Six Nice Motion pictures About Presidents

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The characters in this edgy 1964 thriller are fictional, but the situation – especially lately – feels all too real. Kirk Douglas plays a naval colonel who suspects a Hawk Air Force general (Burt Lancaster) is organizing a coup against a pacifist president (Frederic March). Director John Frankenheimer (who filmed the similarly pulsating “The Manchurian Candidate” two years earlier) and screenwriter Rod Serling adapt a novel by Charles W. Bailey II and Fletcher Knebel into an unusual war film in which soldiers fight in boardrooms instead of from battlefields attack you with secret meetings and phone calls.

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Richard Nixon is at the center of this newspaper drama, though mostly off-screen. Based on Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s account of how they investigated the Watergate scandal for the Washington Post, this film conveys the daily business of gossip, leaks and social networking in the country’s capital. But it’s also a compelling story of how citizens and journalists can control the executive branch when presidents and their staff begin to authoritatively ignore or pillage federal laws.

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One of the great attractions of films about presidents is the opportunity to see how the leader of the free world lives. In this 1993 comedy, Dave, Kevin Kline plays an ordinary man who looks just like the president. When White House staff ask him to pose as POTUS while the real one recovers from a stroke, Dave soon gets caught up in a conspiracy that includes scandal, harassment, and romance. What makes this image appealing is Kline’s graciously optimistic performance as someone who truly enjoys the privileges of the presidency – from the benefits of the White House to the power to improve people’s lives.

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The screenwriter Aaron Sorkin has a knack for charismatic and inspiring politicians, as seen in his hit TV series “The West Wing”. In this 1995 romantic drama, Michael Douglas plays the title character, a Bill Clinton-like centrist democrat who pushes for popular laws rather than advocating controversial positions. Sorkin’s story (directed by Rob Reiner) is mainly about the love affair between the widowed president and an environmental lobbyist, played by Annette Bening. But the film also envisions an idealized Washington in which the right speech at the right time can change minds and maybe save a nation.

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[Read The New York Times review.]

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