Andrew Shepherd is approaching the end of his first term as President of the United States. He's a widower with a young daughter and has proved to be popular with the public. His election seems assured. That is until he meets Sydney Ellen Wade, a paid political activist working for an environmental lobby group. He's immediately smitten with her and after several amusing attempts, they finally manage to go on a date (which happens to be a State dinner for the visiting President of France). His relationship with Wade opens the door for his prime political opponent, Senator Bob Rumson, to launch an attack on the President's character, something he could not do in the previous election as Shepherd's wife had only recently died. Written by
A warm, idealistic, romantic, and superb insider look at the American Presidency
The American President (1995)
What a smart, fast, feel-good movie about American politics and the power of the presidency. And how unlikely (these thing don't usually go together).
What makes it work? Everything! I know deep down that this isn't a masterpiece, a Citizen Kane or Godfather kind of movie. But it is in its own way perfect. It's funny as can be--endlessly witty or sarcastic or actually cleverly funny. It's acted to a T, including of course the two leads, Michael Douglas in his alpha male with a personable side and Annette Bening in her utterly charming and disarmingly sharp warmth.
It's almost impossible to appreciate the huge list of side characters who are first rate through and through, even in their very brief roles. Richard Dreyfuss might be the least of these since he plays an obvious stereotype. Michael J. Fox is funny and quick and Martin Sheen is quasi-presidential as he needs to be since of course (via "West Wing") he later becomes the president.
But not here. This is the story of Douglas and Bening. It presages the excellent British version , in its own way, "Love Actually," with Hugh Grant and an equally big cast of excellent extras, but that was more purely feel-good (or feel-incredibly-good) and this one eight years earlier actually has a political axe to grind.
In fact, I'm going to guess that one reason for the slightly deflated ratings is the conservative audience didn't really like what the president stands for here, and though it is just a movie, it's easier to root for the cast when they tend to agree with you. And agree in emphatic eloquent ways. There is a speech Douglas (as president) gives toward the end that comes out and boldly takes a simple stand for decent liberal values. He's confident, clear, and unwavering. And if you agree with that kind of thing (I do) you want to say hurrah.
And you want our own darned president to say what he believes so simply and with such firmness.
Of course, all of this is simplified and made too easy. Luckily it's not only about politics. In fact it's a comedy or manners, you might say, the protocol of who to behave with and near the president being fodder for great laughs just as much as the Victorian plays and movies had fun with the same twists of expectations. No wonder it morphed into a hit television series--though oddly enough the humor gets minimized. Maybe the same kinds of jokes wear themselves out.
Rob Reiner is maybe our most astute politically astute director, at least when there is a sense of humor required. He cut his teeth in every way with the best, working with and under Norman Lear in years of shooting (and performing, as "Meathead") in "All in the Family." It shows here. He has a real knack for timing, for turning absurdity to wit, and for warmth. (He probably got some of that from the Smothers Brothers, too.) If you like this don't stop here--Reiner has many other good or possibly great movies, many getting better reviews than this one.
But here we have "The American President," deceptively simple in its title. This is above all a really cozy movie. You want to watch, and you want to be there. At least for a couple hours.
I sound foolish liking this silly movie too much, but there you have it.
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