Real to Reel: The Oval Office on Film

unknownHere we are once again. The four year presidential election is nye upon us. I’m at a loss for writing anything about how this cycle is, shall we say, unusual. No matter which side you’re on, or on neither side, or are not sure. We can always count on the cinema to provide a retreat from the noise. I wrote a similar post in 2012, and so this is a reprise with some new entries.

Fire up your favorite streaming service, or put one of those 5″ shiny discs into your device. Here are my top recommendations. They are worth it.

All the Way (2016) –  HBO and Amblin Entertainment have collaborated to tell the story of Lyndon Baines Johnson (LBJ), 36th President of the United States. The accidental, or tragically elevated, president was sworn in on Air Force One the same day John F. Kennedy was cut down by a sniper’s bullet in Dallas. That event has in some ways overshadowed LBJ’s accomplishments. This film does an outstanding job reminding us just how much he accomplished. Bryan Cranston (most recently of Trumbo) puts on a vivid portrayal of LBJ. This is deep tracks worthy from a consummate pro. The filmmakers attended to every detail, allowed Cranston to perform his persona magic, and laid out what people who attain high office, but have even higher aspirations face.

House of Cards (2013 – 2016) –  A Netflix original series based on the 1990 UK miniseries has done its part to prepare us for the 2016 presidential campaign. Dark, selfish, spontaneous and opportunistic describe Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) and his wife Claire Underwood (Robin Wright). They stop at nothing to achieve power and influence. This one requires a significant time commitment, but the first two seasons and part of the third are all that is necessary to understand what’s going on. Let’s hope this is not a foreshadowing of things to come. But I digress. Just queue it up and enjoy some excellent acting, dialog and mystery. All fully sanctioned, because as Richard Nixon once said, “If the president does it, it’s not against the law.”

Lincoln (2012) –  If it were true that people actually did turn over in their graves, then Lincoln is the guy who would do it first. When you watch Daniel Day-Lewis become Lincoln, or at least the figure of what we imagine Lincoln might have been, you understand so much. You understand that politics has always been a contact sport, democracy is in the bottom of the first inning and old habits die hard. Steven Spielberg traded in his boyhood kaleidoscope with Schindler’s List and I for one am very happy. His position in the industry has allowed him to recreate everything in obsessive detail. This one should be viewed every year.

Frost / Nixon (2008) –  A searing, in-depth recreation of the famous interview that in many ways settled once and for all President Nixon’s involvement in Watergate for the American public. Frank Langella is the cold, calculating Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen is David Frost, who bet a personal fortune that he would get the goods on Nixon as well as a big audience. Takes place entirely post term and captures the time and culture perfectly. Directed by Ron Howard. Full review here.

W. (2008) – A psychoanalytic vista of the life and first term of President George W. Bush. It ultimately becomes a story of the entire Bush family and the presence of the elder President Bush is felt throughout. James Brolin plays W. pitch perfect, and surprisingly, Mr. Stone does not go off the reservation on this one. It’s toned down, compared to his other political outings. Worth a look, or another look to remind us of what things were like during the eight years under Bush. Full review here.

The Manchurian Candidate (2004) – An updated version of the 1962 classic. Soldiers from the first Gulf War are captured and brainwashed. An alternate takes credit for being a war hero and becomes a Vice Presidential candidate (Liev Schreiber). His commanding officer, Ben Marco (Denzel Washington) begins to think things are not what they seem. The details soon unravel for the master planners and they take additional actions to ensure their plan is carried off successfully. A high octane, paranoid thriller directed with precision by Jonathan Demme.

The Contender (2000) – Joan Allen plays Laine Hanson who is running  for Vice President to President Jackson Evans (Jeff Bridges). The story line takes many twists as the characters fight for power and to preserve their view of the way things should be. Sexy secrets are found out about Hanson who refuses to discuss them as irrelevant to her qualifications for the office. Bridges chews the scenery and Allen is steely strong. Gary Oldman is superb.

The West Wing (1999-2006) – Highly acclaimed and popular TV series covering the lives of the President and staffers inside the White House’s west wing. 154 episodes were produced and aired. This series captured the attention of millions for it’s realistic portrayal, likable characters and its occasional wink. Created by Aaron Sorkin with Martin Sheen as President Josiah’Jed’ Bartlet. Quality scripts, acting and production.


Wag the Dog (1997) – Wonderfully funny, oddly prophetic and highly entertaining. Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro are over the top. Anne Heche swears like a drunken sailor and Denis Leary is, well Denis Leary. Barry Levinson and David Mamet scooped the Monica Lewinsky scandal before it even happened, with eerie parallels. The White House staff members create a fake war to distract from the president’s troubles. Hoffman, a seasoned Hollywood producer is hired to carry out the task.

Nixon (1995) – A biographical story of former President Richard Milhous Nixon. Oliver Stone follows Nixon from his days as a young boy to his presidency, which ended in resignation during his second term. Anthony Hopkins inhabits the persona of Nixon so thoroughly that you completely forget it’s not Nixon as early as the first reel. The Vietnam conflict was a major event during the Nixon presidency and Stone, a Vietnam veteran himself, intercuts combat scenes into the political theater. He takes the filmic style used in JFK and pushes it even further, mixing eras and cultures freely across the screen.

JFK (1991) – Oliver Stone’s (again) telling of the assassination of John F. Kennedy caused quite a stir in many camps. Regardless of camera-reverse
what you believe about the murder, this picture broke new ground in filmmaking style. It plays more as a sonic mix than an edited picture. Based on the book Crossfire, it features an ensemble cast. Kevin Costner and Tommy Lee Jones are stand outs, while Gary Oldman nailed Lee Harvey Oswald. Special nod to Joe Pesci (David Ferrie), as an absolute loon.

All the President’s Men (1976) – Washington Post reporters Woodward and Bernstein (Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman) uncover the details of the Watergate scandal that leads to President Nixon’s resignation. Perhaps the best explanation available on the Watergate scandal. A taught drama that combines intrigue, power and investigative reporting. Excellent work from director Alan J. Pakula.

The Missiles of October (1974) – Made for television mini-series about the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, three years after Castro assumes power in Cuba. William Davane plays JFK in this tense, detailed and an up close look at the process of decision making for an American President in a time of crisis. Also stars Martin Sheen. A good history lesson.

The Parallax View (1974) – Another reporter vehicle. This time Warren Beatty uncovers some nasty things while investigating the assassination of a prominent United States Senator. Ultimately he finds a conspiracy net with a powerful multinational corporation behind it all. The ’70’s produced some of our most interesting films thanks to “director as auteur” freedom afforded many filmmakers by the studios. Alan J. Pakula (All the President’s Men) directs.

Enjoy and please feel free to add your own favorites. Oh, and VOTE!