This feature originally ran in August 2016. We’re reposting in honor of Election Day.
As the leader of the free world and the commander-in-chief of history’s most potent military force, the President of the United States should be above mockery. Hollywood occasionally plays by this rule, offering up idealized portraits of past leaders (2014’s Lincoln) along with slivers of historical fiction that treat the sitting POTUS with kid gloves. Last year’s Obama date flick, Southside with You, is a fine example of the latter going out of its way to trigger warm feelings rather than heated political debates.
These films, charming as they may be, tend to be exceptions to Hollywood’s more general rule of no-holds-barred cynicism regarding the Office of the President. That’s because cynicism is a lot more fun and a hell of a lot more believable, especially now that our current presidency has turned into a stranger-than-fiction clusterfuck of historic proportions. There may not be a less qualified POTUS in all of cinema than Donald J. Trump, but men such as Idiocracy’s President Comancho and Dr. Strangelove’s President Muffley certainly give him a run for his money (assuming said money actually exists).
While we’d pack our bags and ready our Canadian visas if any of these presidents were actually elected, it’s a joy to watch the havoc they wreak on screen. In that spirit, we’ve decided to revisit the 10 absolute worst US presidents ever depicted on film. Leave Southside with You to those mushy-hearted liberals, and keep your rousing Independence Day speeches, Mr. Pullman. We want foul play, scandals, exploitation, and rampant anti-intellectualism. And boy, do these 10 assholes deliver.
10. President Tom Kimball/Jack Neil/Simmons/Martian Hater
Captain America (1990), Martians Go Home (1990), Murder at 1600 (1997), Nadia’s Promise (2016)
Acting President: Ronny Cox
Grounds for Impeachment: One of the unsung heroes of ’80s genre trash, Ronny Cox has played the US President not once, not twice, but four separate times. He’s just got that anemic, crotchety old white man look that screams “POTUS,” I suppo-tus.
Whether it’s getting saved by FBI Agent Dennis Miller (and a super soldier played by JD Salinger’s son) or getting annoyed by lecherous frat-boy Martians, Cox’s prolific low-rent string of onscreen presidencies couldn’t go without mention here. If you’ve had as many terms as Cox has, you’d think you would learn how to avoid getting taken prisoner so often. –Clint Worthington
09. President Benjamin Asher
Olympus Has Fallen (2013), London Has Fallen (2016)
Acting President: Aaron Eckhart
Grounds for Impeachment: It’s hard to maintain a sense of strength and dignity as President in a film series that requires your Secret Service agent to be the Big Hero. Even so, Aaron Eckhart’s poor Benjamin Asher is remarkably feckless, having an almost comical predilection for getting captured and giving out nuclear codes like they’re Halloween candy.
What makes Eckhart’s job even harder is the fact that his VP is Morgan god-damn Freeman, who ends up doing most of the president-ing in these films anyway. When you’ve got one of the most legendary character actors in film history as your hype man, it’s admittedly hard to measure up. –Clint Worthington
08. President Joseph Staton
American Dreamz (2006)
Acting President: Dennis Quaid
Grounds for Impeachment: American Dreamz doesn’t work very well as a satire, if only because its skewering of then-US President George W. Bush is a little too on the nose. It’s almost as if Dennis Quaid method-acted by losing a few I.Q. points for the role; in one of the film’s early scenes, President Staton is floored by the fact that there are three kinds of “Iraqistanis.” His interest in reading the newspaper alarms his chief of staff (a bald Willem Dafoe), who attempts to take his mind off complex political issues by positioning him as a guest judge on an alternate-reality version of American Idol. Deeply cynical and a lot darker than its premise reads on paper, American Dreamz strays away from politics in its latter half, but President Staton will always be a prime cinematic reminder of just how easy it was to poke fun at ol’ Dubya. – Collin Brennan
07. President Grab Ass
Love Actually (2003)
Acting President: Billy Bob Thornton
Grounds for Impeachment: A horrifying composite of George W. Bush and Bill Clinton’s worst tendencies, the US President depicted in Love Actually is a chest-puffing, ass-grabbing Commander in Sleaze who perfectly embodies the American traditions of entitlement and toxic masculinity. During a diplomatic meeting with Britain’s Prime Minister (Hugh Grant), President Billy Bob quickly turns 10 Downing Street into his own turf, asserting his dominance by rubbing up against the PM’s cute assistant the second he finds her alone in a room.
Really, dude? If you can’t keep it in your pants during a sensitive diplomatic mission, how the hell are we supposed to trust you with the nuclear codes? Prime Minister Grant offers up a hot plate of schadenfreude during the following press conference, but a punch in the face would’ve been more rewarding. Nothing about Love Actually is even remotely plausible, so we might as well get to choose our fantasies. –Collin Brennan
06. President Zartan
GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), GI Joe: Retaliation (2013)
Acting President: Jonathan Pryce
Grounds for Impeachment: Being both the bad guy and the President of the United States is no small feat, but Jonathan Pryce’s turn as POTUS in the two GI Joe films show the best way to pull it off – with a little panache. Sure, he’s in straightforward leader-of-the-free-world mode in The Rise of Cobra, but when shape-shifting henchman Zartan captures him and starts impersonating him, that’s when he really gets interesting.
As the main villain in Retaliation, President Zartan gives zero shits about democracy or running the free world. Heck, he brings together all the world leaders to a secure location so he can show off his superweapon blowing up London! For all of Retaliation’s faults, Pryce’s prez is a solid-gold camp performance. —Clint Worthington
05. President of What?
Escape from New York (1981)
Acting President: Donald Pleasence
Grounds for Impeachment: Donald Pleasence’s eggheaded, bumbling POTUS has a futuristic Air Force One, complete with escape pod, and he still manages to get captured by the Duke of New York. “President of what?”, indeed.
Unless the President is kicking ass himself, the role of POTUS in cheesy action movies is almost always as cannon fodder or damsel in distress. That’s no less true of Pleasence’s unnamed Prez in John Carpenter’s Escape from New York: Pleasance is shot at, tied up, and thrown in an ugly Edgar Winter wig before Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) and his crew can get to him. It’s hard to ignore his redeeming moment, though: gleefully gunning down the Duke in a fit of traumatized rage. “You’re the Duke! A-Number-One!” —Clint Worthington
04. President Alan Richmond
Absolute Power (1997)
Acting President: Gene Hackman
Grounds for Impeachment: How about violent sexual assault, for starters? It would be one thing if the estimable (read: total scumbag) President Richmond was simply engaging in a little hanky-panky with Christy Sullivan (Melora Hardin), the wife of one of his richest bankrollers. But things go south — and not in the good way — when he decides that sex isn’t fun without a little physical aggression. Sullivan is shot trying to protect herself, and the cover-up at the center of the film begins in earnest.
When it takes a jewel thief (Clint Eastwood) to act as the audience’s moral compass, that’s when you know you’re watching a fucked-up movie. Absolute Power seems a little implausible and absurd at points, but it’s entirely modern in its depiction of a POTUS knee-deep in shady dealings. We rarely trust politicians anymore, and films like this may be the symptom or the cause. –Collin Brennan
03. President Merkin Muffley
Dr. Strangelove (1964)
Acting President: Peter Sellers
Grounds for Impeachment: It’s difficult for a nation to place its faith in a president whose name is a thinly veiled reference to a pubic wig. But President Merkin Muffley — the most comically inept of the three characters Peter Sellers plays in Dr. Strangelove — is even more ridiculous than his unfortunate moniker. “Gentlemen! You can’t fight here, this is the war room!” he shouts at one point, confirming the fact that bald men who are blind to irony will be the death of us all.
Honestly, triggering a nuclear holocaust might be one of President Muffley’s more forgivable sins. Anybody who keeps an ex-Nazi scientist as an advisor is not to be trusted, especially if said ex-Nazi scientist insists on addressing him as “Mein Führer.” With a president like this leading the way, mutually assured destruction is all but assured. –Collin Brennan
02. President James Dale
Mars Attacks! (1996)
Acting President: Jack Nicholson
Grounds for Impeachment: Talk about a fitting end for a President who won’t shut up already with the empty platitudes. President James Dale doesn’t exactly come through in the clutch when the Martians invade Earth in Tim Burton’s Mars Attacks, and his dim-wittedness manages to get most of Congress killed by death ray. But Dale really shows off his true colors in the final minutes of his life when he hides behind a desk as the Martians turn his top general into shoe grease. When Dale finally emerges from his hiding place, he gives the speech that all Presidents have been giving since time immemorial, spouting a bunch of nonsense about hope and unity in hopes of saving his ass. He doesn’t mean a word of it, and those huge-brained Martians are smart enough to tell. Now if only the American public could see through bullshit in the same way. –Collin Brennan
01. President Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho
Acting President: Terry Crews
Grounds for Impeachment: In a weird way, President Camacho is both the best and worst President we’ve ever had onscreen. Policy-wise, he’s absolutely the worst: a self-centered, arrogant manifestation of all the anti-intellectualism, nationalism, and dunderheadedness at the core of Mike Judge’s futuristic dystopia.
That being said, there’s something about Camacho that’s innately compelling. For all his idiocy, Camacho listens to his advisors, cares about his constituents, and delivers stirring oratory with a style somewhere between firebrand preacher and professional wrestler. Crews is hilarious in the part, which was a breakout role for him, but even these good intentions can’t make up for a know-nothing POTUS who’s eerily close to what we might get in November. —Clint Worthington