Stephen Arnell

The White House on screen: films to watch for a Washington fix

The White House on screen: films to watch for a Washington fix
2016's Elvis and Nixon (Image: Shutterstock)
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President-Elect Joe Biden is due to formally occupy The White House after his inauguration on 20 January 2021. For those who take an interest in such things, The White House was not formally called such until 1901, when President Theodore Roosevelt officially gave the building its name. Previously it had been informally known by the term, but also as ‘The President's Palace’, the ‘President's House’, and the ‘Executive Mansion’. 

For the residence of the most powerful person in the world, The White House is surprisingly modest, considerably smaller than the likes of Buckingham Palace, The Élysée, Quirinal, Kremlin, Hofburg and The Forbidden City. No doubt Trump, who supposedly called the White House a 'real dump', would have wanted something more grandiose in his second, third, fourth etc terms. If he had actually won the recent election, that is.

Incidentally, The White House has its own movie theatre, where Trump has screened pictures such as Finding Dory, The Greatest Showman and Joker. No Birth of a Nation or Triumph of The Will then. Officially at least.

There have been many movies that feature the White House as a major location. Here are some of the most notable:

Elvis & Nixon (2016) Amazon Prime 

This comedic depiction of the true-life White House meeting between Elvis Presley and President Nixon passes the time amiably enough but brings little to the party. Michael Shannon plays a craggy, drug-addled version of the King, with a pre-disgrace Kevin Spacey handling the role of Tricky Dicky with his customary acidic bite. E& N writer Joey Sagal met Elvis when his father Boris was directing Presley’s dire 1965 musical-comedy romp Girl Happy. As nightclub singer ‘Rusty Wells’, Elvis gets to croon ‘Do the Clam’ and ‘Puppet on a String’ in the picture – sadly not the Sandie Shaw Eurovision song, though, which might have at least been vaguely amusing.

 X2 (2003) and X-Men: Days of Future Past (2014) Disney+ and Amazon Rent/Buy

 What is it with the X-Men and The White House? The mutant superheroes seem to have something of a problem with the building: in X2, brainwashed member Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) attempting to assassinate the president in the Oval Office. In 2014’s Days of Future Past Michael Fassbender’s Magneto uses his powers to rip the place apart and confront a snivelling Richard Nixon. Much like the USS Enterprise in the Star Trek movies, The White House is a target for destruction in virtually every sci-fi/comic book picture in which it appears: 

The Butler (2013) Amazon Rent/Buy 

Lee Daniels’ decades-spanning story of life ‘below stairs’ at the White House is an old fashioned but engaging watch, aided greatly by Forest Whitaker’s touching performance as Cecil Gaines, loosely based on the real-life Maître d'hôtel, Eugene Allen. The various Presidents Gaines serves number Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), John F Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schreiber), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and lastly Ronald Reagan, played by the late Alan Rickman, who really isn’t half bad in the role.

Idiocracy (2006) Amazon Rent/Buy

 It may seem (less than) incredible to viewers after the events of the last week or so, but Mike Judge’s satire postulates the theory that the typical American is getting increasingly more stupid. Hard to believe, I know, especially after witnessing the recent antics of Buffalo-horned ‘QAnon Shaman’ Jake Angeli and his moronic myrmidons in Washington DC. Back to the movie, Average Joe Bauers (Luke Wilson) is an army librarian mistakenly frozen for 500 years in a suspended animation experiment he was ‘volunteered’ for. The US he wakes up to is vastly different – or was when the picture was made in 2006. Ecological concerns have caused those of above average intelligence to have ceased breeding over the period, with the country inherited by anti-intellectual, low-IQ (the ‘Poorly Educated’ whom Trump apparently loves) dunces. Joe’s determinedly average wits make him a near-genius in this scenario and he rises to the apex of government, eventually occupying what’s left of The White House. Fiction or documentary? You decide. 

The Contender (2000) Amazon Prime

 For my money, Rod Lurie’s unfairly neglected The Contender is one of the greatest films about Washington politics yet to be made. The machinations around a Vice Presidential nomination reveal the motivations and scheming of a host of politicos – from Jeff Bridges’ crafty President Jackson Evans to his chief adversary, Gary Oldman’s bile-filled congressman Sheldon Runyon. A labyrinthine plot with more than a few surprises for the first-time viewer. Former President Barack Obama especially liked Bridges’ character, commenting "He was charming and essentially an honourable person. But there was a rogue about him. The way he would order sandwiches - he was good at that."

Right-leaning Oldman apparently wasn’t that happy with the movie’s liberal bent though. The cast is superb, also including Joan Allen (as the VP nominee), Christian Slater, Sam Elliott, William Petersen, Saul Rubinek and Philip Baker Hall. 

Mars Attacks! (1996) Amazon Rent/Buy

 Tim Burton’s wacky alien invasion could have been sharper, but it’s still a fun watch, bolstered by a knockout cast who gamely enter the spirit of the piece, including Wales’ very own Tom Jones. Jack Nicholson takes two roles, including the vaguely Clintonesque President James Dale: Pierce Brosnan scores as a pompous (but romantic) government boffin. The White House features frequently in the picture, including in a scene where Martin Short’s randy press secretary unwittingly gives a Martian infiltrator a tour of the complex. 

My Fellow Americans (1996) Amazon Rent/Buy 

Imagine, if you can, a scenario where former presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama team up to take down a corrupt White House and clear their names from ‘trumped up’ charges. Well, that’s the basic plot of My Fellow Americans; an enjoyable romp, buoyed by the strong performances of James Garner and Jack Lemmon as (respectively) former Democrat and Republican Presidents Matt Douglas and Russell Kramer. Garner’s Prez is a libidinous (but principled in his way) rake – whilst Lemmon’s is a stingy whiner, but who also possesses a moral code. 

The American President (1995), Amazon Prime 

Aaron Sorkin’s liberal wish fulfilment and precursor to The West Wing stars Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd, an idealised version of Bill Clinton (i.e., without the lechery). When the widowed Shepherd begins courting green lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), the right kicks off, spearheaded by Richard Dreyfuss as the odious Republican Senator Bob Rumson. 

Nixon (1995) Amazon Rent/Buy

 I for one was distracted by Anthony Hopkins performance as the disgraced president in this overly long Oliver Stone epic. The actor’s sweaty, crouched take on Tricky Dick resembles a cross between Tolkien’s Gollum and Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, incidentally a role Hopkins himself played back in back in 1982. That being said, there’s enough to keep the viewer absorbed in the supporting performances, including the late Bob Hoskins as J Edgar Hoover.  

Dave (1993) Amazon Rent/Buy 

For once, a Republican (although not spelt out as such) is the good guy, in Ivan Reitman’s sweet comedy where Kevin Kline’s fiscally conservative employment agency boss and POTUS lookalike Dave Kovic, who takes the place of the Head of State Bill Mitchell when he suffers a stroke bedding a (female) White House staffer. The switch is engineered by devious Chief of Staff Bob Alexander, played by Frank Langella, who of course was promoted to playing a former President in Frost/Nixon (2008). Naturally, Kovic turns out to be a much better POTUS than the venal Mitchell. And that’s when the fun starts. 

If your appetite for White House movies isn’t entirely sated, you may also want to check out Vice (2018), LBJ (2017), All the Way (2016) and W (2008). Presidential retreats way from The White House in the movies have included the ‘US Chequers’ - Camp David (Olympus has Fallen, The Path to War), Hyde Park on Hudson (Bill Murray's FDR biopic), Nixon’s Western White House 'La Casa Pacifica' in San Clemente (Frost/Nixon), and of course the Kennedy Compound in Hyannis Port, Massachusetts, which featured in The Senator (Ted Kennedy) and many JFK-themed motion pictures. Not forgetting the Presidential yacht, the USS Sequoia. The ‘Floating White House’ was moored on the Potomac River and used by Presidents from Hoover through Carter, featuring in the 1962 picture Advise & Consent and the aforementioned Contender.