Hail To The Chief: Grading The Impossible Choices Of 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.

movie presidents independence day

Thomas J. Whitmore, Independence Day (1996)

The Actor: Bill Pullman

The Moment of Crisis: Alien spaceships descend upon Earth and hover over every major city in the world. And then they attack in unison, decimating landmarks and killing innocent people by the thousands. Forced to go on the run and fight back against a superior foe, President Thomas J. Whitmore takes refuge at Area 51 in Nevada and hunkers down as the alien threat continues to target remaining population centers.

The Reaction: After nuclear weapons prove ineffective, President Whitmore goes all-in on a real Hail Mary sort of plan. He puts a pilot and a computer genius in an alien spaceship and sends them on a desperate mission to infect the mothership with a computer virus, lowering the shields of the UFOs on Earth. And then he gives a rousing speech, declares the rest of the world honorary Americans, and personally leads a squadron of jets into a desperate final battle. And he wins. USA! USA! USA!

The Final Grade: It's easy to argue that President Whitmore took too long to get going and that countless lives could have been saved if he hadn't sat on his hands while the alien fleet got into position. And yet, he reacts with impressive ferocity and determination when things do go to hell, putting his money where his mouth is and destroying the alien threat in just a matter of days. Give the man an A.

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Allen Richmond, Absolute Power (1997)

The Actor: Gene Hackman

The Moment of Crisis: A master jewel thief witnesses President Allen Richmond order the murder the wife of a key supporter after she rebuffs his violent advances during a drunken tryst. As the murderer-in-chief works to cover up his crime, the thief decides to cancel his plans to flee the country and expose what the leader of the free world did behind closed doors.

The Reaction: President Richmond and his staff work overtime to protect themselves, hiding evidence, hiring assassins, and doing everything in their power to hinder both the official murder investigation and the heroic amateur sleuthing of the sole witness. Ultimately, the truth reaches the right ears and the murder victim's husband stabs the president to death in the Oval Office.

The Final Grade: F. Does this even need further elaboration?

movie presidents air force one

James Marshall, Air Force One (1997)

The Actor: Harrison Ford

The Moment of Crisis: After a joint U.S./Russian mission to apprehend the leader of a terrorist regime goes according to plan, President James Marshall attends a banquet in Moscow and announces that the United States will never negotiate with terrorists. This statement is put to the test instantly, as a team of terrorists seize control of Air Force One on the flight home and take the passengers (including the President's staff) hostage.

The Reaction: Naturally, President Marshall, a former soldier, refuses to escape when given the chance. He proceeds to Die Hard his way through the plane, picking off bad guys one by one as part of desperate mission to save his family and colleagues. Although the body count is high, he proves victorious, evacuating most of the hostages, rescuing his family, and killing every terrorist he can.

The Final Grade: Is President Marshall a great president or just an effective soldier? It's not entirely clear, but the combination of the successful operation that opens the film and his very literal commitment to not negotiating with terrorists earns him a rock solid B+.

movie presidents deep impact

Tom Beck, Deep Impact (1998)

The Actor: Morgan Freeman

The Moment of Crisis: A seven-mile-wide comet is heading for Earth and the inevitable collision will lead to an extinction level event. But President Tom Beck is on top of this – by the time people learn of what's coming, he has already started constructing a spacecraft that will intercept and divert the comet using nuclear weapons. So far, so good. Our man's got this. And then the space expedition fails, splitting the comet into two projectiles heading straight for Earth.

The Reaction: Now forced to start making the really hard decisions, President Beck orders the construction of an underground shelter that will house 800,000 Americans. One quarter of the space will go to pre-selected people and the rest will be chosen by lottery. They will also be joined by countless plant samples and animals. In the end, the Earth survives when one of the comet halves is ultimately diverted.

The Final Grade: You've got to hand it to President Beck. Not only was he on top of this situation from the start, he wasted no time in making some really hard decisions about how to best preserve the human race in a worst case scenario. Ugly? Sure thing. Necessary? Yeah. Plus, he's played by the always dignified Morgan Freeman. He gets an A-.

movie presidents idiocracy

Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, Idiocracy (2006)

The Actor: Terry Crews

The Moment of Crisis: 500 years from now, humanity has devolved into a race of bumbling morons. Lazy, proudly stupid, and named after corporate products, the people of the future have no idea just how profoundly doomed they truly are, especially since the popular sports drink Brawndo is doing much to help crops grow. And that brings us to President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, who has to do something about this.

The Reaction: While he's certainly a moron, President Camacho ultimately does what every good leader does – he delegates. After discovering a man who has awakened from suspended animation and realizing that his "average" 21st century intelligence now makes him the smartest man in the world, the president appoints him Secretary of the Interior and asks him to fix things. It's not smooth sailing (President Camacho does try to execute his new employee in a monster truck rally), but things eventually work out.

The Final Grade: It's tempting to give President Camacho a low score just for being a totally dummy, but that would be unfair. After all, the world does get back on track (sort of) on his watch – he just had to find the right person to kickstart things. How about a B-?

movie presidents olympus has fallen

Benjamin Asher, Olympus Has Fallen (2013)

The Actor: Aaron Eckhart

The Moment of Crisis: North Korean terrorists seize the White House with several goals. First, they want the United States to remove its fleet from the Korean Peninsula, clearing the way for an invasion of South Korea. Second, they want to detonate every single American nuclear warhead while it's still in its silo, transforming the entire country in a wasteland. All they need is three top secret codes from three high-ranking officials, each of whom is in their custody. Naturally, one of them is President Benjamin Asher.

The Reaction: It's kind of astonishing how quickly President Asher folds. In order to save the lives of his colleagues, he orders the the other two officials to give up their codes to the terrorists. After all, he'll never give away his. But the terrorists only need two, as they hack their way past the third password. Whoops. If a badass Secret Service agent hadn't been present to take on the terrorists and murder them with a bunch of headstabs, America would be completely destroyed because the President valued the lives of two government officials over every single citizen of the nation.

The Final Grade: Since his stupidity was motivated by compassion, President Asher gets a D instead of the total failing grade he probably deserves.

movie presidents white house down

James Sawyer, White House Down (2013)

The Actor: Jamie Foxx

The Moment of Crisis: President James Sawyer proposes a Middle East peace plan that will see American troops removed from the region while additional resources are sent in to help ailing nations. Naturally, a few key people in power don't take too kindly to this. Mercenaries storm the White House and take control of the entire building, capturing the President. Soon, the whole thing is revealed to be a coup dressed up to look like a terrorist attack. Meanwhile, a vengeful Secret Service agent plots to launch nuclear missiles at Iran using the president's access codes to start World War III. It's a bad day in general.

The Reaction: President Sawyer is no solider and he spends the bulk of his time running and taking cover and getting his ass saved by a tough cop who just so happened to be interviewing for a Secret Service position that day. However, he proves himself formidable, bravely stepping into dangerous situations and refusing to make things easy for his captors.

The Final Grade: Since he seems like a good man with a good head on his shoulders and since he manages to generally make wise decisions while under fire and discover the root of the plot against him (it was that dastardly Speaker of the House all along!), President Sawyer gets a solid B. He probably could have handled things a little more smoothly, but hey, sometimes you have to break some eggs to keep your peace plan intact.