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Hail to the Chief: As Presidents Day nears, here's a look at 5 film favorites

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    Peter Sellers played President Merkin Muffley in 'Dr. Strangelove.'

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    Emma Thompson and John Travolta starred as Susan and President Jack Stanton in the 1998 film 'Primary Colors.'

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LOS ANGELES -- Every possible kind of United States president has been depicted on screen: corrupt ones and honorable ones, real ones and fictional ones. So with Presidents Day coming Monday, it's as good a chance as any to say hail to the chief. Here's a look at five favorite movie presidents. Feel free to cast your own votes for the ones you like best:


Peter Sellers played President Merkin Muffley in 'Dr. Strangelove.'

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● Henry Fonda in Fail-Safe (1964): Not that it's surprising, but Fonda is everything you'd want in a president. He's decisive but even-tempered, commanding but kind, and he even shows a sense of humor. He is, in short, a good man. And when he has to make the most difficult choices imaginable in the face of nuclear annihilation, he's calm and gracious every step of the way. Sidney Lumet's stripped-down, gripping drama envisions a world on the brink of disaster when machines fail and the humans assigned to run them are filled with Cold-War mistrust. With the help of a young Larry Hagman as his Russian translator, Fonda reasons with the premier in Moscow and reaches a compromise that's devastating -- but not as devastating as it might have been.

● Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964): Same year, same topic, completely different tone. Stanley Kubrick's biting political satire allows Sellers to show off his comic genius and the breadth of his transformative powers in not one but three distinct parts: as the proper British Group Captain Lionel Mandrake, the volatile former Nazi Dr. Strangelove, and President of the United States Merkin Muffley. This last role is actually his most subdued; in a room full of mad characters, Sellers serves as the understandably horrified voice of reason. He's even a little sheepish as he calls to explain to the Russian premier: "Dimitri, we have a little problem …" It's a performance that defies expectations.

● Kevin Kline in Dave (1993): One of Kline's best performances in one of the best films Ivan Reitman ever directed and Gary Ross ever wrote. Like Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, Kline has multiple jobs here: He stars as Dave Kovic, a mild-mannered guy who runs a temp agency. But Dave happens to look exactly like President Bill Mitchell and is secretly called on to impersonate Mitchell when the president suffers a stroke -- while sleeping with one of his aides. Dave makes the most of this challenge, cutting the budget, bringing a new, upbeat tone to the Oval Office and even falling for the first lady, played by a lovely Sigourney Weaver. And Dave offers a perfect balance of sweetness, smarts, and humor.


Emma Thompson and John Travolta starred as Susan and President Jack Stanton in the 1998 film 'Primary Colors.'

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● John Travolta in Primary Colors (1998): This is a bit of a cheat, because for a long time, Travolta is just playing a candidate for president. But he's clearly patterned on Bill Clinton, and Travolta's performance is dead-on. With the combination of Mike Nichols' direction and his longtime collaborator Elaine May's script, of course Primary Colors is going to be sharp and insightful. But Travolta brings the film to life -- and does some of the best work of his career -- as Gov. Jack Stanton. He's charming as the dickens in that smooth, southern way, but he's also flawed and self-destructive, with a weakness for women. He largely remains a mystery, while still managing to inspire hope.

● Josh Brolin in W. (2008): A rather conventional biopic, but Brolin's so good, he almost makes us feel sorry for George W. Bush. Almost. He certainly gets the innate humor within the frequent buffoonery -- and he's got the voice and the demeanor down pat -- but he also seems to recognize the tragedy of this figure, a man who was in way over his head for one of the world's most complicated jobs. Director Oliver Stone offers a surprisingly fair and balanced assessment of our 43rd president: that basically, all he wanted to do was watch baseball and drink beer all day, and instead ended up being chosen as leader of the free world. Twice.

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