Shooting the president: The White House hits our screens

Next year, the White House hits cinemas in movies Lincoln and The Butler. Will they rate in the POTUS film pantheon, asks Tim Walker

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The Independent Culture

The World's Greatest Actor™ is about to play History's Greatest US President™. The first trailer for Steven Spielberg's historical epic, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis as the 16th and most celebrated holder of that office, was released online last week. It's the second screen portrayal of Lincoln this year, following the marginally less factual Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, starring Benjamin Walker.

It comes days after a picture emerged from the set of The Butler, of Alan Rickman and Jane Fonda as an uncannily accurate Ronald and Nancy Reagan. Director Lee Daniels' forthcoming film stars Forest Whitaker as White House butler Cecil Gaines, based on the real Eugene Allen, who served under eight presidents, including Dwight D Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Richard Nixon (John Cusack) and Lyndon Johnson (Liev Schreiber).

The US President, real and fictional, is the most commonly recurring office in cinema on film. Lincoln has been portrayed many times, in films as diverse as the Henry Fonda-starring Young Mr Lincoln (1939) and Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989). Perhaps the least-popular of presidents is nonetheless one of the most revisited, from Frost/Nixon (2008) to Dick (1999), in which Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams "wander away from a White House tour and meet President Nixon".

Anthony Hopkins portrayed him in Oliver Stone's Nixon (1995), and John Quincy Adams, the sixth president, in Spielberg's Amistad (1997) – which also featured Nigel Hawthorne as eighth president Martin Van Buren.

Stone, meanwhile, filmed two more presidents in W. (2008): George W Bush (Josh Brolin), and his father George H W (James Cromwell). The director's JFK was set after the 35th president's assassination, but Kennedy has been embodied admirably by the likes of Bruce Greenwood (Thirteen Days) and Greg Kinnear (mini-series The Kennedys). Franklin D Roosevelt also boasts the performances of two fine actors: Jon Voight in the otherwise unfortunate Pearl Harbor (2001), and Bill Murray in the forthcoming Hyde Park on Hudson. Seventh president Andrew Jackson, meanwhile, has been portrayed twice by the same actor: Charlton Heston.

Some real presidents are enlisted for fictional purposes, such as Ulysses S Grant (Kevin Kline) in Wild Wild West (1999) and Theodore Roosevelt (Robin Williams) in Night at the Museum (2006). Others are fictionalised in order to more freely portray the reality, such as Jack Stanton (John Travolta) in Primary Colors (1998): a thinly veiled Clinton. And the power of the wholly fictional president should not be underestimated.

The likes of Morgan Freeman's President Beck (Deep Impact) and Dennis Haysbert's President Palmer (24) are said to have prepared Americans for the idea of a black president before the rise of Barack Obama, while President Bartlett of The West Wing kept Democrats company through the Bush years.

Special mention should go, too, to Bill Pullman's President Thomas J Whitmore, who not only saved the world in Independence Day (1996), but also made a US box-office haul of $306m.

The west wing's box-office winners

A straw poll by The Independent of all the films about US presidents (that we could remember) was used to compile this list of their US box office performance. Here are the top 10 and their takings ($m):

1. Theodore Roosevelt 250.9 Night at the Museum

2. Franklin D Roosevelt 198.5 Pearl Harbor

3. Ulysses S Grant 113.8 Wild Wild West

4. George Washington 113.3 The Patriot

5. John Quincy Adams 44.2 Amistad

6. Abraham Lincoln 37.5 Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

7. John F Kennedy 34.6 Thirteen Days

8. Richard Nixon 32.2 Frost/Nixon 18.6 + Nixon 13.6)

9. George W. Bush 25.5 W.

10. Thomas Jefferson 2.5 Jefferson in Paris