The Best On-Screen Presidents

To celebrate the release of TV drama Designated Survivor starring Kiefer Sutherland, Top 10 Films takes a look at some of the best on-screen presidents.

Dennis Haysbert as David Palmer

Long before Barack Obama came along, there was David Palmer, in 24 groundbreaking real-time TV series 24, played by Dennis Haysbert, the first black American president and one who had all kinds of enemies. Luckily Kiefer Sutherland, poor, old oft-misunderstood Kiefer, was the man who stepped in to save the day, thanks to a trusty mobile phone, being patched in on the schematics and seemingly, given the aforementioned real-time element, an incredibly strong bladder too. Haysbert’s Palmer was the original and the best president during the series’ lengthy and increasingly far-fetched run.

Kiefer Sutherland as Tom Kirkman

From protecting to actually being the president: his stint as Jack Bauer over, Kiefer Sutherland turned to the top job himself for his most recent TV outing, Designated Survivor. An interesting concept, and just released on DVD courtesy of eOne, Sutherland is the journeyman politician, too dull and uninspiring for senior office until a terrorist incident wipes out the rest of the senior US cabinet, leaving him in charge. He must battle his own fears and insecurities as well as political in-fighting, and a far wider, and more nefarious conspiracy. It blends the politicking of The West Wing, the shadowy conspiracy and underhand dealings of House Of Cards with the thrilling terrorist threat of a Homeland or 24.

Martin Sheen as Jed Bartlet

Throughout George W Bush’s reign as president in the 2000s, there was one leader that the public, not in the US but beyond, were crying out for. Sadly it wasn’t any official candidate running against the latest in the Bush dynasty, rather a fictional one: Jed Bartlet. This character, the figure at the head of TV drama The West Wing, brought to life with the gravitas that veteran actor Martin Sheen added, was the leader of the free world that people really wanted, the ideal president. Aaron Sorkin’s masterful and often prophetic series helped usher in what many call a new, golden age of television, as well as introducing the concept of bingeing as its DVD sales soared when its popularity grew. And if the people wanted Bartlet more then, imagine how they feel now…

Bill Pullman as Thomas J Whitmore

Top 10 Films Where The US President Appears To Be Non-PartisanNot the understated and presidential guise of Sheen and Sorkin’s Bartlet, rather a more action-packed outing, as everyman Bill Pullman dealt not so much with a true-to-life crises, but a full-scale alien invasion in the original Independence Day. The prez took matters into his own hands which, to mix metaphors, he didn’t mind getting dirty. Not only did America save the day in the 20-plus-year-old classic, but President Thomas J Whitmore (it doesn’t get more presidential than using your middle initial) led the charge himself. Oh, and he was a thoroughly decent fella too.

Harrison Ford as James Marshall

Harrison Ford, Air Force One,If Pullman’s antics in ID-4 weren’t enough, a year later there was Harrison Ford showing his chops as President James Marshall in Air Force One. More than just a commander in chief, his impeccable military record helped him get his family and staff out of a massive hijacked hole aboard his own airplane. He stowed away and took on the ludicrously accented eastern European baddies in this Die Hard on a plane action rip off, that’s about as 90s as it gets.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meye

After following the ups and downs of British politics in seminal comedy The Thick Of It, arch-satirist Armando Ianucci turned his attention to the US, ruthlessly skewering American politics in all its, ahem, glory, in Veep. Although, as the title suggest, its chief protagonist, former Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus as Selina Meyer, starts off as the deputy to the leader of the free world, she soon finds her way to the top job. And along the way, the show has picked up a ridiculous amount of awards and is an annual shoo-in for the best sitcom Emmy gong.

Aaron Eckhart as Benjamin Asher

Top 10 Worst Movie PresidentsBoth Olympus Has Fallen and its sequel London Has Fallen are throwbacks to the 90s actioner as personified by the likes of Air Force One – president under threat, scores of explosions, slightly ludicrous plot involving a terrorist threat from a foreign power, albeit this time finding new enemies. Perfect video store-style fodder.

Kevin Kline as Dave Kovic and Bill Mitchell

Dave, Ivan Reitman, Kevin Kline, Sigourney Weaver, Top 10 FilmsA Capra-esque turn from Gary Ross sees dual roles from comic actor Kevin Kline in Dave, excelling as the rather simple eponymous lookalike and President Bill Mitchell. When the latter dies in flagrante delicto, a behind-the-scenes plot sees the stand-in left to run the country. But not only is he a far nicer person than the dead prez, he’s also not willing to be a mere puppet…

Kevin Spacey as Frank Underwood

Remember when House of Cards seemed a bit far-fetched? All that changed when Donald Trump ascended to the presidency, but before truth became stranger than fiction, Kevin Spacey’s turn as the ruthlessly ambitious – and plain ruthless – was deliciously enjoyable. Political intrigue mixed with a crazed lust for power made for a wonderful career defining turn for Spacey as he barged all and sundry out of his way to rise to the pinnacle of US politics. And let’s not forget the equally evil Robin Wright as the wife who was also eager to fight her way to the top…

In Designated Survivor, which was released on DVD in the UK this week, Kiefer Sutherland stars as Tom Kirkman, a lower-level cabinet member who is suddenly appointed President of the United States after a catastrophic attack on the US Capitol during the State of the Union. Kirkman struggles to keep the country and his family from falling apart, while navigating the highly-volatile political arena and leading the search to find who is responsible for the attack.

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