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Connection: actress (Annette Bening)
The American President (1995)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Starring Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, David Paymer, Samantha Mathis, John Mahoney, Richard Dreyfuss, and Michael J. Fox
114 minutes, Rated PG-13
Romantic comedies must be one of the hardest genres to write.
It’s not enough that you have to write comedy and make people laugh, but you have to add in the extra element of romance. And romance might be one of the more difficult elements of story to keep unique and interesting. There are, after all, only so many ways to say “I love you.” Action films can make their stunts and thrills more and more daring on every outing. Horror films can easily find new ways to pull the rug out from under the people who really want to be scared. But most people have a pretty dead-set idea of what they do or do not find “romantic”, so presenting something new that they will find just as electrifying is a seemingly-daunting task.
The American President certainly finds a compelling way to tell a tired old story.
Even better, The American President functions as more than just a romantic comedy. Remove the romance and it’s still a funny movie. Focus on the politics, on the office of the Presidency, and you still have a very-intelligent peek behind the scenes at just what goes on day-to-day in the Oval Office. That aspect of this movie is, perhaps, the most astonishing.
Most Hollywood films would assume that the average movie-goer would be bored by politics. Most screenwriters would gloss over the nitty gritty of Washington, D. C. discourse and use generic terms to coyly stage mock debate. Not this script. This President handles real issues we can all relate to (gun control and global warming, namely). There’s a lot of dialogue concerning the right number of votes from the right number of people and how to get them without losing the votes on the other side of that fence. Every member of the President’s staff, and their job function, is vividly defined. And, simultaneously both shocking and refreshing, this film takes a side, depicting clearly a very liberal and Democratic President. We’ve alienated most of the audience within the first twenty minutes.
I think The American President is most effective as a romantic comedy because it allows itself to be about more than just the romance. It adds romance to an entertaining narrative rather than adding entertaining narrative to a romance. Most of my favorite romantic comedies work in this manner. Consider When Harry Met Sally: the movie is about a friendship, romance wasn’t an option until the ending. Consider Sleepless In Seattle: the main couple don’t even meet until the final scene, both carrying on separate lives and separate stories. It might be interesting to note that both of my examples here are written by the same screenwriter, the last (and great) Nora Ephron.
The American President is written by Aaron Sorkin. Mr. Sorkin is not known for his romantic comedies, but he is known for tautly-plotted scripts that straddle a fine line between comedy and drama. His body of work includes screenplays (including The Social Network, for which he won an Academy Award in 2010), stage plays, and television scripts. Did you ever see Sports Night or The West Wing? Both of those shows were created by him. Both shows are also clever and timely, as is The American President.
The American President stars Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd, a President of the United States soon up for re-election. An approval rating of 63% might imply that he is a shoe-in for a second term, but there is worry in his administration that his chances are hindered by a crime bill that doesn’t fare well with either side of the aisle. He meets and becomes smitten with an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening). On paper, they seem made for each other. In reality, she has difficulty seeing him as anything other than The President of the United States. In addition, Shepherd is a widower and a single father. His opposition in the Presidential race, Senator Bob Rumson (played by a never-been-this-smarmy-before Richard Dreyfuss), begins a series of public attacks on her character and on the appropriateness of their affair in *gasp* The White House, all of which begins to hurt Shepherd’s approval rating since he refuses to fight back.
Therein lies the real beauty of the President that Sorkin has created. Clearly formed from the author’s own idealism, this is a President who won an election on his platform, merit, and ability to do the job. This President did not discourage voters by embarking on a smear campaign against his opponents. This is a President who keeps the promises he makes, doesn’t make promises that he cannot keep, and seems flat-out honored to have been selected for the job. He wanted to earn votes honestly, and did. In short, this is a Commander in Chief who wouldn’t fight back, out of respect for the position he keeps. A respect that he seems to share with his creator.
Sorkin’s respect for the position just about bleeds through the screen. From repeated close-ups of different presidential portraits throughout The White House to actual tidbits of presidential trivia embedded throughout the dialogue, Sorkin is completely invested in creating a life inside 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that could only exist in a Frank Capra film. There is no dissent in Shepherd’s administration. Everyone, from his chief of staff (played by Martin Sheen) to his Domestic Policy Assistant (played by a remarkable Michael J. Fox), gets along and respects each other’s boundaries. Michael Douglas’s portrayal of Andrew Shepherd helps with this. I cannot think of a movie in which he has ever been more charming.
It’s interesting to watch this 23-year-old movie in this day and age. We live in a world now where politics, and speaking of them, leaves in a bad taste in the mouth. We live in a world where it has somehow become acceptable for a President to send nonsensical Tweets at 2:00 in the morning. We live in a world where the populace knows more about the evil in a candidate’s past than they do about their track record as a politician. It has become commonplace to just accept it when the President says and does things that would have, twenty years ago, been considered “unPresidential behavior.” The American President is the antithesis of this political clime, depicting a pipe dream of how the world ought to be. If anything, in its dream of longing and hope, this film has become more important over time.
There’s a sequence in this film that really brings this point home for me. In the script, President Andrew Shepherd is forced to call for a military strike against Libya. In a debriefing after the fact with his top aides, it is commented by Leon Kodak, the Deputy Chief of Staff (played by David Paymer) that the events of the preceding evening can only work in favor towards Shepherd’s hopes of re-election. Shepherd comments that his action was not for political gain. Kodak responds, quite contemplatively, “But it can be, sir. What you did tonight was very Presidential.” Shepherd’s response is one for the ages: “Leon, somewhere in Libya right now, a janitor’s working the night shift at Libyan Intelligence Headquarters. He’s going about doing his job. . . because he has no idea, in about an hour he’s going to die in a massive explosion. He’s just going about his job, because he has no idea that about an hour ago I gave an order to have him killed. You’ve just seen me do the least Presidential thing I do.”
This is a statement full of compassion. Full of remorse. Can you imagine our current President making a statement such as this? I cannot. But I promise you this: I will gladly and happily vote for the next candidate that I can.