Monday 1 August 2011

The American President (1995)


In 1992, there was a film called A Few Good Men. Written by Aaron Sorkin, first as a play and then a screenplay, and directed by Rob Reiner, the film was a huge hit. It was thrilling, intelligent, dramatic and carried a satisfying weight of political discourse and idealistic consideration. It also garnered four Oscar nominations, one of which was for Jack Nicholson thundering performance. A few years later, after Reiner had a career stumble thanks to an almighty disaster with North, he hooked up again with Sorkin for his next politically centred script. This time, it was a romantic comedy about the US President’s attempts to win over a girl he likes… sort of a When President Harry Met Sally.

Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a widower raising a young daughter. He’s also President of the United States. Whilst working out a new environmental bill, he meets Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), a paid political activist working for an environmental lobby group. He instantly takes a liking to her and the pair start dating. However, with not long to go before the next election, this new relationship leads his prime political opponent, Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), to launch an attack on the President’s character.

When The American President came out in 1995, it was pretty much free of anything to which it could be readily compared, outside of classic Capra movies or director Reiner’s back catalogue. However, by today’s standards of comparison, there is one thing that casts an almighty shadow over The American President. It’s another one of Aaron Sorkin’s creations… The West Wing. I’m a huge fan of The West Wing, which still remains one of the most intelligent, dramatic and funny television shows ever. That both properties are Sorkin products set in the White House isn’t where the similarities end. The American President is full of points that crop up in The West Wing, clear indicators of a future project being tested. For example, at one point, President Shepherd makes the point that he studied under a Nobel prize-winning economist. In The West Wing, President Bartlet is a Nobel prize-winning economist. That’s just one example of many. And the cast is strewn with actors who would go on to hold major roles in The West Wing. Martin Sheen, Anna Deavere Smith, Nina Siemaszko, Beau Billingslea, Joshua Malina, Ralph Meyering Jr., Thom Barry… there’s likely others, all of whom serve as regular reminders of a product that surpasses this one. Now, it certainly isn’t fair to this film to compare it to a product that wouldn’t exist until four years after it was released. Nevertheless, there’s no escaping that those familiar with the TV show will find this film slightly lacking. It’s a shame, because it’s a very good film.

Sorkin’s script is solid, and contains all of his trademark smart dialogue, political savvy, and the equal balance of idealism and realism that is something of a trademark of a Sorkin product. Now, all of that makes it seem like this is a far more political picture than it really is. Fittingly enough, it’s the tentative relationship between Shepherd and Wade that provide the simple heart for the piece. It’s simple enough stuff, but it’s carried with a nice degree of wit and charm. The political stuff is really there to add conflict and a depth to proceedings. There are some nicely refreshing touches throughout the film, too. In any other film of this ilk, with a single father taking his first steps into the dating world, the child would often be a concern, the cliché running that they would be a ball of frustrated emotion, crying about how their dad is trying to forget their mother, leading to a scene where the father has to calm them down and tell them that they would never forget their mother and blah blah blah. In this film, Shepherd’s daughter isn’t that way at all. She’s actually very well adjusted, happy to see her dad looking to find someone again. It’s these kinds of evasions of stock situations that set this film apart from others in a very agreeable manner.

Reiner’s direction aims his eye well, managing to draw out the classical characteristics of the script, so there’s a definite Capra-esque quality to the whole. He does well to see that the political aspects don’t bog down the romantic storyline, as well as making sure the romantic side of things doesn’t cheapen the political considerations that drive the conflict of the film. There may be the odd bit that seems a little hokey in this respect (John Seale’s cinematography has the light deliberately catching the eyes of Bening in moments of intimacy), but these can be overlooked when taking in the overall feeling. Marc Shaiman’s music is also wonderfully evocative of the classic sense of romantic notions, both of the heart and the body politic.

The cast do very well, with several standouts. Michael J. Fox’s Lewis Rothschild is full of fiery idealism, striving to make changes for the good, and pissed off if unsuccessful; Martin Sheen’s steady and calming A.J. MacInerney is a solid presence; Richard Dreyfuss’ Senator Rumson is a suitably shifty and smug individual; and Michael Douglas ably carries a sense of dignity and charm as President Shepherd. However, it’s Bening that gives the best performance. She nimbly shifts from astute political operator to girl who both woos and is wooed and back to the political side again. It’s great stuff. She also, alongside Sheen, has the best ear for Sorkin’s sharp and fast dialogue. It’s always a mark of Sorkin’s character’s intelligence that they can not only speak with great verbal dexterity, but also do so convincingly at great speed and Bening gets this. Also, Bening and Douglas do make a very appealing couple.

Despite now having to live in the shadow of The West Wing, The American President is a fine film, both warm and intelligent. Performances are strong throughout, the dialogue is great and it has a sturdy backbone in romance and politics, which go together here very well. It’s a solid show all round.

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