movie presidents

President of the United States looks like the worst job imaginable. Sure, you get to help shape an entire country for generations to come and play a pivotal role on the world stage, but you’re mostly tip-toeing around nuclear war, fighting off alien invasions, covering up murders, and repelling terrorists when they invade the White House. You know, just another day as the leader of the free world.

With London Has Fallen offering another cinematic look at why being the President totally blows, it’s time to examine the decision-making prowess of the nation’s greatest (fictional) leaders. Which Presidents lived up to the office and which ones have faltered? Let’s get to the bottom of this. (Spoilers ahead, though not for London Has Fallen. That one you can watch unsullied.)

movie presidents fail safe

“The President,” Fail Safe (1964)

The Actor: Henry Fonda

The Moment of Crisis: It’s the height of the Cold War. A computer glitch accidentally orders a squadron of bombers armed with nuclear weapons into the heart of Russia. The American military scrambles to correct the situation as the unnamed President issues orders from an underground bunker. Attempts to communicate with the planes fail. American fighters are out of range. The only way to prevent Moscow from turning into smoldering, nuclear ash and igniting World War III is to assist the Soviet military in shooting down American pilots.

The Reaction: When Moscow is destroyed, the President realizes that there is only one way to prevent the outbreak of hostilities that will end human life on the planet – he must sacrifice an American city to make up for the destruction of the Russian capital and its people. He chooses New York City, where the First Lady is visiting, and transforms America’s most populous city into a mushroom cloud.

The Final Grade: A C+ in the moment, as it’s a desperate act as part of a hopeless situation. But it becomes an A+ fifty years in the future when historians realize that the President sacrificed tens of millions of lives to save billions.

movie presidents dr. strangelove

Merkin Muffley, Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)

The Actor: Peter Sellers

The Moment of Crisis: A deranged army general orders a fleet of American bombers to attack Russia because he fears a Communist plot to contaminate America’s “precious bodily fluids.” When America’s top military men fail to convince President Merkin Muffley to let the strike go through, he warns the Soviet premier of the impending attack…only to learn that that Russians have built a top secret doomsday device that will destroy all life on Earth if they’re attacked.

The Reaction: Secure in his War Room and surrounded by idiots, President Muffley fights against bureaucracy, mad science, and his hawkish advisors to save the world from idiotic armageddon. While he’s one of the more sensible men in the room, it falls to a British soldier to even come close to saving the day…but he doesn’t. The world is doomed the President and his men plan to retreat underground.

The Final Grade: President Muffley isn’t particularly competent, but he also does what he can with a situation were everyone around him somehow manages to be a bigger buffoon. A C- sounds generous considering what ultimately transpires, but he could only work with what he was given.

movie presidents american president

Andrew Shepherd, The American President (1995)

The Actor: Michael Douglas

The Moment of Crisis: Already under fire by the opposition for dating a woman while in office (you know, “family values” and all that), President Andrew Shepherd finds himself torn between supporting a crime bill he’s been working on for ages and an environmental bill supported by his lobbyist lady love. His chances of re-election, his reputation amongst his peers, and the future of his romance are on the line.

The Reaction: After initially deciding to support his crime bill and losing his girlfriend, President Shepherd has a chance of heart, ditches his already weakened passion project, throws all of his weight behind the environmental bill, and gets the girl back just in time for the State of the Union. Naturally, his passionate actions make him more popular than ever.

The Final Grade: Although his actions are cavalier and could have ended in total disaster, the simple fact of the matter is that President Shepherd has his cake and eats it, too. He gets the girl, restores his reputation, and gets to push a powerful new bill through Congress. This is a real fairy tale ending and a total victory, but he gets docked a few points for being so cavalier with the future of the country. So he gets a B.

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