The American President
starring Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox and Richard Dreyfuss
written by Aaron Sorkin
produced and directed by Rob Reiner
This is not a recent film. It is somewhere between five and ten years old. I do not know exactly, so I asked a few people and got various answers. I hesitate to call it an “old” film, although attention spans being what they are, most people probably would do so. Some of the people I spoke to about the movie consigned it to the garbage heap of cinema. “It’s the worse movie I’ve ever seen. It made me vomit on the plane.” And other similar views.
I was surprised, though, because I feel almost the complete opposite. It has grown to become one of my favorite movies, and I have happily re-watched it on video dozens of times already. It is a romance set in the White House (between a widowed President and an attractive political lobbyist in the furor of an election year). I can only guess that it appeals to me as much as it does because as I get older I become more sentimental and romantic. Maybe it is a hormone balance thing associated with aging.
This sweet and endearing story is quite likely the very reason why my acquaintances do not like it. But it is the reason why I like it. It is a happy, positive story. Not real or realistic at all, maybe, but happy. I think the acting is excellent, with a good dose of humor, especially from Michael J. Fox. In particular, Rob Reiner filmed it in such a way that it glows with an appealing, warm, soft light and the sound is good. In many movies these days, the sound varies from too loud to too quiet: over-loud action sound effects and music coupled with over-quiet dialogue, forcing me to fiddle repeatedly with the remote control. But in this film the sound levels are adequate and comfortable throughout.
Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a popular liberal (Democratic) president who came to office as a widower. Entering his third year in office, and faced with an upcoming election, he meets and falls in love with Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) a political operative employed by an environmental lobby group in Washington, D.C. He falls for her immediately and, against the advice of the Chief of Staff (Martin Sheen) and other policy advisors (Michael J. Fox), decides to date her. His popularity suffers as rival conservative politicians led by Senator Robert Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) try to cast him as an un-American cad and scoundrel for daring to be sexually active in the White House. (I guess this was made before the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky affair in the U.S. evidenced a widespread public unconcern with presidential sex in that country.) His popularity in public opinion polls quickly sinks as he looses the sympathy of voters for his widowhood. This decline in his popularity negatively affects his ability to pass the legislation he wants: important environmental and crime control bills.
I think the film gives an appreciable presentation of the fast pace of the President’s job: constant meetings, balancing domestic politics with international affairs, dealing with the various politicians on Capitol Hill and the myriad interests they represent, a gaggle of aides and advisors scheduling his entire day for him, the complete lack of privacy, the carnivorous, scandal-seeking tabloid character of much of the media corp., etc.
We catch what I think is an interesting glimpse into some of the issues and forces swirling around in the American cultural soup: free speech, sexual morality, conservative political and religious forces, presidential accountability versus privacy, the operation of a political office and preparation for a campaign, the buying and selling of legislators’ votes, compromise in the pursuit of viable deals, environmental concerns - in particular the fight against the causes of global warming - and, the obligations of citizenship.
Michael J. Fox went on to perform in a popular political TV show, Spin City, where he played an advisor to the Mayor of New York City. (He has since retired from performing for health reasons.)
Martin Sheen went on to play the American President himself in the current popular TV show, The West Wing. That show is a much better dramatization of the White House culture and the president’s job than this movie is, I think, and you might like to watch it if you can. The West Wing was created by, and is co-produced and co-written by Aaron Sorkin, who is the script writer for The American President, hence the similarity between them. I don’t know anything about his interest in The White House as a setting for movie and television drama. Maybe he woke up one day and said to himself,“I want to write fictionalized drama for the big screen and small screens based on The White House.” Maybe Sorkin is an avid Democratic Party (liberal) supporter who actively uses his work to communicate his convictions. Not that I blame him. But it is just interesting to think that one can comprehend the jigsaw puzzle of another person’s life and motives. Of course, I could be completely wrong.
The West Wing currently airs in Tokyo at 11:10 p.m. every Saturday night on NHK. But if you are a romantic, I think you might enjoy The American President. And, you might manage to avoid vomiting.