Mount the charm of Kennedy, the wisdom of Lincoln and the eloquence of FDR on the sleek chassis of Michael Douglas and you've got a pretty nice piece of Democratic Party wish fulfillment. Forget the facts of real life--the ascendancy of the Gingrichians and the decline of Bill Clinton. This is Hollywood, and in Hollywood you can conjure up a suave, left-liberal president from Wisconsin who's got a 63 percent public approval rating, a closetful of impeccably tailored suits and a Capra-esque empathy for the commonfolk. This chief executive, whose name is Andrew Shepherd, agonizes over the night-shift janitors he's about to kill when he must order a bombing in Tripoli, he has a nice, easy way of poking fun at himself when the tension gets thick, and he's very, very smart.
Best of all, he's a widower, and he gets to woo Annette Bening right there in the White House.
As political fantasy, Rob Reiner's The American President will probably hit the mark with moviegoers (and voters) who are soured on Washington in general and the Clinton administration in particular--just as Dave did a couple of years ago with its notion of a body-double president with more sense than the man he replaces. Fictional Andrew Shepherd is, in many ways, the president many of us wish we had. At the same time, Reiner's film could stir up new charges from Newt and Bob and Phil that the entertainment industry is still a hotbed of degenerate lefty propaganda. The villain of the piece, after all, is a tight-assed, mean-spirited Republican (played by Richard Dreyfuss) who will use any tactic to knock Shepherd off his perch.
It's hard to set politics aside here, but this generically titled movie is also a romantic comedy, and even those who haven't bothered to vote since the Coolidge years may find themselves intrigued by the comic dynamics of the most influential (and most insulated) person in the world trying to casually call a woman on the telephone or order flowers--or struggling to present himself simply as a man, absent the daunting appurtenances of power.
Credit director Reiner (Stand By Me, When Harry Met Sally) and the versatile Douglas with pulling off a neat trick: They succeed far better than most moviemakers before them in convincing us that the President of the United States--the harried public figure who must prevent Christmas airline strikes and get crime bills passed--also has a vivid, if sometimes mundane, private life. The contrast between the two is what gives President its powerful comic and emotional kick: How many guys do you know who have interrupted a first kiss because it's time to attack Libya? How often, women, has your first date been an elaborate state dinner honoring the president of France? Why can't the president, lounging at Camp David, get his own face off the TV screen and find the score of the Packers game? Did you know that presidents, too, urge their daughters on in losing battles with the trombone?
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Thanks to the nimble screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (who collaborated with Reiner on A Few Good Men) and one of the movies' most advanced actresses, the woman at the center of The American President is as interesting as the man. Bening's Sydney Ellen Wade is a hard-hitting environmental lobbyist who--truth be told--makes more money than the president and never hesitates to speak her mind. As in Capra's populist classics and the screwball comedies of yore, Sydney's mouth gets her into trouble, not least when a president she's never met happens to be standing at her shoulder while she's ranting on about his political equivocations.
But her pluck intrigues him, and her beauty knocks him out--this is a movie, after all--and when they edge into romance, Sorkin and Reiner drop the whole bundle of public and private issues on the audience: the debates over "family values" and gun control, the way politicians manipulate the "character issue," and the ironies of conducting a White House love affair with 200 million people looking on. By mid-movie, President Shepherd's popularity has dropped twenty points (thanks to Dreyfuss's odious Senator Bob Rumson), his favored legislation and his re-election chances are in jeopardy, and for once he doesn't know what to do.
But don't look for a downbeat ending. Despite a couple of false notes (Bening's painful outburst of White House French, for one), The American President is a very funny, entertaining and intelligent movie, and it's also one of the major feel-good pictures of the year. Reiner, Sorkin and Douglas have all seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, I suspect, and the press conference this president conducts to clear the air is as stirring and uplifting as any political speech Frank Capra dreamed up in the 1930s--an eloquent amalgam of timeless patriotism, personal integrity and high wit quite far removed from anything actual presidents seem capable of in this incoherent age of ours. No wonder Clinton wanted to see this movie the minute its makers got it into the can.
A word about the supporting cast: It's unlikely that you'll find a more gifted or fascinating bunch in any movie. Martin Sheen's A.J. McInerney, Shepherd's oldest friend and chief of staff, is the picture of insight and discretion; Michael J. Fox's White House spinmeister, Lewis Rothschild, will have George Stephanopolous peering uneasily into the mirror; and Anna Deavere Smith's cool press secretary is just right. They add plenty of texture and reality to this extremely enjoyable political fable. The Newtonians may carp, but it's a damn good time with a bittersweet sense of what might be lurking at its center.