Reel Dad: Hollywood films reflect the ideals of an American president

(L to R) Richard Nixon (played by Frank Langella) greets an audience while David Frost (played by Michael Sheen) looks on in a drama that tells of the electrifying battle between a disgraced president with a legacy to save and a jet-setting television personality with a name to make in "Frost/Nixon," from director Ron Howard.

(L to R) Richard Nixon (played by Frank Langella) greets an audience while David Frost (played by Michael Sheen) looks on in a drama that tells of the electrifying battle between a disgraced president with a legacy to save and a jet-setting television personality with a name to make in “Frost/Nixon,” from director Ron Howard.

Ralph Nelson /

In the wake of yesterday’s inauguration, it was time to take a look at the best cinematic depictions of a president. As a new president of the United States begins to lead, the movies identify what we often look for in the people we follow. Here are seven key qualities and the films that tell their stories.

Savvy: Daniel Day-Lewis as Abraham Lincoln in Lincoln

As students, we explore many strengths our 16th president brought to the job, including a sense of fairness, a commitment to goodness and the determination to unite. But most history classes may not cover how savvy a politician Lincoln could be. This drama, from director Steven Spielberg, focuses on the President’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery. As strong as his commitment to do the right thing, this fascinating portrayal reveals how politically astute Lincoln could be.

Persistent: William Daniels as John Adams in 1776

Long before becoming the nation’s second president, John Adams led the battle to pass the Declaration of Independence at the Second Continental Congress. Between and during the songs and dances, this adaptation of the Broadway musical paints a portrait of a determined patriot who is unwilling to let anyone’s agenda, hidden or revealed, get in the way of the necessary steps to free America. Written by Sherman Edwards, a history teacher, the musical helps us imagine how human this persistent forefather could be.

Committed: Anthony Hopkins as John Quincy Adams in Amistad

Movies about presidents rarely explore the years after they leave office. What’s remarkable about our sixth president is how, years after his years in power, he was elected to serve nine terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. In Steven Spielberg’s drama about the abduction of a ship carrying slaves in 1839, Adams emerges from the musty pages of history to reveal a strong sense of duty and honor as he fights for freedom in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. As portrayed by Hopkins, this leader reminds us how true commitment never ends.

Bold: Brian Keith as Theodore Roosevelt in The Wind and the Lion

As America entered the 20th century, the youngest man to be inaugurated president brought a fresh vitality to the office. During the election of 1904, Roosevelt seized upon the kidnapping of an American businessman as just the type of international incident to capture voters’ imaginations. When he discovered that headlines can be easier to generate than peaceful agreements, however, he demonstrated just how bold a leader may often need to be. And, no surprise, the voters responded.

Resilient: Ralph Bellamy as Franklin D. Roosevelt in Sunrise at Campobello

Years before Franklin D. Roosevelt led America through the Great Depression and World War II, he was a young man tragically struck with, and paralyzed by, polio. This moving film - based on the Broadway play by Dore Schary - explores the intense personal struggle the ambitious Roosevelt faced as he tried to balance his aspirations for the future with the grim realities of the present. Ralph Bellamy recreated his stage performance while Greer Garson was Oscar nominated for her interpretation of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Brave: Bruce Greenwood as John F. Kennedy in Thirteen Days

In the years since the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963, movies have been more interested in how he died than in what he accomplished. For those of us old enough to remember, the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 was a frightening two weeks when the world faced the immediate possibility of nuclear war. How Kennedy and his brother Robert carefully navigated the nation through this moment is effectively captured in a drama that dares to reveal what it actually takes to be a brave leader.

Realistic: Frank Langella as Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon

Few U.S. presidents create a narrative as controversial as our only leader to resign from office. After leaving Washington in 1974, the disgraced Nixon negotiated a lucrative television contract for a series of interviews with British personality David Frost. The former President thought the exposure could fast forward his professional rehabilitation; the talk show host hoped the assignment would strengthen his capability. As both men learn in Ron Howard’s adaptation of Peter Morgan’s play, reputation can be challenging to repair.