Rob Reiner and Michael Douglas, director and star of The American President

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT is a Comforting Tonic in These Trying Times

People forget, but there was a time when Rob Reiner was one of the most well-respected directors in Hollywood.  These days, he’s mostly known as the director of fluff films like Rumor Has It and The Bucket List, but when he started, he was a second Kubrick.  He had the Midas touch, not just knocking out classic after classic, but smash hits of every genre.  

Reiner had a run of films that most filmmakers would sell their mothers for. Of his first nine films, seven of them are considered masterpieces: This Is Spinal Tap, Stand By Me, The Princess Bride, When Harry Met Sally…, Misery, A Few Good Men, and The American President; each of them deserve an article in their own right, but today, we’re going to talk about the last, and less well-known of the bunch: The American President.

The American President tells the story of a recently widowed man, Andrew Shepherd, who learns to love again when he meets Sydney Ellen Wade.  The only problem is that she is an environmental lobbyist, and he’s the President of the United States. It’s a tale as old as time.


A Cast Worthy of the Oval

The film features an all-star cast.  Originally pitched by Robert Redford, the role of the President eventually went to Michael Douglas, in arguably the best role of his career.  He is warm, charismatic, and dripping in swagger, which is why it’s all the more surprising when he finds himself completely stymied by Sydney Ellen Wade.  This is essentially a movie about watching a man get his groove back, and Douglas pulls this off in a manner that is charming and understated.

Annette Benning absolutely glistens as Sydney Ellen Wade, a confident and capable lobbyist who finds herself completely intimidated by the Oval Office to great comedic effect.  This is not some beautiful woman whose biggest character flaw is that she’s clumsy (I’m looking at you, Good Luck Chuck).  This is an intelligent woman who finds herself overwhelmed by the place she has worshiped in a way only Aaron Sorkin can deliver.

Rounding out the cast is Michael J. Fox as an idealistic Assistant for Domestic Policy who wishes the President would push for gun control, Martin Sheen as the President’s loyal Chief of Staff, and Richard Dreyfuss as a sleazy Republican Senator who spends most of his time conniving in dark, smoke-filled rooms.

Sorkin’s Splendid Screenplay

But the true star of this movie is the screenplay.  This should be no surprise since it’s written by liberal God himself, Aaron Sorkin.  The American President is the second collaboration between Reiner and Sorkin, the first being A Few Good Men, based on Sorkin’s play of the same name.  Sorkin may be a liberal screenwriter through and through, but his lines appeal to politicians on both sides of the aisle, notably Ted Cruz.

Reiner knows a good script when he sees one, and he handles the whole affair with such a light touch, it’s easy to forget that there’s a director at all, which is how you know he’s great.  But if this movie is such a treasure, why is it forgotten?

Well, frankly because it is one of the weakest of the bunch.  It doesn’t have iconic lines (“Mawage.” “I’ll have what she’s having.” “You can’t handle the truth!”), or many iconic scenes (like this train scene, or the hobbling scene), and it would come to be overshadowed by the writer’s later, superior work.

The Old Familiar Places

It’s impossible to deny, for any diehard Sorkinites (Sorkies?), that The American President has a striking amount of similarities to Sorkin’s masterpiece, The West Wing.  Indeed, it was only after researching the life of the President for the movie that Sorkin was able to pitch the show to NBC.  It is hard to see this movie as anything other than a dry run before Sorkin would Knock. It. Out. Of. The. Park.  A blind man could spot the immediate comparisons.  

Like all of Aaron Sorkin’s best work, The American President and The West Wing are about intelligent, hard-working, dignified people doing their jobs well.  Andrew Shepherd shares a love for constitutional law like Jed Bartlet and a certain President.  He’s even an economist, though, in the film, Shepherd studied under a Nobel Prize-winning economist, while Bartlet actually was a Nobel Prize-winning economist.  

What’s more, the show features the late John Mahoney, a dead ringer for West Wing alum, the late John Spencer, both of whom play a character named Leo.  Anna Deavere Smith plays the White House Press Secretary and would go on to be a frequent West Wing cast member, and self-proclaimed West Wing ruiner Joshua Malina even pops up from time to time.  

But of course, the most notable comparison is that the great Martin Sheen makes his Sorkin debut in this picture.  Here he plays the White House Chief of Staff, and like Leo McGarry, he is incapable of calling his best friend anything other than Mr. President.  He would, of course, receive a major promotion in the TV show, where he would play the President himself.

But the most important similarity is how the show feels.  Sorkin builds a world of smart people trying to make a change for good.  It’s hard not to put on a college sweater, brew some hot coffee, and melt into their lives, especially in these chaotic times.  Both pieces show fathers who lead the nation with dignity and respect, who rise to the occasion with sharp dialogue and powerful rhetoric.  Both have characters who aspire to intelligence rather than kowtow to ignorance. And for those who want to live in a world where the most powerful man in the world loves his family, loves his country, and will stand up for its people with strength of character, The American President, and The West Wing, act as an oasis in a desert of political corruption and inaction.

Why It Holds Up

The American President holds up remarkably well.  It is shot in a warm, classic manner by John Seale, the cinematographer for Mad Max: Fury Road.  And it features an equally warm and patriotic score by Marc Shaiman of Down With Love fame.  In fact, the score is frequently used at political rallies and was played over Ronald Reagan’s funeral.  

But the main reason this movie holds up so well is that it’s not just a relationship movie. It’s funny, sure, and romantic, but it’s also a movie about serious people in a serious job.  As a result, the plot is split down the middle, between the President trying to court the Lobbyist and the President’s staff debating heavy issues like gun control, and attempting to pass legislation for an environmental policy meant to diminish the effects on global warming.  

Rewatching this movie for the first time in several years, I was struck by how not much has changed. Our country is the most divided it has been since the Civil War, and even issues like climate change have become a partisan debate. In that regard, the main thing that has kept Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing, and indeed, The American President, relevant and alive, is the GOP.

Last Word On ‘The American President’

These are very polarizing times.  It seems the debate between whether or not The President of the United States is a stooge for Vladimir Putin isn’t even a debate anymore, with many of Trump’s base wearing t-shirts that say “I’d rather be Russian than Democrat.”  The same political party who shouted that NASA was a waste of taxpayer money, now screams for a “Space Force” because we have to “fight space Isis.” I wish it wasn’t so cartoonishly one-sided but it is.

It is easy to forget that the American President was trying to tackle issues like Global Warming and Gun Control in 1995, four years before the Columbine Massacre, and twelve years before the Las Vegas shooting that killed 59 people and injured dozens more.  And earlier this week, Puerto Rico announced that the death toll following Hurricane Maria may be as high as 1,427 American citizens. The President is silent. Congress tells us “now is not the time to talk about it.” The American President is 23 years old.

I wouldn’t mind this film being a little less relevant, and I would kill for it to be not so inspirational.

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