American Crime Story: Impeachment, the latest installment in Ryan Murphy’s wildly popular series about 1990s media circuses, answers a question that’s dogged the moviegoing public for more than a decade: Whatever happened to Clive Owen?
Good news: The Inside Man star has traded his coveralls and giant revolver for a baggy fin de siècle suit and a creaky Arkansas drawl as he portrays Bill Clinton, the 42nd president of the United States. After well-received and award-winning explorations of the O.J. Simpson trial and the murder of designer Gianni Versace, Murphy is turning his lens to Clinton’s impeachment, which came to define his presidency and shaped the political and media culture we’ve inhabited in the two and a half decades since.
Clinton came to prominence and power in the age of cable news and the early days of the internet, and either despite or because of that cultural saturation, he hasn’t been depicted in film as frequently as certain other presidents. For example: Abraham Lincoln has hunted vampires; he’s won Daniel Day-Lewis an Oscar in an extremely expensive episode of The West Wing; and he’s pumped iron in the music video for Electric Six’s “Gay Bar.” Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, has been the subject of numerous parodies, and not one but two feature films about the inner machinations of his White House. And you can’t swing a hidden recording device without hitting a fictional Richard Nixon.
But Clinton, who for all his personal failings presided over a relatively peaceful period of American history, has inspired relatively little examination. Owen’s turn as America’s most controversial saxophonist isn’t even the primary focus of this season of ACS.
Perhaps in years to come, a historical reevaluation of the Clinton presidency will inspire a new wave of Clintonalia. But as the field is thin at the moment, we’ve decided to take this opportunity to rank a selection of fictional Bill Clintons—and thinly veiled crypto-Clintons—from TV and film history. Their order is determined not only by the quality of the performance, but also by the trenchancy of what they have to say about the man and his place in history.
6. Ciaran Hinds as Bud Hammond in Political Animals
Political Animals was the USA Network’s stab at prestige TV in the age of Burn Notice. Created by the indefatigable Greg Berlanti, it starred Sigourney Weaver at the head of an all-star cast that included Carla Gugino, James Wolk, Ellen Burstyn, and a pre–Captain America Sebastian Stan. It also had a phenomenal opening title sequence set to the Kills’ “Future Starts Slow.”
The series generated tepid reviews and ended on a cliffhanger after six episodes, leaving basically no cultural footprint. But I loved this show—if it had run for 600 episodes, I would’ve watched them all.
Weaver played Elaine Barrish, a former first lady who became a successful politician in her own right. After divorcing her loutish, philandering husband, Barrish runs for president herself, finishing second in the Democratic primary and accepting a role as secretary of state in her former political rival’s cabinet.
Hillary Clinton wishcasting doesn’t get much more transparent than this, and any crypto-Hillary needs a crypto-Bubba. Into the breach stepped Hinds, the venerable Irish actor familiar to anyone who’s seen Game of Thrones, Munich, or Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. He’s in everything and is good in almost everything. But Political Animals was not his finest work.
The show was never really sure what to do with Bill, and Hinds was never really sure what to do with his putative North Carolina accent, which sounded like Foghorn Leghorn making fun of Shelby Foote while operating a coffee grinder. It’s a ludicrous performance on a show I miss desperately.
5. Dennis Quaid in The Special Relationship
The Special Relationship is the final installment of a film trilogy written by Peter Morgan (who went on to create The Crown) and starring Michael Sheen as Tony Blair. And what a weird installment it is. At no point during the film was I not acutely aware I was watching Dennis Quaid—I mean, that smile—but the performance is forgettable enough that I also Mandela Effected myself into believing Noah Emmerich played Clinton.
Clinton is portrayed as Blair’s mentor, sort of a neoliberal fairy godmother. There’s a lot of talk about loyalty and principles, but across 93 minutes of film, Morgan, Sheen, and Quaid can’t quite articulate what those principles are. There’s repeated reference to a global “center-left progressive” movement—like a Comintern for NIMBYs—but the core of the film is the complicated bromance between the two leaders. That would be a pointed critique of Third Way centrism if it were intentional, but the whole film is so matter-of-fact and formless that I’m not sure what, if anything, was done on purpose.
4. Proto-deepfake Bill Clinton as himself in Contact
In 1997, Robert Zemeckis made a movie about aliens sending signals to Earth and the fallout that ensues in the race for first contact. Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey talk about God, Jake Busey wears a wig and blows up Tom Skerritt, John Hurt shaves his head and goes to space.
The middle third of Contact, though, concerns the collision between the pure pursuit of scientific knowledge and the political interests that dictate scientific application. The audience meets several senior White House officials and briefly the president himself. But rather than cast a William Devane type—or literally William Devane—to play a fictional president for three minutes of screen time, Zemeckis spliced together archival footage of the actual president to weave Clinton into the story.
The Clinton we see in Contact is pretty anodyne, and all the juicy political decisions get made at the special adviser level. But the depiction was controversial at the time because Zemeckis didn’t tell the White House he was doing it until after filming had wrapped up. Zemeckis argued that he’d spliced three former presidents into Forrest Gump and nobody had cared; but the parallel suffers from the contrast between a sitting president and three presidents who were not only out of office, but no longer alive by the time Forrest Gump hit theaters.
The danger, according to critics and government officials, was that putting Clinton in the movie would blur the line between fiction and reality. They argued it could lead the way to special effects–related trickery in political misinformation campaigns.
Now, with 24 years of hindsight … those critics have essentially been vindicated. Maybe Contact didn’t have anything trenchant to say about Clinton himself, but the minor backlash it inspired turned out to be quite prescient.
3. Darrell Hammond on Saturday Night Live
In 1994, Hammond inherited the wavy white wig from Phil Hartman, and he was so well-received that he garnered an invite to the 1997 White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where he performed a double act with the genuine article.
It’s a funny impression, but by the time Hammond got into full swing, Clinton’s administration was defined by its scandals. Not just his impeachment for perjury and obstruction of justice, and the raft of sexual harassment and assault accounts, but Whitewater and campaign finance controversies as well. And while scandal is the most fertile ground for parody, it’s also an easy pitch to hit—particularly when Clinton gave Hammond and the SNL writers so many chances to get game reps.
2. Phil Hartman on Saturday Night Live
Hartman took center stage in what’s probably the most famous SNL sketch about Clinton: the McDonald’s jogging bit.
Jokes about Clinton’s weight—like so many things about comedy in the early ’90s—didn’t age well. But the juxtaposition of Clinton’s workout routine with his affinity for fast food was fodder for actual political discourse at the time. (Which, like, did people just not have any problems in 1992? How have we gone so wrong since then?)
Hartman over Hammond is a close decision, one informed largely by my own preference for Hartman’s subtle deadpan impression over Hammond’s broader, more cartoonish take on the character. But the Hartman sketches, including the McDonald’s one, also comment on Clinton as a policymaker—specifically, how his encyclopedic knowledge of the issues and coterie of policy wonks gave rise to inscrutable, byzantine programs that tried to please everyone.
So when Hartman-as-Clinton expounds on a health care plan that covers fumblitis but not butterfingers, it’s funny to imagine the president of the United States saying those words. “Lobster Boy, I feel your pain. You are covered,” gets a laugh in any era. But it’s also easy to see the real Clinton White House agonizing over making that distinction.
1. John Travolta as Jack Stanton in Primary Colors
Primary Colors is based on a novel written by an anonymous author who was later revealed to be political reporter Joe Klein. The book is a names-changed-to-protect-the-innocent narrative of the 1992 Democratic primary, which hews so closely to real-life figures that both the book and film feature a character who’s obviously supposed to be future (now former) New York governor Andrew Cuomo.
A revisionist history of the Clinton presidency not only adds more than two decades’ worth of context on the political fallout of his administration, but reflects changing attitudes about the seriousness of workplace misconduct. Those attitudes inform American Crime Story, as we’re now 20-odd years removed from the events that inspired it. But Primary Colors reckoned with the totality of Clinton while the man himself was still in office.
The protagonist is not Jack Stanton, an affable Blue Dog governor who’s basically a clone of Clinton, but Henry Burton, a senior campaign adviser played by Adrian Lester, who really should’ve been in more stuff in the past 25 years. The movie isn’t about winning the primary. It’s about how Burton and another idealistic campaign operative, Libby Holden (Kathy Bates, who stages her own private dunk contest on the rest of the cast), try to reconcile their own idealistic and goal-oriented political beliefs with the growing realization that their chosen candidate is a bad person.
It’s not easy to create and embody a character who’s both obviously a scumbag and also so charismatic that everyone likes him anyway. But Travolta pulls it off, and operates as the sleazy center of gravity in a movie that has more to say about Clinton than any other film to date. This is the gold standard, and it won’t be beaten anytime soon.