The biopic on the Republican Party’s Presidential candidate Donald Trump is surely being written somewhere in Hollywood. Given the unending controversies in which the businessman finds himself – the latest is a leaked conversation in which he refers to women with lewd language – there is clearly no dearth of material to plough through.

America has a fine tradition of films and documentaries on its leaders. Ronald Reagan was the first Hollywood actor to become president in 1980. Forty-five years later, Trump’s chief claim to fame remains his appearance in the reality show, Apprentice. This almost symbiotic relationship apart, the presidency has exercised a strange fascination for Hollywood, as films on the presidency have shown. There have also been the television films, miniseries and documentaries – more so in the time of the last three presidents. The presidents too have been keen to have films on themselves: Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign made The Road We’ve Travelled, showing how the United States elected its first African-American president.

While some of these propaganda films are destined to have a limited shelf life, there are others with lasting impact.

In the last year of Obama’s presidency comes Southside with You, Richard Tanne’s directorial debut. Set in a summer day back in 1989, the film has the aura of hope and optimism that characterised Obama’s own campaign and his early years as president. Tika Sumpters plays lawyer Michelle Robinson to Parker Sawyers’s Barack. The film unfolds over a few hours, where a meet-up that is clearly not a date becomes a date, and audacity and easy charm mingle with honest conversation. The film is set in a time when Obama’s ambitions were still inchoate.

‘Southside with You’.

A documentary on Obama’s extraordinary mother, Ann Dunham, appeared in 2015. Dunham, an anthropologist, was mainly a single parent to Obama. She died of ovarian cancer in 1995, at 53. Obama has credited her for his own drive; the film, however, is ironically called Obama Mama.

‘Obama Mama’.

Obama’s immediate predecessors, whose legacies will remain arguably more divisive, have been subjects of films too. Oliver Stone made W. – on George W Bush, the third in Stone’s trilogy following JFK and Nixon. The film shows the Bushes as a political family, with patriarch George HW Bush (the 41st US president) bailing W (played by Josh Brolin) out on a couple of occasions, and the latter making a run for the presidency when his father’s obvious choice is younger brother Jeb Bush.


The controversies that have dogged Bush have also inspired films. Michael Moore’s top-grossing documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 is a searing look at how America went to war in Iraq as well as a scathing critique of how the media was responsible for much of the war-mongering.

‘Fahrenheit 9/11’.

Primary Colors (1998) was a thinly fictionalised film on Bill Clinton’s life and his ambitious campaign to be president in 1992. John Travolta, as Jack Stanton, has no compunctions about using civil rights activists, financial backers and even friends such as the journalist Libby Holden to win the 1992 presidential nomination. Stanton’s most notable confrontations are not just from his past mistresses (Libby colludes to destroy evidence) but also his own Democratic Party rivals, against one of whom Stanton digs up incriminating evidence from the past.

Richard Nixon and John Kennedy have also been the favourites of filmmakers. Nixon was forced to resign in August 1974 after admitting to his knowledge of the wiretapping of the Democratic Party headquarters, and was later granted a pardon by his successor, Gerald Ford. Nixon’s many ambiguities and abilities and his never-say-die attitude that saw him become president in 1969, after losing out to John F Kennedy in 1960 has fascinated filmmakers such as Oliver Stone and Peter Morgan.

Anthony Hopkins played the hard-to-like, complicated and brooding Nixon in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film. A movie made a decade before, Secret Honor, made a similar attempt to get under Nixon’s skin. David Frost, the legendary radio and television broadcaster, recorded a series of television interviews with Nixon – the attempt was to somehow obtain Nixon’s own (drunken) admission of knowledge of the wire-tapping, and this itself became a play (2006) and then a film Frost/Nixon (2008) by Peter Morgan.


The phone-tapping scandal, known as Watergate, has been the subject of a few films: Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman play the two Washington Post reporters who trace the scandal right up to the White House in Alan J Pakula’s All The President’s Men.

Filmmakers of various hues have made much of John F Kennedy’s short and eventful presidency (1960-63). There have been celluloid interpretations of the Kennedys clan itself, John F Kennedy’s wartime service (that included a Pulitzer winning book), his love affairs and the momentous events of his presidency, especially the Cuban Missile Crisis (when Soviet missiles in Cuba sparked off a near confrontation between the Cold war rivals).

The television film The Missiles of October (1974) is based on Robert Kennedy’s memoirs of the missile crisis. Twenty-six years later came the Kevin Costner-starrer Thirteen Days, based on a different book. Stone’s JFK is a thriller detailing the days to Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas and the alleged cover-up that followed. Films on the Kennedy assassination and its aftermath make up a sub-genre of their own.

Jacqueline Kennedy has been featured in films about her husband’s assassination, and is now the subject of Chilean director Pablo Larrain’s Jackie, starring Natalie Portman. The film covers her years as First Lady leading upto John F Kennedy’s death in 1963, and already being talked about as an Oscar contender.


As with the Kennedys, there are films on the Roosevelts, another major American political family. Franklin Roosevelt was president in the years of the Depression and when the US entered World War II, and his wife, Eleanor, was a feminist icon in her own right. Two films made in the space of two years – Sunrise at Campobello (2003) and Warm Springs (2005) – are inspiring in tone. Though they tell almost the same story, they are different in how they depict the story of Roosevelt’s battle with polio that briefly left him paralysed in the legs. He went on to serve as president for a record four terms.

And then of course, there is Abraham Lincoln, who defined the American nation and presidency in numerous ways. Daniel Day-Lewis earned his third acting Oscar for portraying Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s 2012 film.


One of the earliest political films was DW Griffith’s biographical Abraham Lincoln (1930), now in the public domain. Lincoln’s assassination, like JFK’s a century later, has formed the subject of several films too.

There have been productions on the men who unexpectedly took charge of America. LBJ (2016) shows Lyndon Johnson’s succession to the presidency following Kennedy’s death and his attempts to carry Kennedy’s legacy forward, such as the Civil Rights Act.

Among America’s founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson has been popular as a film subject, especially following the work of revisionist historians on his life. James Ivory’s Jefferson in Paris (1995), starring Nick Nolte, was a joint production between France and the US. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala wrote the screenplay depicting Jefferson’s life as American ambassador to France in the years before he became President, as also Jefferson’s two life-shaping relationships, with the British-Italian music composer and artist Maria Cosway, with whom Jefferson carried on a lifelong correspondence until his death in 1826, and his slave Sally Hemmings. Jefferson’s relationship with Sally began when the latter accompanied him to Paris and later to Virginia. Her four children by Jefferson, who survived till adulthood, were given their freedom by the president.

‘Jefferson in Paris’.

A play based on the life of another founding father, Alexander Hamilton, has achieved historic box office success in 2016. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton won 11 Tony Awards as well as a Pulitzer for best drama. Hamilton, of mixed Creole-British parentage, was an iconic figure, key in setting up a financial system for the newly independent country and also known for his fierce opposition to Thomas Jefferson. At a time when the presidential campaign has been deeply divisive, this focus on Hamilton’s life shows up the many diverse threads that make up America’s history.