What to Watch: 11 Feature and Short Films Examining American Presidents and Presidential Politics

Black woman wearing eyeglasses and a print dressy jacket smiles, with both arms raised and fingers making the victory sign, in front of campaign posters.

“Chisholm ’72 — Unbought & Unbossed” tells the story of Shirley Chisholm, who ran for the office of president in 1972 as a “candidate for the people.” The documentary screened at the 2004 Sundance Film Festival.

By Vanessa Zimmer

The United States has a long and rich history of electing men (and hopefully before too long, women!) to the highest office in the land. Not to say it’s never messy. But it’s democracy, and we haven’t found anything better.

So, as Presidents Day approaches, let’s give some thought to our presidents and the political process. Might we suggest a presidential-themed movie night over this long weekend? The Sundance Institute has supported and screened a surprising and diverse array of fictional and documentary films over the years about the people and politics of the American presidency.

We’ve had stories about presidential hopefuls, despairing (and downright desperate) presidents, Russian meddling in the election process, and even a time-travel television miniseries on thwarting the assassination of our 35th president.

 To top off our list, we end with an Oscar-nominated short on the feisty and strong-willed Martha Mitchell, and what she had to say about Richard Nixon

White woman with bouffant hair and print dress, looking off-camera as if being questioned or interviewed
The short film "The Martha Mitchell Effect" is nominated for a Best Short Documentary Oscar in the 2023 ceremony. The film screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.

Secret Honor (1985 Sundance Film Festival) — Phillip Baker Hall rants, raves, and rambles as the just-resigned President Richard Nixon in this one-man fictionalized film directed by Robert Altman — and adapted from a play by Donald Freed and Arnold Stone. “He slurs out a string of weird and barely fictionalized revelations: Kissinger was on the payroll of the Shah of Iran, Marilyn Monroe really was murdered by the CIA, his hatred of the Eastern establishment, envy of JFK’s hair, and that Watergate was staged to conceal even greater, more heinous crimes,” according to the Festival Film Guide. Available to rent on Amazon Prime.

Thunder in Guyana (1998 Sundance Documentary Film Grant) — Turns out, an American woman has already been president — elected president of Guyana in 1997. This Sundance Institute–supported documentary tells the story of Janet Rosenberg Jagan, the first American-born woman to lead a country. Director Suzanne Wasserman wrote on IMDb.com: “My film tells the story of this extraordinary woman and her adopted homeland by interweaving the threads of my family’s history, Janet’s incredible life story and the complex history of the little-understood country of Guyana.”

Chisholm ’72 — Unbought & Unbossed (2004 Sundance Film Festival) — Congressman Shirley Chisolm, of Brooklyn, mounted a confident campaign as a “candidate for the people” for the office of U.S. president back in 1972, just eight years following the Civil Rights Act. “But here was eloquent, composed, audacious Shirley Chisholm — not only the first Black woman in Congress, but the first woman to run for the nation’s highest office — demanding that the body politic actually represent all the American people,” wrote programmer Caroline Libresco in the Festival Film Guide. Available on Amazon Prime and Vudu.

Why We Fight (2005 Sundance Film Festival) — Winner of the Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. documentary category, Eugene Jarecki’s film expounds on President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s warning when he left office: The military industrial complex is flourishing — and still growing — and it won’t stop until a peace-loving people take steps to divorce the enmeshment of politics, corporations, and the Defense Department. “He may have been the ultimate icon of 1950s conformity and postwar complacency, but Dwight D. Eisenhower was an iconoclast, visionary, and the Cassandra of the New World Order,” wrote Diane Weyerman in the Festival Film Guide. Available to rent on Amazon Prime. 

The Barber of Birmingham: Foot Soldier of the Civil Rights Movement (2011 Sundance Film Festival) — This 25-minute film is about James Armstrong, a Black barber in Birmingham, Alabama, and a civil rights activist for 40 years. Armstrong lives to see the election of the first Black president of the United States. This film was nominated for a Best Documentary Short Oscar. Available on Kanopy.

Mitt (2014 Sundance Film Festival) — Former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney unsuccessfully ran for president in 2008 and 2012, but this film focuses less on his politics and platform than on his interaction with his family. Sen. John McCain defeated him for the Republican nomination in 2008, but Romney won the nod in 2012. Still, he was reluctant to put his family through the rigors of a campaign. “Moving beyond politics, Mitt elegantly reveals the human and often-hidden side of a public figure,” wrote Lisa Viola in the Festival Film Guide. Available on Netflix.

The Better Angels (2014 Sundance Film Festival) —The setting is 1817 Indiana, where a young Abraham Lincoln is growing up in the harsh new wilderness. “Spanning three years of the future president’s childhood, The Better Angels explores his family, the hardships that shaped him, the tragedy that marked him forever, and the two women who guided him to immortality,” wrote Mike Plante in the Festival Film Guide. The film, shown in the New Frontier section, is shot in black and white.

11.22.63 (2016 Sundance Film Festival) — High school teacher Jake Epping (James Franco) has the opportunity to go back in time and alter the course of history — by preventing the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The two-hour pilot of a nine-hour television series, based on the novel by Stephen King, premiered at the Festival. The tagline on the series? “When you fight the past, the past fights back.” Available on Hulu.

TRUMPED: Inside the Greatest Political Upset of All Time (2017 Sundance Film Festival) — Directors Ted Bourne, Mary Robertson, and Banks Tarver follow Donald Trump through the entire 2016 campaign season, from the primaries to the debates, on his path to the top office in the country. “Though these events are freshly ingrained in our collective consciousness, the profound effect of watching them through the prism of an accelerated reality casts new light on the state of the Union while harnessing the power of cinema to expand our perception of the election,” wrote John Cooper in the Festival Film Guide. Available on Showtime.

Our New President (2018 Sundance Film Festival) — This documentary asserts that Russian media distorts American politics in an attempt to influence public opinion. “[A]cclaimed filmmaker Maxim Pozdorovkin assembles a fever dream of Russian propaganda aimed at both Clinton and Trump [during the 2016 election] from YouTube, RT, and other media platforms,” according to the Festival Film Guide. “The divisive stories peddled by these journalists, handpicked by Putin, range from sinister to absurd, but they all point to a coordinated effort to alter public opinion at home and abroad.” The film won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Editing. Available on Tubi.

The Martha Mitchell Effect (2022 Sundance Film Festival) — Nominated this year for a Best Documentary Short Oscar, this 40-minute film is described in the Festival Film Guide: “She was once as famous as Jackie O — and then she tried to take down a President. Martha Mitchell was the unlikeliest of whistleblowers: a Republican wife who was discredited by Nixon to keep her quiet. Until now.” Available on Netflix. 

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