With the three-day President's Day Weekend upon us, we took a trip through the Warner Bros. Film and Television Library in search of some Oval Office entertainment and compiled a list of titles covering the spectrum of genres, from comedies, bio-pics, fiction and non-fiction suspenseful dramas to those laced with scandals and conspiracies. Whatever your taste over the long weekend, all of these titles are available digitally so you'll never have to leave your executive couch.
You'll be hard-pressed to find a more enjoyable and light-hearted look at the executive branch than director Ivan Reitman's 1993 box-office hit, Dave, where Kevin Kline's look-alike hobby of impersonating the President becomes all too real when the actual president suffers a heart attack and falls into a coma. Before he knows it, he is thrust into the real role as the puppet being controlled by the Chief of Staff (Frank Langella). So what happens when the puppet cuts the strings? With an executive staff of talent on hand, including Sigourney Weaver, Kevin Dunn, Ving Rhames and Ben Kingsley, Dave gets our vote.
In 1995, director Rob Reiner and writer Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing) hit box-office gold with their own rom-com/drama starring Michael Douglas as the widowed chief exec who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening). Can their relationship stand up to their political differences or will love bring their hearts AND minds together as one? The strong supporting cast of Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox and Richard Dreyfuss keeps the story fresh as it moves seamlessly from the personal to the political. The American President received Golden Globe nominations in all five of the main categories (Picture, Director, Actor, Actress and Screenplay).
In 1997, released only one month before the country was rocked by the real-life Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal, this film by producer/director Barry Levinson brought forth the question of whether life was imitating art. Wag the Dog is a smart, dark comedy about a sitting president embroiled in a sex scandal just before his re-election, so his political team (led by Robert De Niro) comes up with the idea of starting a fake war to distract the media. In comes a temperamental Hollywood producer (Dustin Hoffman in an Oscar-nominated performance) to create the war and make it believable.
Further political laughs can be found in the 1996 James Garner/Jack Lemmon/Dan Aykroyd comedy, My Fellow Americans, which pits two former presidents against the current one. Then we have the 1980 farcical look at the First Family, written and directed by Buck Henry and starring Bob Newhart, Madeline Kahn and Gilda Radner as the less-than-perfect presidential family, with plenty of comedic support from Fred Willard, Harvey Korman, Richard Benjamin and Rip Torn. We close out our comedies with the 2004 teen rom-com Chasing Liberty with Mandy Moore as the First Daughter under her father/president Mark Harmon. A harmless romp about a teen trapped in the spotlight in search of freedom.
In this 1960 drama, made in cooperation with the Roosevelt family, Ralph Bellamy and Greer Garson star as Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. Sunrise at Campobello focuses on the three-year period, 1921-24, when the then-former Senator, former Assistant Secretary of the Navy and failed Vice Presidential candidate was stricken with polio and became permanently paralyzed from the waist down; a fact that was largely hidden from the public during his later terms as Governor of New York and the President of the United States. Garson won the Golden Globe for her stellar performance as Eleanor, who would go on to become arguably the most powerful First Lady of all-time.
For a look at seemingly everyone's favorite President you might want to take a look at the 1940 melodrama Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which follows the future prez from the first time he leaves his home in Kentucky to his ultimate and very unexpected presidential victory 30 years later.
Scandals & Conspiracies
The unraveling of the Watergate Scandal that led to the 1974 resignation of President Richard Nixon remains a high point for the Fourth Estate when it comes to covering politics. Led by the two young and inexperienced Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and Carl Bernstein (Dustin Hoffman) and Post editor Ben Bradlee (Jason Robards in his Oscar-winning role), All the President's Men somehow makes it all suspenseful, even though we all know the outcome. And, in case, you're new to the Watergate story, Woodward's secret insider informant (i.e., the shadowy figure known forever as "Deep Throat," portrayed by Hal Holbrook in the film) was finally revealed in 2005 to be Mark Felt; the second top man at the FBI during Watergate.
Moving to the fictional side of the White House, director John Frankenheimer's 1964 dramatic thriller about a proposed military coup by anti-communists after the President embarks on negotiations of a disarmament treaty with the Kremlin is still as powerful today as it was upon its release more than 50 years ago. Interestingly enough, the screenplay was penned by The Twilight Zone mastermind Rod Serling, and features an all-star cast of Burt Lancaster, Kirk Douglas, Fredric March and Ava Gardner.
Based on the John Grisham bestseller of the same name, this top-flight suspense thriller about the assassination of two Supreme Court Justices follows a law student (Julia Roberts) whose college thesis, dubbed The Pelican Brief, implicates those at the highest level of the Executive Branch in the conspiracy. She soon finds herself alone and on the run until an investigative reporter (Denzel Washington) partners with her and they find themselves both in danger as they try to solve the mystery. This is a high-intensity political thriller that will leave you on the edge of your seat from beginning to end.
Oliver Stone's blending of fact and fiction surrounding the assassination of President John F. Kennedy is a masterful and visually compelling salute to conspiracy theorists the world over. Starring Kevin Costner as New Orleans district attorney Jim Garrison who began investigating the Kennedy assassination and eventually brought one man (Clay Shaw, portrayed by Tommy Lee Jones) to trial in 1967. Stone takes nearly every single conspiracy theory about the JFK assassination and throws it all in a blender leaving the viewer to figure out what's true or not. A fascinating film about one of our country's longest surviving mysteries (if you don't believe that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, that is).
This 1998 TV Movie features Lance Henriksen as Abraham Lincoln and Rob Morrow as his assassin John Wilkes Booth in an enthralling and detailed chronicle of the plot, murder and manhunt that changed America forever. To avenge what he called the Confederacy’s “noble cause,” Booth conspires with his motley followers, while a weary Lincoln longs for a just peace. Minute by minute, killer and victim edge closer to the burst of gunfire at Ford’s Theatre that shattered the country’s soul.
Some other conspiracy-laden fictional political films we recommend are: 1997's Absolute Power, directed by and starring Clint Eastwood as a master thief who accidentally witnesses a murder involving the President of the United States (Gene Hackman). Will the career criminal reveal what he has seen or go on the run? An excellent thriller with a cast for the ages, also including Laura Linney, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Judy Davis, Dennis Haysbert and E.G. Marshall.
In 2004's Spartan, written and directed by David Mamet, Val Kilmer is a Special Ops officer investigating the kidnapping of the President's daugher (Veronica Mars star Kristen Bell). At the time of its release, Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, saying, "The particular pleasure of Spartan is to watch the characters gradually define themselves and the plot gradually emerge like your face in a steamy mirror."
Finally for the thrillers, we have Wesley Snipes in the 1997 box-office hit, Murder at 1600, in which a DC homicide detective runs into executive stonewalling while investigating the murder of a woman in the White House. A stellar cast, including Diane Lane and Alan Alda keeps the political suspense building throughout.
And if you're in the mood for some serious political binge-watching, look no further than the 150+ episodes of the classic television series The West Wing, which ran from 1999-2006, garnering 26 Emmy Awards (including four consecutive Emmys for "Outstanding Drama Series" between 2000-03). Follow the exploits of President Josiah Bartlet (Martin Sheen) and his administration principals played by Allison Janney, Rob Lowe, John Spencer, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford and Stockard Channing. We especially recommend the first four seasons, which were fully under the control of the show's creator Aaron Sorkin, who penned 85 of the first 88 episodes.