Film Scouts Reviews

"The American President"

by Karen Jaehne


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What could be more surprising than a megabuck-movie objecting to handguns and assault weapons?

The life-affirming weapon in director Rob Reiner's wonderfully modulated movie about the American need for leadership is Annette Bening. With a lovable glow, she shows how Sidney Ellen Wade of Virginia, a jim-crack lobbyist for good causes, gets a crack at the President. It's a fairy tale romance for all those Washington women working on Capitol Hill who know Congress well enough to know they can only marry down. But if they trotted down the hill to the White House, what would they find? Mr. President. How could you ever get to know or love somebody everybody calls Mr. President? Could the man himself ever climb down from the title?

The American President fills the bill for a Capra film of the waning 20th century without stooping to corn. It's "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" without having to pretend that honesty belongs to guys with good intentions and bad haircuts. The ideal demonstrated here is that honesty, integrity and national pride require intelligence, wit and sophistication. Although the spirit may be Capra-esque, the characters are too sharp, too confident and determined in their liberalism to be found in a film by Frank Capra. This is not populism. This is an appeal to politicians to grow up.

I say, elect the whole cast! Even if they are only acting, they play their politician roles better than most of those folks on CNN. You object, oh, but could Michael Douglas be President? The better question is, why isn't screenwriter Aaron Sorkin writing speeches for Bill Clinton?

It's a simple premise: President meets environmental lobbyist. President loses environmental lobbyist—and his and the nation's future. President is smart enough to realize his mistake and win the environmental lobbyist back! No, it's not science fiction.

Tangled into the simple premise is a great deal of Washington talk of issues and vote-swapping and complicated negotiations, and—excuse me, Mr. President, but could you step in here and OK bombing Libya? The fabric of the plot is woven of astutely observed White House politics and the presidential battle not for truth and justice as much as for congressional votes. It may be much snappier than Democrats and Republicans actually talk, but a line like, "For some unfathomable reason, people do not relate guns to gun-related crimes" needs to be said, if it wasn't already.

What Sorkin/Reiner/Douglas/Benning—all known as West Coast liberals themselves—are really doing is directing our attention to the obvious facts of American political life: we are obsessed with crime so we'll trundle together any old crime bill, effective or not; we love the environment but avoid whiny environmentalists; we love America but hate Americans. But most of all, we let the "character issue" transform people in the political spotlight into celebrities and then we treat them like talkshow trash. Who would pass the litmus test of craven Republican moralists?

To be fair, there is no mention of any particular political party in the film. There is Mr. President, who is a widower and in need of a girlfriend, and there is the Senate Majority Leader Running for President played by Richard Dreyfus as a screaming send-up of old pro pol Bob Dole snarling about family values. All the prexy is trying to do is get his little girl a stepmom, but that involves sleeping with the candidate in the hallowed House of White. And that just can't go on under our noses. (Excuse me but that's my nose in your business.)

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT never neglects politics for passion. Kisses are interrupted by the Pentagon; dates are broken for Air Traffic Controllers on strike. The internal workings of the White House are laid out like a board game. For efficiency's sake, they've cut the number of people doing everything for the President, telling him all he needs to know, and giving him solutions before problems even arise. Here we have old pal and political in-fighter Martin Sheen trying to restrain the idealism of Michael J. Fox who wants meaningful legislation, all of which must be filtered through the gimlet-eyed Press Secretary Anna Deveare Smith ever ready not to comment.

Gracefully arching the story is the President's attempt to send flowers to the woman he has had the temerity to date—in an Election Year! He can't do this, because all of his credit cards have been removed and no florist believes a guy calling himself the President. It's not until he realizes he is indeed the President—complete with his very own Rose Garden—that Bening gets a bouquet—a nice metaphor for the President discovering his power in his own back yard and using it to get what he wants.

When the movie rises to its full height, it waves flags and trumpets the national anthem. In a surprise press conference, Mr. President barges in to admit to all the accusations of the opposition: Yes, I carry an ACLU card—and so should you if you believe in civil liberty! Yes, I want to protect the environment—because it's synonymous with the future, so you should too! Yes, I want to get handguns and assault weapons off the streets, and if you don't, you are on the wrong side of crime! It shows us presidential behavior, and it promises us leadership, and if this film has not yet been seen in the White House, I'll pay for a screening myself.

It's easy to get bogged down in the pettiness of any local industry. And as local mud puddles go, Hollywood and Washington have a lot in common. Yet this film rises above both of them to speak to the 264 million people in between. It's articulate. It's like a good saxophone riff on "...in order to form a more perfect Union..."

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