“I’ve known Bob Rumson for years. And I’ve been operating under the assumption that the reason Bob devotes so much time and energy to shouting at the rain was that he simply didn’t get it. Well, I was wrong. Bob’s problem isn’t that he doesn’t get it. Bob’s problem is that he can’t sell it. We have serious problems, and we need serious people to solve them. And whatever your particular problem is, I promise you, Bob Rumson is not the least bit interested in solving it. He is interested in two things, and two things only- making you afraid of it, and telling you who’s to blame for it.” ~ Andrew Shepherd
“Mr. President, I’m sure there’s an appropriate thing to say at this moment. Probably some formal apology for the nice ass remark would be in order. I just don’t quite know how to word it.” ~ Sydney Ellen Wade
“With all due respect, sir, the American people have a funny way of deciding on their own what is and what is not their business.” ~ A.J. MacInnerney
“Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking. People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.” ~ Lewis Rothschild
The American President is a 1995 romantic comedy from director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin. It tells the story of a widowed President trying to get a crime control act passed and manage the political minefield that is Washington, while getting involved with a lobbyist. The film has an outstanding cast, and an idealistic tone throughout. Its protagonists are sympathetic, while its antagonists, led by a senator who reminds me of Dick Cheney, are suitably Machiavellian. This is the sort of film that Frank Capra would have gotten into.
The film opens with President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) and his White House advisors preparing for re-election. His chief of staff and best friend A.J. MacInnerney (Martin Sheen) hopes that a crime control bill can be enough to ensure re-election. The president, a widower since the death of his wife three years earlier, is raising his daughter Lucy alone, and has a bit of a predicament: a state dinner is coming up, and his cousin, who was going to attend with him, has fallen ill.
Shepherd happens to meet Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) at a White House meeting. She’s a lobbyist for the environment, very outspoken, and the two find themselves intrigued by the other. He invites her to join him for the state dinner- and from there, sparks begin to fly of both a romantic and political nature as the unlikely relationship ends up becoming fodder for Republicans looking to unseat the President in the coming election.
The film’s origins started with another actor: Robert Redford mused on the notion of a presidential romantic comedy of sorts, and Sorkin was brought in to write the screenplay. While Redford withdrew from the project, Sorkin was perfect to write the story. He first came to prominence with the play that was adapted to movie status, A Few Good Men, and after this film he developed the television series The West Wing. Sorkin’s writing throughout shows a strong idealism in a profession- politics- that should be cynical. The cynicism tends to be confined to Republican politicians, so we see where his political beliefs lie. Sorkin’s writing in general is smart and highly character driven, and we see that here, from the leading characters to the supporting characters. The idealism of Sorkin’s script shows itself most strongly in the President’s speech late in the film- his authoritative message is something that could easily be applied to certain wannabe politicians these days.
Rob Reiner was a good choice as director. He had already done a mixture of film genres as a director before this one, including one of my personal favourites, The Princess Bride, and the aforementioned A Few Good Men. While he has a gift for comedy, he certainly knows his way around drama, and that shows itself here, as well as the way he brings out the best in actors. Reiner keeps the film paced smoothly- there’s never a sense of the film slowing down. He brought together the right crew for the project- their work really pays off in the look of the set, for instance; the White House set built for the production looks like the real place, with a lot of attention to detail. The sense of idealism in the story is reflected as well by Marc Shaiman’s music score; the composer got an Oscar nomination for the music, fused with optimism and romantic themes.
The cast were brilliantly chosen- some of them went on to have roles in The West Wing, as one might have expected. Richard Dreyfuss is the only real antagonist of the story, playing the ambitious Republican senator Bob Rumson. His performance is that of a devious opportunist, seeking his own play at power, pulling strings and orchestrating those around him. Rumson is a weasel of a character, and ends up reminding me of a less evil Dick Cheney, utterly without principle or conscience. It’s easy to dislike the character- and one wonders if Dreyfuss was enjoying himself playing someone so totally unlike him.
Nina Siemaszko has a turn in the film as Sydney's sister Beth, supportive in her way, and the way she and Bening work together on screen conveys that sisterhood strongly. David Paymer is one of those character actors who has a wealth of roles to his credit, and an everyman, hangdog sort of look, which works well for him. He plays Leon Kodak, the Deputy Chief of Staff, giving the character a deadpan but smart sensibility. Samantha Mathis plays Jane Basdin, a personal aide to the President, coming across as organized and calm under pressure. Anna Deveare Smith, another character actor who you’ve seen in many roles, plays the press secretary Robin McCall with a slightly sarcastic feel. I particularly like her interaction with Michael J. Fox’s character.
Speaking of whom, Fox plays the senior advisor Lewis Rothschild with conviction. The character is principled and smart, and comes across as perpetually worried. He doesn’t back down from speaking his mind and argues for his position- in some ways the character is the most idealistic of the story, and Fox plays to that throughout the film. Even if he doesn’t remotely look like the name Lewis Rothschild suits him.
Martin Sheen is ideally cast as the Chief of Staff. The actor would later play President Bartlett on The West Wing, and his take as A.J. seems to be a prelude to that role. A.J. is calm under pressure, wise and authoritative. I like that the character’s ever mindful of protocol- his best friend’s the president and yet he calls him Mr. President. Yet the way Sheen interacts with Douglas throughout comes across as a believable, decades long friendship.
Annette Bening made for a good choice as Sydney. The character’s outspoken (perhaps too much), intelligent, principled, and dedicated to her work. As capable she is in doing what she does for a living, she’s not above getting flabbergasted or flustered in a socially awkward moment. The actress, whose career work has tended to lean more towards drama, turns out to have a good comedic touch, and Bening has good chemistry with Douglas throughout the film.
Michael Douglas brings the sense of authority and gravity one would expect in a fictional President throughout the film. Andrew Shepherd is a man balancing principle and pragmatism- running a country means trying to work with people you don’t particularly get along with, and making difficult decisions, and Douglas brings that across in his performance. He also gives the character a dry sense of humour as well as poignancy, and the character proves to be likable as we get to know him.
Rob Reiner had a big hit with The American President. Well received by audiences and critics alike, the film certainly wears its idealism and political stance on its sleeve. It boasts a terrific cast, is funny and smart, and offers a refreshing alternative to the general nonsense that is the current election campaign.