Ever president: A cord-cutters guide to the best President's Day movies available for streaming

Presenting 12 great movies with presidents both fictional and real, both flawed and revered.

Hyde Park on the Hudson
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President’s Day honors the combined birthdays of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, in the hopes that we will all continue to remember them and the values they instilled in our country.

To celebrate, we’ve chosen a few movies that focusing not just POTUS #1 and #16, but also a handful of other presidents, from John Quincy Adams to Barack Obama.

And to add to your streaming fun, we’ve included a few movies about fictitious presidents, both super-cool (Harrison Ford) and not-so-cool (Donald Pleasence). Happy streaming!

Air Force One


On Crackle

Air Force One Columbia/Tri-Star

President James Marshall (Harrison Ford) attempts to outwit terrorists in the air in Air Force One.

Wolfgang Petersen’s summertime hit Air Force One (1997) is a slick, adrenaline-pumping popcorn muncher, and a fine afternoon-killer. Harrison Ford plays President James Marshall, who is riding on the title presidential plane when terrorists, led by Ivan Korshunov (a great, scenery-chewing Gary Oldman), hijack it. But as with similar titles like Die Hard and Under Siege, the bad guys underestimate how resourceful and how well-trained our hero is, and he’s able to hide out and pick off the bad guys, little by little.

The movie is notable for featuring a female vice president (Glenn Close), who takes charge of the situation from the ground. William H. Macy, Dean Stockwell, and Philip Baker Hall are also on board. Petersen keeps the suspense grinding effectively, even if the movie goes on a bit too long and goes a bit over the top in the final stretch. It offered—and still offers—a pretty decent fantasy about how potentially cool an American president could be.



On Vudu (with ads)

Amistad Dreamworks

Former U.S. President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins) helps a shipload of slaves against a charge of murder in Amistad.

Amistad (1997) was Steven Spielberg’s attempt to shed the same sort of light on slavery as he did for the Holocaust with Schindler’s List (1993) The film is earnest and well-intentioned, but somewhat clueless in terms of cultural representation. It also has some very big Spielbergian moments that never played well and have aged even more poorly. It is a powerful film nonetheless, with Anthony Hopkins providing a memorable, showboating performance as the former sixth United States President John Quincy Adams.

A proud slave called Cinque (Djimon Hounsou, in his breakout role) leads a revolt against his captors on a ship, but the surviving crew directs the ship toward America, where the slaves are arrested and tried for murder. President Martin Van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne) is the slavery-supporting bad guy, campaigning for re-election, while slavery abolitionist (Morgan Freeman) and a real estate lawyer (Matthew McConaughey) recruit former president Adams for the good guy side. Anna Paquin co-stars as Queen Isabella.

Elvis & Nixon


On Amazon Prime

Elvis & Nixon Amazon Studios

President Nixon (Kevin Spacey) takes a famous photograph with Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) in Elvis & Nixon.

Based on one of the slenderest movie ideas imaginable, Elvis & Nixon (2016) is almost a novelty item. But somehow, director Liza Johnson’s gentle, earnest, and humorous approach brings it together in a diverting, pleasant way. A 1970 photograph of the U.S. President and the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll became the most requested item in the National Archives, and this movie tells the story of what might have happened that day.

Elvis Presley (Michael Shannon) decides he wants to be an agent-at-large for the Narcotics Bureau, complete with a badge, so he writes a letter to President Richard Nixon (Kevin Spacey). After the manipulations of Elvis’s pals (Alex Pettyfer and Johnny Knoxville) and Nixon’s aides (Colin Hanks and Evan Peters), Nixon reluctantly agrees to meet. Weirdly, the two men have more in common than anyone could have guessed, making that bizarre meeting a little less bizarre and more human. Even at 86 minutes, the movie still feels a bit padded, and it was a mistake to give the bland actor Pettyfer his own subplot, but overall, this is a delightful little treat. Actor Cary Elwes (The Princess Bride) was a co-writer.

Escape from New York


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Escape From New York Shout! Factory

Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is sent on a deadly mission to rescue the president in Escape from New York.

The master genre filmmaker John Carpenter—who only recently has begun to find the recognition he deserves, followed up two of his classic horror movies (Halloween and The Fog) with this great, tough, futuristic sci-fi story. In Escape from New York (1981), New York of 1997 has become a deadly war zone run by gangs. Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is caught during a robbery and the Commissioner (Lee Van Cleef) makes him a deal. The President of the United States (Englishman Donald Pleasence) bailed out of a hijacked Air Force One and landed somewhere inside the city. If Snake can get him out, he will go free.

Inside, Snake’s reputation precedes him (“I thought you were dead!”), and he meets a wonderful array of colorful nasties and low-down types (Ernest Borgnine, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanton, Adrienne Barbeau, et al), teaming up with the better ones to help fight the worse ones. Filmed on a surprisingly low budget, the movie looks fantastic with its widescreen compositions and ruined cityscapes, enhanced by the sinister sounds of Carpenter’s electronic score. A young James Cameron worked on the visual effects.

Head of State


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Head of State DreamWorks

Mays Gilliam (Chris Rock) finds himself an unexpected presidential candidate in Head of State.

Chris Rock’s directorial debut, Head of State (2003) might be a little dated in some ways, but in other ways it’s still right on the money. Rock, who also co-wrote the screenplay, stars as Mays Gilliam, a Washington alderman who is chosen to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee after the previous one dies in a plane crash. He’s not expected to win, but he’ll at least make the party look good. But when Gilliam begins to speak his mind on real issues that affect everyday people, he starts rising in the polls.

Bernie Mac co-stars, and is perfect, as Gilliam’s brother, and eventual running mate. Rock’s direction goes more for jokes than for visuals, and not every joke hits, but the ones that do are immensely satisfying. Nick Searcy plays the Republican opponent who says things like “God bless America, and no place else.” Lynn Whitfield and Dylan Baker are members of Gilliam’s campaign team, and Tamala Jones is the hero’s love interest.

Hyde Park on Hudson


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Hyde Park on the Hudson Focus Features

President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Bill Murray) prepares to meet with the King of England in Hyde Park on Hudson.

In 2012, Daniel Day-Lewis won every award imaginable for playing a former U.S. president in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, but Bill Murray was just as good playing another former U.S. president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Hyde Park on Hudson (2012). Rather than disappearing into the role, Murray brought his Bill Murray-ness to it, finding ways to incorporate the comedian’s command of a room and his inner sadness. The movie takes place over a weekend, during an auspicious visit by the queen and king of England (that’s King “Bertie,” made famous by Colin Firth in The King’s Speech). In one great scene, Bertie and FDR talk about life and their supposed deficiencies (the king’s stutter and the president’s polio).

It’s all viewed through the eyes of FDR’s distant cousin Daisy Suckley (Laura Linney), with whom he has a sweet, tender (possibly sexual) extramarital relationship. Linney also gives a terrific performance, looking at the president with awe, and showing the slightest hint of disappointment when he isn’t able to bestow his attentions on her. Roger Michell directs, focusing on longing rather than payoff, with an appealingly gentle touch.

Jimmy Carter Man from Plains


On Amazon Prime

Jimmy Carter Man From Plains Sony Pictures Classics

Former President James Carter goes on a troublesome book tour in the documentary Jimmy Carter Man from Plains.

Directed by the late Jonathan Demme (The Silence of the Lambs, Rachel Getting Married, etc.), Jimmy Carter Man from Plains (2007) quietly follows the 39th President of the United States on a book tour, promoting the controversial Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid in late 2006 and early 2007. Some have joked that Carter has made a career out of being ex-president; he comes across as an awesome diplomat, knowledgeable and capable of speaking compellingly on just about any subject. His discourse on religion and not letting it cross with science is especially enlightening. When journalists and interviewers challenge him on his book, he holds his ground, but as the controversy grows, he shows tiny signs of becoming flustered.

The movie’s major flaw is that, though Carter is on camera all the time, he is accompanied by his publicist, and remains in control, in “performance mode” throughout; Demme can’t quite get to the “real” Carter. Even so, Demme’s scrutiny leaves us with the picture of a very respectable and admirable man.



On Netflix

Lincoln TouchStone

Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) attempts to pass the Emancipation Proclamation in Lincoln.

Astoundingly, Steven Spielberg’s two-and-a-half-hour Lincoln (2012), a biographical drama with all kinds of educational stuff in it, was one of the biggest hits of the year. Rather than telling the life story of Lincoln, the screenplay—written by Broadway legend Tony Kushner—takes place over the course of a few months in 1865. In short, Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis) has just been re-elected and is determined to pass the 13th amendment, abolishing slavery. It’s almost all talk and very little action, with a great deal of complex, convoluted information to get across, and yet Spielberg shows his astonishing skill by making it not only fascinating, but dynamic as well.

The setting doesn’t feel like a setting; it feels like the filmmakers time-traveled and merely started filming. This goes for Day-Lewis as well, whose performance is already the stuff of legend; under tons of makeup, research, and acting, he makes the heroic president into a relatable human. Among the huge cast, Sally Field and Tommy Lee Jones also received Oscar nominations, and David Strathairn, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, James Spader, Hal Holbrook, John Hawkes, Jackie Earle Haley, and Tim Blake Nelson co-star.

Mr. Peabody & Sherman


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Mr. Peabody and Sherman DreamWorks

Sherman (Max Charles) and Mr. Peabody (Ty Burrell) meet many historical figures in their time machine in Mr. Peabody & Sherman.

For some reason, there are few outstanding feature films about George Washington, but, happily Mr. Peabody & Sherman (2014) pays homage to the first U.S. President in a fun way. This animated movie is based on the 1950s television cartoons by Jay Ward, who helped re-invent the format by relying on quick, cheap animation buoyed by sharp writing and voice acting. Now with a big Hollywood budget, the time-traveling dog Mr. Peabody (voiced by Ty Burrell) and his boy Sherman (voiced by Max Charles) get to have slick, colorful, fluid, fast-paced adventures through time, with subplots about the space-time continuum, school bullies, and the government trying to take Sherman away from Mr. Peabody.

Though the jokes range wildly from silly, subtle, and funny, to vaguely off-color, the voicework (especially by Patrick Warburton as King Agamemnon) is terrific. Veteran voice actor Jess Harnell (Animaniacs, Transformers, Rick and Morty) provides the voice of Washington, as well as two other presidents. Rob Minkoff (The Lion King) directs.



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Selma Paramount

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo, right) tries to convince President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to sign the Voting Rights act in Selma.

Far from just another dull, historical drama, Ava DuVernay’s Selma (2014) is an extremely well-made, highly intelligent, powerful, and gripping movie, done without annoying biopic clichés, about a key moment in the life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo). DuVernay’s smart rhythms and choices of camera placement constantly play with power relationships, often using empty space to achieve a kind of restlessness. English actor Oyelowo is remarkably good as Dr. King, who leads a march from Selma, Alabama to Montgomery to protest the treatment of blacks at the polls.

DuVernay treats King as a human being, full of doubts and flaws, but also a commanding, impressive leader; the film’s focus on small things, one step at a time, makes it seem less “important” than it might sound. Among the great performances are Carmen Ejogo as Coretta King, Nigel Thatch as Malcolm X, Tom Wilkinson as President Lyndon Johnson, and Tim Roth as Alabama governor George Wallace.

Southside with You


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Southside with You Roadside Attractions

Michelle (Tika Sumpter) and Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) enjoy a day-long early date in Southside with You.

Writer/director Richard Tanne’s remarkable first-date movie Southside with You (2016) takes place in the summer of 1989 in Chicago, as a young Barack Obama (Parker Sawyers) works as an intern in a law firm and boldly asks out his co-worker Michelle (Tika Sumpter), not on a date, but to a meeting. They spend the day talking and eating and driving around in Barack’s car with a hole in the floorboard.

Michelle witnesses Barack’s remarkable speaking powers at the meeting. They discuss painter Ernie Barnes and Stevie Wonder records, and they see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. Issues of sex and race come up, and are handled intellectually; everything flows naturally, without preaching. The final result is the feeling of getting to know two people, stripped of whatever labels might be applied to them nowadays, and leaving off with a feeling of unfettered hope.



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W. Lionsgate

President George W. Bush (Josh Brolin) and Karl Rove (Toby Jones) weigh the implications of a war in Iraq in W.

Known for incendiary, accusatory political movies such as Salvador, Platoon, and JFK, Oliver Stone’s soft, unremarkable biopic W. (2008) came at the tail end of George W. Bush’s presidency and fizzled at the box office. But it’s still surprisingly interesting and sympathetic. Josh Brolin gives a fine performance as Bush, shown as a simple, baseball-loving guy—a hellraiser in his early years—who really just wanted to impress his father, George H.W. “Poppy” Bush (James Cromwell), and got in a little over his head.

An amazing cast makes up the rogues gallery: Dick Cheney (a sneering, reptilian Richard Dreyfuss), Donald Rumsfeld (Scott Glenn), Karl Rove (Toby Jones), General Colin Powell (Jeffrey Wright), Condoleezza Rice (Thandie Newton) and Paul Wolfowitz (Dennis Boutsikaris). Additionally, Ellen Burstyn is Barbara Bush, Elizabeth Banks is Laura Bush, Ioan Gruffudd is Prime Minister Tony Blair, while Stacy Keach takes top acting honors as Bush’s harelipped minister, Earle Hudd. Third-hand sources suggested in 2010 that Bush himself saw the movie and “liked it very much” but “thought there were sad moments.”

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