The country is now smack dab in the middle of the regular circus that is campaign season. While we enjoy the drama and the debates, let’s take a look at some of the best performances in popular entertainment that depict elected presidents in starring roles.
This is of course a highly subjective list—at one point I considered adding Ugandan despot Idi Amin as performed by Forrest Whittaker, but kicked him out since he wasn’t exactly a democratically elected official—so I’d love to hear about your own preferences in the comments.
El Presidente (2012)
ER Ejercito as Emilio Aguinaldo
The first prez as action hero: traitor or pioneer?
The sheer production values and audacious narrative balls of this movie cannot be understated. With a reported P130 million budget, everything from the set pieces, costumes, and even the cinematography look almost (but not quite) fit for a Hollywood-grade epic. Sadly, that’s where most of the quality stops.
Titular president and former IRL Laguna governor ER Ejercito perpetually wears either a comical scowl or a stunned, wide-eyed look throughout the film. Both literal expressions of the presidency are strangely apt as the extreme pressure of being the first Philippine president must have been immense and insanity-inducing. Ejercito did his best, I’m sure. He exerted every ounce of his usual thespian bluntness into his forward rolls and gun-fu battles against the enemies of his fledgling republic whether American, Spanish, or Pinoy.
This was a legit attempt to depict what it’s like to be the first madman trying to thread together our many island kingdoms into an independent nation.
A movie almost universally panned by critics, it’s a shame that director Mark Meily (normally a level-headed guy who can balance arthouse demands with commercial viability—just take a look at his opus Crying Ladies) never got to thread together what would have been an earnest effort at a biopic with a more than decent budget on one of the most contentious figures of our crazy colonial period. Even with all that money thrown at it, the movie makes for tedious, molasses-paced viewing.
Despite its many flaws, an almost intentionally atavistic lack of soul (I’d sure love to see a Bonifacio Bros movie through their point of view of the same events as counterpoint), and confusing choices, I herald this as a legit attempt to depict what it’s like to be the first madman trying to thread together our many island kingdoms into an independent nation. Something resembling a singular political banner and identity.
Would you have supported Aguinaldo’s Malolos Constitution, back then?
House of Cards
Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood
Before his descent into disgrace, Spacey gave us one of the best anti-heroic politicians to ever rise to POTUS level.
Masterfully manipulative and with an impeccable sense of timing, this unusual Democrat whip from the American South most closely resembled Gerald Ford’s ascent to power. Both Ford and Underwood gained the office of the vice president and president through cabinet changes and presidential resignations. What was it that Sun Tzu said about subduing opponents without needing to fight?
Spacey’s Underwood is the kind of wheeler-dealer who could play both the brusque praxis seizure game and governance with every level of nuanced delegation to seem like it was the locals who did it all.
There’s a joie de vivre that makes us binge-watch how this cold-blooded politician engages in all the front-of-house and behind-the-scenes power plays while de-stressing with his indoor rowing machine. The fact that his wife (another great portrayal by Robin Wright—except for the horrid final season) is the best wingman anyone could ask for is also extremely helpful as he climbs the rungs of power, audience empathy still in tow. Akin to how Walter White in Breaking Bad did misdeed after misdeed and still came across as sympathetic.
That the showrunners and writers modelled Underwood after former President Lyndon B. Johnson is also keenly apt—LBJ has often been described as a classic Machiavellian operator in the halls of power, they’re also both Southern Democrats and former majority whips. Spacey’s Underwood is the kind of wheeler-dealer who could play both the brusque praxis seizure game and governance with every level of nuanced delegation to seem like it was the locals who did it all.
After all, this is the POTUS who famously said in his deepest thoughts to our broken fourth wall: “The best thing about human beings is that they stack so neatly.”
Keifer Sutherland as Thomas Kirkman
The president as least likely to lead. The premise of this series starring the former 24 hero as a nerd from the housing department is an ace of a kick-off.
It’s a testament to Sutherland’s skill that we root for him to shake off his low key good guy mantle as he steps up to wield the tools of influence to their full extent.
In the first episode, the Capitol Building of the US is blown up by terrorists and kills most everyone on the three branches of government. This elevates Tom Kirkman, the titular “designated survivor,” to the title of POTUS as the country reels and crumbles from the attacks. What followed, before it lived out its last legs on Netflix and eventually got cancelled in 2019, is an exciting thriller of a time with much explosions, bombs, murders, and conspiracy plots made eerily real. Did I mention it’s got Maggie Q as a CIA agent?
Based on a real life practice of securing the line of succession by placing one of the lowest functionaries of the US government in a safe, undisclosed place, this series is extremely interesting for thrusting a bespectacled, unassuming, and all around nice guy bureaucrat to a front and center role in a chaotic time. The gleeful watching here is of course how this reluctant hero eventually grow comfy into his role as most powerful person in the free world. Fans of Sutherland as Jack Bauer may find it jarring at first, with the initial experience of his performance of a politician who is way too much of a good man that he likely wouldn’t win a normal election. But it’s a testament to Sutherland’s skill that we root for him to shake off his low key good guy mantle as he steps up to wield the tools of influence to their full extent.
If only we could vote more Tom Kirkmans into office?
Air Force One (1997)
Harrison Ford as James Marshall
The president as terrorist fighter. Basically the equivalent of Die Hard on a plane if McClane was ever the POTUS under the direction of somebody like Wolfgang Petersen.
We all know Harrison Ford is a great action hero but when Russian terrorists hijack the presidential airplane disguised as a media crew, it falls on him to lead the resistance made up of mostly American bureaucrats. That the terrorist leader Ivan Korshunov is played by Gary Oldman adds a great counterpoint to Ford’s thespian skills, elevating this from a mere action flick into geo-political conflict playing out in the sky. Something analogous to a battle between good and evil at 36,000 feet.
People were being slaughtered for over a year and we issued economic sanctions and hid behind the rhetoric of diplomacy. How dare we? The dead remember. Real peace is not just the absence of conflict, it's the presence of justice
While there’s not much to write home about in terms of nuance or plot metaphors as an overt statement for “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter,” I did like how they made President Marshall believable as someone who fought in Vietnam and was awarded the Medal of Honor. The final confrontation between Korshunov and Marshall is pure entertainment adrenaline, with lines like “That's what you do in the White House? You play God!” that could only be uplifted by Oldman’s thousand accents into thespian platinum.
At the end of the movie Marshall jokes with one of his aides that he just might get himself re-elected. His speech post-hijacking went something like: “People were being slaughtered for over a year and we issued economic sanctions and hid behind the rhetoric of diplomacy. How dare we? The dead remember. Real peace is not just the absence of conflict, it's the presence of justice.” With lines like that, and after taking down Russian terrorists, that’s another term guaranteed.
Quezon's Game (2012)
Raymond Bagatsing as Manuel Quezon
The president as anti-fascist. C’mon, you should really watch Raymond Bagatsing as Quezon adding to the kicking of Hitler’s butt all the way from Malacañang in this damn decent historical slice of a movie.
This is all about the little known account of how Quezon mounted a rescue of the European Jews with his mostly American poker buddies, at a time when the Nazis were about to cart them off to the ghettoes in the late 1930s Germany. That he succeeded in his crusade is a fact that should be more than mere filigree in history. In fact, Manila received 30 German Jewish refugee families from Shanghai (through Quezon’s allies), which eventually rescued 1300 refugees between 1937 and 1941.
Bagatsing bringing gravitas to a story that calls for the arguments of moral conscience to play into the political arena is a hands down winner. The movie’s proceedings are carved from the bones of historic melodrama, soaked in period, and conjuring the atmosphere of the Philippine Commonwealth era with idyllic splendor. While it’s not a perfect movie, with confusing color-grading and some in the supporting cast seemingly phoning in their performances, it’s a well-written and better than average cohesion of plot and conflict that’s enjoyable as it is noble in its intent—no surprise, as it was directed and written by Matthew Rosen a British Jew.
Exchanges of dialogue like the ones below can give you moments of legit Pinoy pride…
"There's a difference between an American who believes in segregation and a Nazi," said one American to Quezon.
To which Quezon replied: "Not to a Filipino."
Or the one where Quezon is about to send off his VP Sergio Osmeña to Washington, not just to lower their excise tax but also to whisper in the ears of the right people and try to expedite Philippine independence. Quezon asks Osmeña to do him a favor and tells him to try to use one of the toilets in the White House. He then proceeds to give the VP what the precise reply of their current masters would be, where they would direct him to piss: in an out of the way shadowy area, behind the stairs where the blacks take a leak. “They will tell you to use another lavatory, because theirs cannot be used by ‘coloreds.’” To which Osmeña laughed: “But I am not a negro, Manuel!” And Quezon replies that it doesn’t say “negroes,” it says “coloreds.”
To Quezon, Filipinos may get better treatment better than the blacks because we have votes as a Commonwealth of the USA, but we are not thought of as equals. That’s a president right there, right?