11 Presidents That Deserve the Big Screen Treatment

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president collage

The history of America is one of the most interesting tales to ever unfold. I certainly never considered the fact that our 45th President would have had a previous life as a reality TV star. Hollywood baby! Even though most of the men who’ve held the highest office in the land don’t have their own film, almost all of them had interesting lives. That said, for having had 45 different presidents, we mostly see a handful of modern presidents and Abraham Lincoln with own biopic. Which is why I’m presenting you with this fresh list of presidential stories we haven’t heard yet but should. Many of these men have had variations of their stories told in television movies and miniseries, or have had small appearances in films, but most have never had their story centered on. In a world where biopics are a mainstay for awards season and audience favorites, these eleven presidents’ stories are perfect fodder for film.

william g hardingLibrary of Congress / Getty Images

1.Warren G. Harding – 29th President
March 4, 1921- August 2, 1923 (Died In Office)

By the end of this list, you’ll come to realize is that dying in office is never not going to be interesting. That said, meet Warren G. Harding. He was quite the lothario and spent most of his free time banging women who weren’t his wife, Florence Harding. Harding had a child out of wedlock when he was a U.S. Senator from Ohio, about a year before be became president. Warren died in San Francisco’s Palace Hotel from an apparent “heart attack” while Florence read the “Saturday Evening Post” to him. However, his wife did not allow an autopsy–so the official cause death is not actually known. Not only that, but Harding’s widow pushed to have the 29th President embalmed shortly after his death, which isn’t weird except for the fact that he died mysteriously and he was President of the free world. Thanks to his creepy death, and a multitude of affairs, a potential Harding film could be pretty captivating, especially if someone like Mr. Robot’s Michael Cristofer portrayed him.

george washingtonNational Portrait Gallery / Getty Images

2. George Washington – 1st President
April 30, 1789 – March 4, 1797

President Washington is a literal G. Because he wasn’t just the first president, he was one of the founding fathers, and set many of the standards associated with the highest office in the land, and while he’s appeared as a character in many films, the best well-known portrayal of Washington was on the small screen in the TV movie The Crossing. Before he became President, George was Commander-In-Chief of the Continental Army in the Revolutionary War. Washington was a tall, distinguished looking statesman and general who looked regal as hell in a painting. All that, and he doesn’t have his own film. Crazy, right? When you think about it, George Washington not having his own film could be perfectly cast with someone underutilized like Jason Clarke. You know, someone with the sort of gravity necessary remind America what a president is supposed to be like.

zachary taylorEverett Collection / Getty Images

3. Zachary Taylor – 12th President
Dates in Office: March 4, 1849 – July 9, 1850 (DIO)

President Taylor got famous thanks to his rise to major general in the Mexican-American War, making him a national hero. People love war heros. This biopic could be focused mainly on President Taylor’s life prior to becoming president. Because his tenure as Commander-in-Chief was only 16 months. It was cut short thanks to complications of cholera morbus, or acute gastroenteritis which killed him. Jared Leto is young enough looking and decorated enough of an actor to pull off Taylor’s earlier life as a war hero, and saunter into the end of the President’s life.

william henry harrisonNational Portrait Gallery / Getty Images

4. William Henry Harrison – 9th President
Dates In Office: March 4, 1841 – April 4, 1841 (DIO)

William Henry Harrison is most famous for holding the office of president for the shortest length of time. He died 31 days into his tenure from an pneumonia that many speculate was triggered by the lengthy inauguration speech he gave during the dead of winter. However, he was the first president to ever die in office and it lead to a constitutional crisis, which would actually be super interesting to watch unfold on screen. Unfortunately for Richard Gere, who I’d cast as WHH, this biopic would mostly focus on the interesting events Harrison’s death kicked off.

teddy rooseveltGetty Images

5. Teddy Roosevelt – 26th President
Dates In Office: September 14, 1901 – March 4, 1909

Roosevelt has had moments in other films, and Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese are in the works on a biopic for the 26th president, but my take is a bit different. My pitch for a movie about Teddy Roosevelt is a stoner comedy starring Danny McBride. Here me out! The film will focus on the time the macho outdoorsman spent in the Dakota’s, before he became president, and after the simultaneous deaths of his mother and wife. This film will highlight what inspired him to create the National Parks and will also provide a really good DMX cameo for the portion of the film that features his time leading the Rough Riders.

ronald reaganGetty Images

6. Ronald Reagan – 40th President
Dates In Office: January 20, 1981 – January 20, 1989

Nancy Reagan’s very public “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign provides an interesting canvas for my next pitch. A film about Ronald Reagan’s time a family man who was also a parent to children who struggled with substance abuse. Nancy and Ronald’s children, Patti Davis and Ron Jr., both have publically spoken about this time and it would be an interesting juxtaposition on the Reagans very public stance in the War on Drugs. If this is coupled with a backstory on the way the war on drugs ignited the drug industry, it could be as though When A Man Loves A Woman and Narcos had a lovechild. Cast Hugh Jackman in the titular role and let him continue to show the vulnerability and range he did in Logan while tackling these really human issues.

gerald fordGetty Images

7. Gerald Ford – 38th President
Dates In Office: August 9, 1974 – January 20, 1977

Gerald Ford accidentally ended up in office thanks to the complete nightmare that was Richard Nixon. Although Ford has primarily been touted as an SNL punchline, he signed the Helsinki Accords, which lead to a cooling of temperatures associated with the Cold War. This was his big political win, outside of being the president in office while the Vietnam War officially ended. He’s the only person to have served as both vice president and president without being elected to either office. Focus on the inherited stressors of Ford’s presidency and how his public image of being a klutzy goofball was such a cry from the he was doing. Cast Dennis Quaid and call it a day.

james buchananNational Portrait Gallery / Getty Images

8. James Buchanan – 15th President
Dates In Office: March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861

He may have aspired to be a president as great as George Washington, but historians widely consider James Buchanan to be one of the worst presidents in history. He struggled to deal with the onslaught of tension associated with slavery and threats of succession, making his time in the oval office especially interesting. John Lithgow favors Buchanan and would really have a really elegant touch when it comes to portraying Buchanan as a flawed leader who, by doing nothing, lead America into the Civil War.

william mckinleyGetty Images

9. William McKinley – 25th President
Dates In Office: March 4, 1897 – September 14, 1901 (DIO)

Here’s the thing about William McKinley, he dies in office after he is shot. He lives for a few days but ultimately succumbs to infection. He was shot by Leon Czolgosz, a Polish American anarchist who was executed seven weeks after the death of President McKinley. Leon was a weirdo and a loner who never showed any interest in human relationships. This film has to be executed in the perspective of Leon, leading up to the day he executes President McKinley in New York–and until his execution. Cast Adam Driver as the tortured anarchist and Russell Crowe as President McKinley and watch the magic happen.

james garfieldGetty Images

10. James A. Garfield – 20th President
Dates In Office: March 4, 1881 – September 19, 1881 (DIO)

Garfield was only president for 200 days before he passed away from complications from a gunshot wound. He was assassinated by Charles J. Guiteau, a lawyer and writer who felt slighted by Garfield for rejecting his plethora of applications. Garfield isn’t a celebrated president and he only was nominated because delegates chose him as a sort of compromise. Capture Garfield’s life from the moment he ended up nominated until he is shot. Open with him getting shot, and then flashback through his starting with the nomination. Cast Jeff Bridges as President Garfield and John Hawkes as Guiteau and you’ve got a winner.

woodrow wilsonGetty Images

11. Woodrow Wilson – 28th President
March 4, 1913 – March 4, 1921

Woodrow Wilson is regarded as one of the best U.S. presidents by historians even though he had a stroke in office and had to lean on his wife for support.  After the stroke, Wilson secluded himself to try and prevent losing power and influence as President. At this time, his wife, Edith Wilson, started screening all matters that would go in front of the president–by doing this she ran the highest office in the land. A film about this time during Wilson’s presidency that highlights all his wife did once he became ill could be a very interesting look at early feminism and suffragism–which would be pretty popular thanks to today’s political climate. The 28th president does have a biopic, Wilson, but it was made in 1944, so doesn’t it deserve an update? Strap a brunette wig on Michelle Williams to portray Edith and cast James Cromwell as Wilson, and you’ve got yourself a winner.

 | Contributor

Sabrina Cognata is an award-winning writer, producer and storyteller. During a decade long meltdown, she burned her life to the ground and revamped it as often as Madonna. Sabrina has written or produced for HuffPost Live, CBS Radio, TMZ and XO Jane, and she’s currently producing a syndicated news show for FOX television while tirelessly fighting the patriarchy Every. Damn. Day.

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