" is a hilarious and dark Cold War comedy about the threat of nuclear apocalypse. It takes place in a bunker in which senior leaders realize that the Soviets have a doomsday device that's supposed to deter the launch of nukes, but they decided not to tell anyone about it. The movie is a cult hit that is still beloved today.
The Jack Ryan movies about the titular CIA officer replaced Harrison Ford with a younger Ben Affleck for this movie. Adapted from Tom Clancy's novels, this movie tells the story of a neo-Nazi who gets his hands on a nuke that and plans to start a war between the U.S. and Russia, paving the way for him to conquer Europe and make it a fascist state.
"Idiocracy" features two men who survive an experiment that puts them into hibernation, waking up in a world in which consumerism rules and intellectual pursuits are frowned upon. Terry Crews plays President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho. The movie never enjoyed wide release, but became a cult hit that did very well when it was released on DVD.