9 Favorite Presidential Film Scores

For all our real-time fascination with the Presidency, audiences usually show very little interest in cinematic portrayals of the Commander in Chief. Perhaps because we have either lived through the period and don’t want to watch it all play out again onscreen, or maybe the era is so far removed that we just don’t care. Whatever the reason(s), these film and TV portraits provide meaty roles for actors and dramatic stories composers can sink their musical chops into. And by ignoring these films, audiences miss out on some presidential film scores.

For this month’s “9 on the 9th,” we visit the Oval Office—real and fictional. With Decision 2012 thankfully behind us, our Facebook feeds once again populated with pictures of paella and puppies, and in anticipation of seeing how John Williams’s LINCOLN score works in context of the film (more on that next week), let’s take a look a nine presidential film scores that are worthy of election in any year.

Air Force One Soundtrack

9. DAVE (1993)

More than once over the course of my lifetime, it seems like the Oval Office has been inhabited by an impostor. If only they could have been as charismatic as Kevin Kline. This charming romantic comedy features one of James Newton Howard’s most delightful scores. Howard gives the music a light touch that keeps the patriotism in check and the spirits buoyant.

8. AIR FORCE ONE (1997)

With the President (Harrison Ford) in distress, only the rah-rah patriotism of Jerry Goldsmith can save him. With a muscular, memorable main theme and typically exciting action sequences, the score is pure Goldsmith. Given that Goldsmith was a replacement for Randy Newman, whose music was deemed too dark for the film, it’s perhaps not surprising that the music bears the hallmarks of earlier Goldsmith scores. But that shouldn’t detract from the typically high level of craftsmanship on display.


Though President Lincoln will be forever immortalized in the cinematic stoicism of Raymond Massey, the homespun, pre-Presidential visage will always be personified by Henry Fonda’s transparent portrayal. John Ford’s quiet look at Lincoln’s early days as a frontier lawyer gets an equally subdued Alfred Newman score. The memorable themes stack up like piles of chopped wood and Newman brings his typical unsentimental outlook to bear on this simple portrayal of the man before the myth.

The Ides of March Soundtrack

6. NIXON (1995)

Oliver Stone’s flashy direction nearly swamps Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen’s superb performances in this Shakespearean tale of power and corruption. Underneath the unnecessary cinematography and editing tricks lie John Williams’s dark, brooding score. This is music that practically reeks of obsession and power. A perfect companion piece to Williams’s work on JFK and the musical denouement of ambition gone unchecked.


George Clooney’s taut thriller of a presidential primary shows the road to the White House paved with lies and deceit. (Sound familiar?) Alexandre Desplat’s music provides the sleazy undercurrent churning beneath the toothy grins and handshakes. The trumpet fanfares are empty and hollow, while the main theme turns fife and drum patriotism on its syncopated ear.


Greer Garson’s buck-toothed Eleanor may be a bit much for today’s audiences but Ralph Bellamy simply is FDR in this adaptation of Dore Schary’s Tony Award-winning drama. The moving story of Roosevelt’s bout with polio at age 40 still retains its punch thanks to its two central performances and Franz Waxman’s music. With its powerful main theme, the score conveys Roosevelt’s bravery and the idyllic New England life at the Campobello summer home. The brief suite that was recorded years ago gives a brief summation of the power of Waxman’s music.

All the President's Men Soundtrack


Writer Aaron Sorkin (THE WEST WING) certainly knows his way around American politics. As Michael Douglas’s widowed President falls in love with Annette Bening’s lobbyist, Sorkin presents a political arena that has much to say about society’s ridiculous obsession with our elected officials’ private lives, while director Rob Reiner keeps it light and breezy, wrapping things up in a rah-rah Hollywood ending that we wish could happen in real life. Marc Shaiman’s marvelous score combines romance and an unsentimental aura of belief in our political system. With a memorable main theme and a thrilling French horn countermelody, Shaiman scores a political world we can only dream of.


Richard Nixon only appears in archival news footage but his scowling visage hovers over every frame of this stunning political thriller. David Shire’s short, subtle score is judiciously spotted and tightly orchestrated. French horns call out in muted, failed patriotism while the piano and harp create a gurgling undercurrent of dissent. Shire gives musical voice to the pervasive aura of suspicion and our imploding political culture.

1. JFK (1991)

Whether or not you agree with Oliver Stone’s conspiracy theory, JFK is a masterful piece of filmmaking. And though the album isn’t perhaps the most cohesive listen from a score standpoint, John Williams musically captures Stone’s many dramatic moods. From the horrific events surrounding the motorcade to the pulsations underscoring Jim Garrison’s (Kevin Costner) obsession, Williams weaves together a musical tapestry of suspicion at the demise of Camelot, overlaid with a memorable main theme of lost innocence.

What are some of your favorite Presidential scores?

  1. This is a great list, and I can find no other scores to add. My favorites include:

    –Air Force One
    –Ides of March
    –The American President

    I am sure that there are others that will be added by others to your list, but your list says it all.

  2. The Waxman; Newman pieces are so sublime yet so powerful… Understated explosion !!! Happy 9 on the 9th is back.. My favorite part of the website.. Thanks

  3. My absolute favourite is Marc Shaiman’s “The American President”. The title theme stands out as a true clarion call for what the Oval Office should be. I’m also mindful of the main theme that Williams composed for “JFK”- it seems full of pride, lost hope and future ambition- not unlike a Presidential campaign.

  4. I expect we’ll have another one to add to the list with the imminent release of Spielberg’s next biggie, LINCOLN. I’ll be on the lookout for your assessment of the Williams’ score.

  5. I expect we’ll have another one for the list with the imminent release of Spielberg’s biggie, LINCOLN. I’ll be on the lookout for your assessment of the Williams’ score.

  6. Thanks for adding The American President score to this list. It’s one of my all-time favorite scores. That Main Theme is amazing — gives me chills every time I hear it. Also love the Air Force One score. As for James Newton Howard’s “Dave” score: I couldn’t agree more. I think that man is a genius. I love just about everything he’s written (The Village is one of my favorites. Man, is that a gorgeous score.). By the way, have you done a 9 on the 9th of the best Western film scores yet? I would like to nominate Bruce Broughton’s “Tombstone” score. Now “that” is genius! It reminds me a bit of Copland. It’s like listening to a symphonic poem or a western ballet with all its unique and diverse themes — something pretty much unheard of among today’s composers who have a tendency to repeat the same theme over and over and over again — with slightly different variations. Tombstone’s score has it all — diversity, drama, romance, etc. Can’t believe it didn’t get nominated for an Oscar. I think it’s better than his Oscar-nominated Silverado score.

    1. Silverado was a shocking Oscar nomination since the movie didn’t do too well. Had TOMBSTONE not been released in the holiday glut of Oscar bait, which seems to automatically mean “Take this movie seriously” (which they couldn’t seem to do with that one), it might have stood a better chance.

  7. Presidental Movie Score- Don’t forget “Seven Days in May” music Jerry Goldsmith adapted to the screen by Rod Serling and directed by John Frankenheimer.

    1. I believe one score that should be noted is David Amram’s contribution to John Frankenheimer’s Cold War satire The Manchurian Candidate. His stirring title music with a striking trumpet solo denotes a nostalgia for America’s past and the melancholy of the tortured title character Raymond Shaw.

  8. Not sure if it counts, but I really like the Score for Netflix’s House of Cards.

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