American President, The (United States, 1995)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

It's hard to believe that The American President was made by the same man responsible for the no-holds-barred satire of This Is Spinal Tap. Is there any element of American culture more ripe for the humorist's razor-sharp wit than presidential politics? Yet, heedless of what it might have been, this film is content to hunker down in the valley of feel-good entertainment, sacrificing intelligent plotting for mass appeal. While neither bad nor unwatchable, The American President is nevertheless the second straight disappointment from director Rob Reiner (his previous effort being North).

Attempting to mix behind-the-scenes Washington machinations, political rhetoric, and a love story, Aaron Sorkin's script ends up shortchanging all of its elements. It comes across as painfully politically correct, offering trite sermons on various "hot-button" issues (gun control and the greenhouse effect). The narrative follows an unwavering by-the-numbers strategy with an ending that echoes the "cornball" of Al Pacino's climactic Scent of a Woman speech.

The setting is contemporary Washington DC. It's an election year, and the incumbent Democratic President, Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), is counting on his much-ballyhooed crime bill to cinch the result of the upcoming political struggle. His approval rating is already astronomically high (63%), and his "family values" opponent, Senate Minority Leader Robert Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), is floundering. He can't bring up the so-called "character issue", because Shepherd is a widower with a young daughter, and political experts say that personal attacks will have a disastrous backlash. So Rumson bides his time, waiting for the President to make a mistake. Which, of course, he does.

That mistake comes in the person of Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), who represents the Global Defense Council. Not only does she attract Shepherd's support for a pro-environment bill, but she catches his eye as well. He asks her to accompany him to an official State dinner, and the next morning all the papers are calling her the "President's girlfriend". What follows is a variation on the tried-but-true story of boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy tries to get girl back again. The only real difference here is that the romance takes place in and around the White House.

Sorkin, who wrote A Few Good Men (which Reiner also directed), has sprinkled the screenplay with understated humor and sparkling dialogue, but the clever lines and amusing vignettes can't fully overcome the plot's essential mediocrity. The set design is very good -- attention to detail is such that it's easy to accept that all the action takes place within the most securely-guarded residence in the United States.

The cast is solid, with Michael Douglas doing a credible job as the Commander-in-Chief, Annette Bening being alternately winsome and tough, and Martin Sheen offering hard advice as the Chief of Staff. Michael J. Fox does a believable George Stephanopoulos-type and Shawna Waldron is appealing as the President's daughter. Only Richard Dreyfuss, whose one-note bad guy grates, doesn't do much with his character.

The American President wants to be a fantasy -- Shepherd is far too good to be true -- yet it keeps trying to ground itself in a "Clintonesque" faux reality, creating a noticeable conflict in tone. And, unlike Dave, this film doesn't offer anything really biting. Sure, it's likable (which Dave was, as well), but it's also bland. All things considered, The American President is probably going to find it difficult campaigning against the likes of Goldeneye and Casino.

American President, The (United States, 1995)

Run Time: 2:03
U.S. Release Date: 1995-11-17
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1