The American President

Friday November 17, 1995

     Leader of the free world or not, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) has to follow the rules like anyone else, and the rules of a romantic comedy like "The American President" insist that he and lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) meet cute if they are to meet at all.
     So the President just happens to tiptoe into a White House meeting right at the point where Wade is laying into him as "the chief executive of Fantasyland." Gosh, is she embarrassed and, gosh again, doesn't the President think she's awfully cute when she gets mad?
     A return to mass-appeal form by director Rob Reiner after the fiasco of "North," "The American President" deals with the pressing question of whether a man can run the country and give flowers to a woman at the same time. As a lightly amusing sentimental fantasy, "President" is genial and entertaining if not notably inspired. But its most interesting aspect turns out to be fantasies of another kind, pipe dreams about the American political system and where it could theoretically be headed.
     Just having Douglas and Bening starring in this fluffy comedy brings a touch of unreality to the proceedings, for both actors have been most impressive in distinctly hardball roles: Douglas most notably in "Wall Street" and Bening in "The Grifters." In "American President," they spend much of their time beaming at each other and glowing a lot, which adds a distinct level of play-acting to the proceedings.
     Not that President Shepherd can't be tough when he needs to be. According to Aaron Sorkin's script, he is a pragmatic, hands-on chief executive who believes in "fighting the fights we can win" and is not averse to wheeling and dealing. Partly because he is a stoic widower raising a 12-year-old daughter, the President's approval ratings are high enough for him to feel confident of getting a crime bill through Congress, albeit one that is not as tough on handguns as top domestic adviser Lewis Rothschild (a sparkling Michael J. Fox) would like.
     The President is also not sure how tough an environmental bill he can get passed, which worries a tree-hugger organization called the Global Defense Council. They're the ones who hire Sydney Wade, Syd to her friends, a powerhouse lobbyist from the great state of Virginia who is charged with changing all that.
     Much of what "The American President" details about the Syd-Andy relationship is visible a good ways down the road, including machinations by the opposition's Sen. Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), a Bob Dole clone who is itching to do some character assassination.
     And though the President keeps insisting to his advisers after the relationship becomes public that "there is no Sydney issue," it should not come as a surprise that the liaison threatens to compromise her professional credibility or that the President's political ambitions will at some point conflict with his personal commitments.
     While all this tends to sound rather serious, "The American President" is in general determinedly comic in tone, helped by a level of solid professionalism that starts with Douglas and Bening, who work hard at their roles though they are not ideally cast. And the supporting White House team, starting with Fox and including Martin Sheen, Anna Deavere Smith, David Paymer and a deft Samantha Mathis, all perform effectively.
     More interesting, though not necessarily more engaging, than the film's pro forma romantic games is "The American President's" political context. The filmmakers spent a good deal of time in the Clinton White House and some of the actors, like Fox, have admitted to basing their characterizations on real-life counterparts, and the entire venture is so intent on conjuring up the spirit of Frank Capra, director of "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," that there is even some dialogue about his work.
     Capra's films on government were often fantasy riffs on how Americans would like their political system to operate, and it is interesting to see this film follow in its footsteps. Here is a White House filled with totally competent, dedicated, even idealistic folks and presided over by a paragon of virtues who is a nice guy and a great parent in addition to being a peerless chief executive. One look at the front page of any daily newspaper shows that today's reality is somewhat different.
     But Reiner and writer Sorkin have gone even further--they've put a distinctly liberal spin on this dream White House. They've created a President who believes in the Democratic Party dream and isn't afraid to speak up about it, who can passionately defend the ACLU and gun control and still have the great majority of the country on his side. Exactly how much of a fantasy is that? Tune in next November to find out.


The American President, 1995. PG-13, for some strong language. Castle Rock Entertainment presents a Wildwood Enterprises Inc. production, released by Columbia Pictures. Director Rob Reiner. Producer Rob Reiner. Executive producers Charles Newirth, Jeffrey Stott. Screenplay Aaron Sorkin. Cinematographer John Seale. Editor Robert Leighton. Costumes Gloria Gresham. Music Marc Shaiman. Production design Lilly Kilvert. Art director John Warnke. Set decorator Karen O'Hara. Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes. Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd. Annette Bening as Sydney Ellen Wade. Martin Sheen as A.J. MacInerney. Michael J. Fox as Lewis Rothschild. Anna Deavere Smith as Robin McCall. Samantha Mathis as Janie Basdin.

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