During the month of February, most teachers look forward to President’s Day because it’s a day off on the academic calendar! However, that doesn’t mean you can’t tie in some sort of academic content in reference to that specific day leading up to it. Social Studies lessons and reading biographies are one thing, but there’s a strong catalog of movies out there that are accurate in their retelling of the United States’ leading men. Showing movies about U.S. Presidents to your students and seeking comprehension along the way (or after) provides an alternate way of learning for those who may need it, and not only that, but what student doesn’t like to watch movies?
In this article, the movies chosen will be labeled with a specific classroom age, and if there is anything that could be deemed inappropriate. Make sure you just are granted permission to show any of these to your class. Cover those bases!
Starting off with the most obvious choice, Lincoln is a fitting viewing for President’s Day, as not only is he one of the most memorable leaders of our country, but the holiday used to be referred to as “Washington – Lincoln Day.” Moving on, Lincoln is directed by the great Steven Spielberg, and stars the now retired Daniel Day-Lewis as the titular president. The movie tells about the ratifying of the 13th Amendment, a massively important historical moment. The film is a bit long (nearly 3 hours) so you may want to pick and choose scenes to present to students if that’s a better option.
Warm Springs is a TV movie starring Kenneth Branagh, an actor who actually has a base in directing and starring in films about Shakespeare’s work. In the movie he plays President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who became President during the 1930’s. During the course of the film, he is diagnosed with polio and he goes to a resort in Warm Springs for become healthier. His experiences there are not forgotten, and he takes what he has learned and adapts it to his presidency nearly 10 years later. This film is not only is a good choice to show to students due to Roosevelt’s presence; it also deals with The Great Depression, another cornerstone of American History.
Another TV movie, Truman stars Gary Sinise (Lieutenant Dan from Forrest Gump) as the man who took over the White House after Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away. That being said, this movie serves as a great companion piece to Warm Springs, as it takes place right after. Much like Lincoln and Warm Springs, Truman focuses on the president and a bigger picture at large-in this film, it’s the atomic bomb. This movie has earned many awards, so it’s a must, especially for accuracy.
Actually a 7 part miniseries, John Adams stars Paul Giamatti as the man the miniseries follows the most during the course of the Revolutionary War in the late 1700’s. The series showcases Adams’ involvement in not only getting George Washington to lead the continental army, but also his role as Vice President and proper President, along with both his success and failings during the rise of America’s freedom. There is brief nudity in this mini-series, so please be warned.
Lee Daniel’s The Butler
Not focusing on one actual president but several, Lee Daniel’s The Butler deals with some of the most important events of American History all in a two hour plus film. Butler Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) attends to presidents for over three decades, among those being Dwight D. Eisenhower (Robin Williams), Richard Nixon (John Cusack), John F. Kennedy (James Marsden), Lyndon B. Johnson (Liev Schrieber), and Ronald Reagan (Alan Rickman). This all-star cast will definitely interest your classroom full of students, a lot of them probably being familiar faces. This film is definitely recommended, especially for all the historical moments that happen within the context of the movie.
Based on a play of the same name, this movie reunites the stage actors Frank Langella (Nixon) and Michal Sheen (Frost) as Frost interviews Nixon on his talk show post The Watergate Scandal, and wants a confession out of him. The movie details the process of getting the interview to even happen in the first place, and the aftermath of it all. While the “true story” aspect of this film is not 100%, the underlying point of Nixon’s major flaw as President is on full record here, and serves as a strong viewing for students who knew nothing of the incident.
-Logan J. Fowler would like to thank Matthew Hedge for his help in movie research. Matthew is a fellow teacher who educates students about government and politics in New York City.