Part 3 of our Aaron Sorkin exploration…
Rating: 3 and a half stars (out of 4)
The opening sequence of The American President is so good, it would be enough to carry the rest of a mediocre film into watchable status. Thankfully, though, it doesn’t represent the extent of the pleasures here, in the film that eventually pushed Aaron Sorkin to write a little show called “The West Wing.” Here (with subsequent partners Martin Sheen and Joshua Malina on hand as side characters), he focuses his attention not on the president’s inner circle but on the man himself—and one key woman.
President Andrew Shepard (Michael Douglas), recently widowed, faces the prospect of attending a state dinner alone. Meanwhile, a liberal environmentalist group has hired a gun-ho lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) to press the White House to campaign for a bill aggressively fighting fossil fuel emissions. When the president walks in on a meeting where Sydney blasts him, he’s kind of intrigued, intrigued at her passion and pluck and lack of political correctness. He asks her to be his date to the state dinner.
It’s hard to imagine a sitting president ‘dating,’ so to speak, and Sorkin milks the hesitancy that the public would likely feel. Shepard wants nothing of it; when asked by aides to give them something to say about “the Sydney issue,” he responds that there’d better be something wrong in Australia. By creating opposition forces (in this case, Republicans) who attempt to discredit Shepard with character attacks and defame Wade’s name, Sorkin adroitly conveys his message regarding media and politics. As one character notes, would FDR ever have been elected, in a wheelchair, if he’d had to campaign in front of a television? It’s doubtful, and other anachronistic historical situations (such as political affairs that reporters used to keep quiet) are not mentioned—but they’re implied and understood nonetheless.
What’s perhaps most notable, on first blush, in The American President, is the remarkable chemistry between Bening and Douglas—the acting here is never short of exemplary. Think of the scene in the ‘dish room’; before the two share their abbreviated first kiss, Bening conveys wonderment, little-girl embarrassment, and doubt with nary a word. Likewise, Douglas, who’s never been one of my favorite actors, gives in my mind his finest career performance, drenching his character in realism and warmth. Like Bening, he never overplays the moment—not the laughs, not when he chides aides, not when his presidential challenger (Richard Dreyfuss) begins spreading lies. These are remarkably controlled performances.
The acting is matched by the writing, with scenes that slide between above-average and exceptional. The aforementioned opening scene displays rapid-fire walk-and-talks that would become a Sorkin trademark in “West Wing,” but, good as they are, I was struck by something else. Note the way we become aware of the president’s status as a widower: his press secretary (Anna Deavere Smith, the NSA in “WW”) casually mentioning that they can’t parade their boss around as the ‘lonely widow.’ The room goes quiet for a moment before she apologizes to his instant forgiveness. A lesser movie would have beaten us over the head with this information; Shepard might have stared mournfully at a photograph of a woman on his desk, or his daughter might have melodramatically imparted the news. Sorkin, though, integrates it seamlessly into the free-flowing scene, and the exchange reveals several details about the characters, including the president’s informal relationship with his staff and his lack of pretension.
Likewise, the subplots involving the political battles being fought by the staff—over gun control and environmental regulations—are skillfully handled. Not every scene is exceptional, but the film moves with the kind of supremely entertaining smoothness that far, far too films achieve (or, at times, seem to aspire to). Every exchange bristles with some kind of conflict, and Sorkin includes character-defining situations for all the key players; for example, an early scene where Shepard plays pool with his chief of staff (Sheen) feels even more integrated in the story after the second such scene. The president, frustrated over the disapproval of his relationship with Sydney, wonders why Sheen always liked to give advice but never wanted to run for anything himself, never wanted to put himself out there. If I did, he replies, “you’d be the most popular history professor at the University of Wisconsin.” It’s a devastating line, though one that doesn’t ruin Sheen’s character because we understand that it comes, partly, from the staff’s exasperation with the president’s passivity.
Director Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men) makes good decisions himself (major props for never cutting back to shocked looks from Sydney’s sister during her first phone call with Shepard), but the most credit has to go to the actors and Sorkin. He’s never afraid to ask the arresting questions, the ones on everyone’s mind that nevertheless sometimes go unsaid. Early on, Sydney’s boss (John Mahoney) bluntly inquires, “Are you sleeping with him?” And at the end of the aforementioned pool scene, the president ponders, “If Mary hadn’t died three years ago, would we have won?” The ironic recognition that he might have won his first election with help from that event but now is vulnerable to character attacks just completes Sorkin’s critique of modern politics. Few critiques, however, can legitimately be leveled here.