Presidents in the Movies: American History and Politics on Screen

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Presidents in the Movies: American History and Politics on Screen. Edited by Iwan W. Morgan. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. 198 pp.

In Presidents in the Movies: American History and Politics on Screen, one finds both an overview of portayals of U.S. presidents on the big and small screens as well as an in-depth look at the film treatments of a handful of the better known presidents, including Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John E Kennedy, Andrew Johnson, Richard M. Nixon, and George W. Bush. The overview appears in Iwan W. Morgan's introduction, which sets up the collection of essays nicely by discussing the role of the presidency in history and some of the more notable films featuring U.S. presidents.

The essays in the book range widely. Melvyn Stokes' analysis is among the first, examining two very early portrayals of Lincoln in D. W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Abraham Lincoln. Through his analysis, Stokes effectively makes the point that the presidential portrayals that audiences find in movies often say more about the political and social culture in the time that the movies are made than they say about the presidents being depicted. The point is well taken, since it is a theme that serves as an undercurrent in many of the other analyses as well.

A later chapter by Harry Keyishian on Roosevelt examines several film portrayals of the New Deal president. Because of FDR's unprecedented tenure in the White House and because of his intriguing personal life, his character appears in a wide variety of films, sometimes as a real character and other times, as in some of the Depression-era films, as an idea or as a series of news clippings, or even as a segment of a speech. Keyishian notes that whatever type of role that FDR has in a film--whether a central one or a tertiary one--he generally incites confidence.

The book also features, as its closing essay, a piece by Kingsley Marshall on W., the 2008 film by Oliver Stone about George W. Bush, which was the first dramatic film to focus on the life and career of a then-sitting president. This very recent presidential portrayal came at a time when Bush's popularity was stunningly low and came from a director who had explored issues of U.S. politics and policy in earlier films, such as Platoon, Born on the Fourth of July, and Nixon. While Marshall notes that Stone's film does a good job of portraying some of the family dynamics that may have shaped Bush, he argues that the film fails to be particularly telling--either as an historical narrative or as a personal one--in part because of the lack of perspective on the 43rd president that a bit more time and distance from his presidency could have provided. …