The American President May 12, 2020
Michael J. Fox
2 Hrs., 9 Mins.
he American President (1995), director Rob Reiner’s follow-up to the notorious flop North (1994), is, essentially, an appetizer for The West Wing (1999-2006), the TV show for which its screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, is famous for creating. It’s a broad-stroked, entertaining admixture of love and politics, among other things. (Sorkin wrote it while high on crack cocaine.) Martin Sheen, who plays the U.S.'s
chief executive in The West Wing, is also in The American President, though in the movie he’s the right-hand man to the title figure, a beloved, progressive
leader named Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas).
The American President is about a lot of things: Shepherd’s working toward reelection (at the beginning of the film, which is set during an election year, he has a 63 percent approval rating — he’s a sure thing) and his seeking to pass a never-that-defined “crime control” bill. But the meat of the feature involves the president’s love life. Early in the film, he meets a lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), who is eager to get his support on a carbon-emissions bill. It's love at first sight for Shepherd after she accidentally insults him during an introductory meeting. (Wade talks shit about him to her colleagues at a meeting, oblivious to the fact that, moments ago, he walked into the room.) The American President, which details the arc of their quickly serious courtship, is above all else meant to be an account of politics getting in the way of love.
The movie is a solid romantic comedy; it rides high on the easy chemistry between Bening and Douglas, who give competent, emotionally articulate performances. They have a good grasp of Sorkin’s trademark locomotive-forceful dialogue. We root for them; the ending of the feature, which has naturally been preceded by a temporary breakup (there was some strife over Wade’s bill), comes with a designed-to-be cheer-inducing line that, cynical as its placement is, won me over.
The American President makes me uneasy in other places, namely in its romanticization of big government and some of its figures. There’s a long speech from Michael J. Fox, portraying one of Shepherd's key staffers, in which he compares the U.S.’s desire to be led to a parched person stuck in the desert desperate enough to drink sand as if it were water. This is meant to be a partial indictment of people who do not, but should, reasonably question their leaders, but it came across more, to my eye, as an overbroad suggestion that the American majority tends to be dangerously in love with its government.
The film also, as invoked by Megan Garber of The Atlantic, is partial to tacitly prioritizing performative “goodness” over specific actions as signifiers of morality and heroism. There’s a subplot involving Shepherd’s Republican opponent, Sen. Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), who launches a campaign in which he challenges Shepherd’s “family values” (for dating someone?). Rumson has been wanting to publicly castigate Shepherd for forever as a way to gain steam in the presidential race but has been advised not to given the latter is a single parent whose wife died, of cancer, three years ago. Although there is no question, given Rumson’s party affiliation, that he’s lent his voice to plenty of unseemly ideologies, the movie is unspecific about them — as it also is about Shepherd's beliefs. (We know he's forward-thinking about gun control and greenhouse gas emissions, but what else?) Things are often facilely boiled down to Shepherd being polite, outwardly presidential-seeming, and a giving
conversationalist, making him automatically “good." When he's calling for bombings abroad, it just is what it is; there is a semblance of a moral reservation shown, but the movie doesn't pick at it. In The American President, there is a lot of, I come across this way, therefore I am that. We're meant to
simply know and trust that Shepherd is good, and that's that.
There’s a viscerally rousing speech Shepherd gives at the end of the film in which he pretty miraculously salvages his reputation (courting Wade has damaged it) and recently fractured love life, all the while dropping the mic on the below-the-belt-targeting Rumson. For me, it wasn’t the probability of there ever existing such an improbably perfect speech that begat the most misgivings but rather some of Shepherd’s other talking points: his espousing of a moderate “both sides” argument, his simplification of free speech, and his cornball “My name is Andrew Shepherd and I am the president” closing line. (Though I couldn’t help taking to his firm anti-gun stance, as well as his change of heart on Wade’s bill.) I liked The American President, but there is almost a requirement that to enjoy it we must not think too hard about certain attributes. B