Last night at dinner, my husband asked me why we celebrate President’s Day. I took a moment to assess if he was asking me to see if I knew, asking because he wanted to answer and impress me with his knowledge, or asking because he legitimately didn’t know. After I ascertained it was the latter, I answered him.
We honored the birthday of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln separately and then decided to split the difference, pick a day in between, and just celebrate all U.S. Presidents.
And then I thought, is that right? Turns out I am right! I’m not sure where I picked up that nugget of knowledge but I guarantee it was inadvertent learning.
Isn’t that what the best entertainment is about? Keeping us entertained and maybe teaching us something along the way, even if it’s unintentional.
For example, do you watch House of Cards? It’s a fictional show that is actually based on the original House of Cards, a 1990 British political television drama serial in four episodes that focused on the era after Margaret Thatcher’s served as Prime Minister.
But I bet you’ve learned a thing or two about U.S. politics while watching it. Some of it might be true, actual fact, while some of it is probably speculation (but you and I both know that’s how DC is probably run).
In honor of President’s Day and in light of the fact that my Facebook feed constantly reminds me how little people know about American politics and the U.S. Government, I thought I’d create a watch list for Netflix.
He was President (or he could have been President)
Searching on President’s Day made it especially apparent how few presidents we really focus on in our edutainment. For example, what was Millard Fillmore known for? How many presidents like to drink alcohol? (A lot, apparently). How many served in the military?
Instead, we’ll have to settle for these bits and pieces. Here are three documentaries with very different looks at former Presidents or Presidential candidates.
How to Win the US Presidency, 2016, TV-PG, 50m, This whimsical look at rough-and-tumble American politics examines the influence of money, religion and even ancient Rome on presidential campaigns.
By the People: The Election of Barack Obama, 2009, TV-PG, 1h 55m, This documentary goes behind the scenes to trace the journey of Barack Obama from his seat in the U.S. Senate to his inauguration as President.
Mitt, 2014, TV-PG, 1h 33m, The real Mitt Romney is revealed in this documentary that goes beyond the sound bites with unprecedented access to his 2012 presidential campaign.
Young Mr. Lincoln, 1939, TV-PG, 1h 39m, This biopic traces Abraham Lincoln’s early law career, his defense of two men unjustly accused of murder, and his budding political consciousness.
The Wheelchair President, 2015, TV-PG, 2 episodes, Examine how President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ailing health and failing marriage impacted the conclusion and aftermath of World War II.
The Day Kennedy Died, 2013, TV-14, 1h 32m, Rare film footage and photographs capture the extraordinary minute-by-minute details surrounding President John F. Kennedy’s assassination.
Examining Three Modern Decades
Nobody loves nostalgia more than me and CNN nailed it with three series focusing on three decades. Even if you’re more interested in the pop culture of our nation than its politics, you’re certain to learn things you never knew about a decade even if you grew up during it.
The Sixties, 2014, TV-PG, 10 episodes, This series highlights the music, politics, technology and upheaval of the 1960s, a decade that altered the social landscape of America forever.
The Seventies, 2015, TV-PG, 8 episodes, This series examines 1970s America, focusing on the major political and historical landmarks of the decade and the cultural response to those events.
The Eighties, 2016, TV-PG, 8 episodes, This nostalgic documentary series relives the 1980s from a variety of angles, exploring its impact on the politics, technology and culture of today.
A Different View of American History
American history changes depending on whose lens it’s being viewed through. If you were a Southerner, a woman, an African-American, you probably each have a different perspective about the events of the past and the way in which our country has evolved (and continues to evolve). That’s what these four selections are all about.
Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States, 2013, TV-PG, 12 episodes, This documentary series offers an alternative take on modern American history, focusing on underreported events that shaped the nation’s character.
Civil War 360, 2013, TV-PG, 3 episodes, This three-part series explores different aspects of the Civil War from the perspective of both sides and the slaves at the heart of the conflict.
Unsung Heroes: The Story of America’s Female Patriots, 2014, NR, 1h 41m, This documentary recounts the history of women patriots fighting for the U.S., with profiles of today’s high-ranking female officers.
For Love of Liberty, 2010, TV-PG, 2 episodes, This miniseries documents the sacrifices and accomplishments of African-American servicemen and women since the earliest days of the republic.
We the People (are totally fascinating)
Part of what makes U.S. history so colorful is the colorful characters that pepper its events. These four shows touch on some of those characters including the good, the bad, and the ugly. You decide which is which.
Hank: Five Years from the Brink, 2013, NR, 1h 26m, This documentary is about controversial former U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson.
J. Edgar, 2011, R, 2h 16m, This biopic profiles J. Edgar Hoover, who pushed the envelope professionally and led a complex personal life over nearly 50 years as head of the FBI.
Patton, 1970, PG, 2h 49m, This epic production follows General George S. Patton as he guides his troops across Africa and Europe, illuminating a man whose life was defined by war.
I Am the Ambassador, 2015, TV-14, 2 seasons, This documentary series follows Rufus Gifford, the U.S. ambassador to Denmark and an advocate for LGBT rights, in his personal and professional life.
Strictly Fictitious History (or is it?)
Admittedly, I haven’t watched one of my favorite shows since Frank Underwood went from Congressman to Vice President but there’s plenty of political dirt to keep me coming back for more.
That’s mostly the theme through these recent politically charged shows that we just can’t seem to get enough of.
House of Cards, 2016, TV-MA, 4 seasons, A ruthless politician will stop at nothing to conquer Washington, D.C., in this Emmy and Golden Globe-winning political drama.
Scandal, 2016, TV-14, 5 seasons, A powerful team of Washington, D.C. lawyers makes scandals disappear while handling government crises and coping with problems of their own.
Madam Secretary, TV-14, 2 seasons, When a highly capable woman becomes secretary of state, she struggles to find balance between the demands of world politics and those of her family.
The West Wing, 2005, TV-14, 7 seasons, This powerful political epic chronicles the triumphs and travails of White House senior staff under the administration of President Josiah Bartlet.
That’s a lot to view right there. I’m not sure if you’ll come out of it feeling any more “in the know” than the rest of us do when it comes to American government, politics, and history. But you’ll at least be entertained which, in a way, describes how this country is really run anyway.