Presidents Who Shouldn’t Get Their Own Movies

This weekend, Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” hits theaters. From director Steven Spielberg, the film is a sweeping look at the vaulted sixteenth President of the United States, as played by one-time oil magnate (and frequent milkshake drinker) Daniel Day-Lewis. While Lincoln was the closest thing we have to a superhero — strong-willed, clearly moral, vampire hunter — not every American elected to the status of President deserves his own movie.

Below, we have compiled a list of presidents who, if given the big-screen treatment, would probably be something of a letdown. Shout out to all those Warren G. Harding apologists out there!

  • Calvin Coolidge (30th President, 1923-1929)

    A conservative whose political platform could probably gain traction today (he emphasized small government and was known as a swift decision maker), he served as Vice President for President Harding (more on him in a minute) before Harding died unexpectedly on a speaking tour. Coolidge finished Harding’s term unspectacularly and then was reelected in 1924. A terse man, his story would have to be told in some kind of Terrence Malick-style existential minimalism, and his record doesn’t really support a lot of dramatic set pieces (he signed an immigration law that tried to stem the tide of European entrants into the country and was criticized for his handling of The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927), although since his tenure in office took place during the roaring twenties, at least there would be tons of opportunities for flashy costumes.

  • William Henry Harrison (9th President, 1841)

    Notable for being the first president to die in office (yikes) and the oldest president elected (until Ronald Reagan turned into a graveyard smash), Harrison led a brigade of United States soldiers against Native Americans in 1811. While Harrison had a lively military service record (he also was a general in the War of 1812 and gained a cool tough guy nickname after killing all those Indians), as a president his term was, well, brief. Harrison took the oath of office on a freezing, rainy day and without the proper gear for inclement weather. While most cite this as the cause of the cold that would eventually lead to his death, the inauguration was almost a month before he croaked. Maybe instead of a movie, a biographical piece on Harrison could instead be a short film.

  • James K. Polk (11th President, 1845-1849)

    Sadly, James K. Polk was not the inventor of the polka dot. Nor was he responsible for Polka music. Instead, he was a former Governor of Tennessee who oversaw America’s triumph in the Mexican-American War (a war for the annexation of Texas). A movie could easily be built around the Mexican-American War, and Polk’s tough-ass persona (he wanted Texas, bad, and promised to only serve one term in office) could conceivably be brought to the screen by somebody like Tommy Lee Jones (who plays a pivotal role in “Lincoln”). But imagine listless moviegoers shift in their seats as they watch Polk open the Smithsonian Institute or introduce this newfangled invention called postage stamps. Newsweek recently labeled him “The Overlooked President.” Chances are, he’s going to stay that way.

  • Benjamin Harrison (23rd President, 1889-1893)

    I know what you’re thinking: who? Well, it turns out that Benjamin was the grandson of our friend Henry Harrison, and was a Republican senator from Indiana. So there’s that. Harrison was a man of duality. On one hand he fought (if unsuccessfully) for early African-American voting rights, but he also gave orders to slaughter a cluster of Sioux Indians (he had them buried in a mass grave). Harrison is notable for his frequent tangles in foreign affairs, being the first president whose voice had been preserved thanks to the magic of technology (you can hear it online; he does not have a voice for radio) and for briefly disrupting the presidential reign of Grover Cleveland, who served before and after Harrison. Harrison is probably too dark a figure for filmed biography and too dull, as well.

  • Warren G. Harding (29th President, 1921-1923)

    How about a movie about a guy who pissed off the global peacekeeping organization League of Nations (the prototypical UN) when concluding World War I? Whose flagrant cronyism eventually led to something called The Teapot Dome Scandal, which involved illegal bribes from oil companies? (Many members of his cabinet eventually went to prison.) Ever heard of the Budget Bureau, an oversight committee designed to streamline wasteful government spending? Well Harding created it! Yeah, he did seem like kind of a jerk… and not exactly the stuff of glitzy Hollywood biopics. Although, it should be noted, that he did strongly advocate for African-American rights and signed the Sheppard-Towner Maternity Act (a social welfare program for mothers and children), which is something.

  • James A. Garfield (20th President, 1881)

    Another brief presidency, although unlike William Henry Harrison, James A. Garfield had a truly amazing beard. A progressive Republican (remember those?), Garfield was a longtime member of Congress who appointed a number of African Americans to prominent governmental positions, and fought in the Civil War. While a movie based around Garfield’s life might be kind of dull, one about his death would be genuinely thrilling, particularly because, on the day of his assassination, he was in the company of Robert Todd Lincoln, the first son of Abraham Lincoln, which adds a kind of “Cloud Atlas” sense of continuity to things. Garfield was shot in the arm and back by a delusional nutjob named Charles Guiteau. And while his wounds weren’t fatal (and could probably be promptly treated by today’s medical technology), he ended up dying anyway, some eighty days later.

  • Martin Van Buren (8th President, 1837-1841)

    Man, look at those sideburns/muttonchops/gifts from god! Martin Van Buren, the earliest United States president to be born a citizen, Van Buren served as Andrew Jackson’s Secretary of State and then Vice President. He served one term as President before running on a third party ticket called the Free Soil Party, which is arguably the worst name for any organization this side of the He-Man Woman Haters’ Club (the Free Soil Party’s motto was “Free Soil, Free Speech, Free Labor, and Free Men”). A film version of Van Buren’s life would probably consist of lots of shots of stuffy white men in rooms making decisions (Van Buren didn’t want to annex Texas and was none too fond of Canada, either), with vibrant sequences of the man preparing, shaping, and mussing his sideburns, while worrying about the country’s record level unemployment rates.

  • Millard Fillmore (13th President, 1850-1853)

    No one ever really talks about Millard Fillmore, despite proposing that there should be no slavery in the territories annexed following the Mexican-American War, which led to Fillmore signing the Fugitive Slave Act (something that his fellow Whigs never forgave him for). Maybe the reason for his virtual historical disappearance has to do with the fact that he opposed Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War and supported Andrew Johnson during Reconstruction. (These things would be hard to dramatize and he would be a character incredibly difficult to make sympathetic.)

  • James Buchanan (15th President, 1857-1861)

    AKA “The Dude That Came Before Lincoln,” (You see why he was overshadowed?) Buchanan was put in the impossible position of trying to please both the North and the South (in an attempt to diffuse tensions and the threat of war), a stance that earned him the derogatory term “doughface” (meaning a Northerner with Southern sympathies). It was during Buchanan’s presidency that the South made known its plans for succession, which gives his entire term an air of ineffectuality (despite relatively sturdy policy and leadership qualities). The only way a great movie could be made of Buchanan’s tenure would be if Woody Allen was cast as Buchanan, nervously trying to appease both North and South. Just think about that for a minute. No? Okay then.

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Filed by Drew Taylor  | 


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