Horny commanders-in-chief are nothing new. Nor is the sight of Michael Douglas playing a WASPy Everyman whose dick gets him into trouble. However, the concept of a widowed president playing the dating game under the constant scrutiny of TV cameras, opportunistic political opponents, and religious zealots sounds like a fertile premise for a lighthearted romantic comedy. Rob Reiner's new film, The American President, could have won a box-office landslide if it had just stuck to that design.
But Reiner and his acting team, drawn from Hollywood's Democratic elite A Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen A have bigger fish to fry. Their goal is nothing less than to restoke the fires of liberalism that have all but died out with this nation's pronounced turn to the political right in recent years. And maybe to suggest to the current occupant of the Oval Office a way in which he might curry Hollywood's favor in 1996, as well as that of voters who haven't yet sworn allegiance to Newt.
Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (the same writing-directing tandem responsible for A Few Good Men) actually hung out in the White House with President Clinton for a few days to get the lay of the land; not surprisingly, the American president of the title has quite a few similarities to Clinton, not the least of which is getting flogged by a conservative presidential opponent (played by Richard Dreyfuss, an actor who has not exactly endeared himself to the GOP) over the "character issue." In Clinton's case, that means rumors of womanizing. In The American President's case, it means dating. And a prominent environmental lobbyist (Bening) to boot.
Robert Redford was originally set to star in the title role, but he dropped out of the project because of Reiner's unwillingness to stick with the romantic comedy and play down the politics. Goodbye Bob, hello Michael. As demonstrated by his performance in 1972's The Candidate, Redford is not known for shrinking away from movies with political agendas, which ought to give some measure of just how prominently this President wears its bleeding heart on its sleeve. Douglas lays on the charm as Pres. Andrew Shepherd, a widower attempting to balance his obligations to his country with the demands of single fatherhood and the rites of courtship. Director Reiner, screenwriter Sorkin, and actor Douglas gang up to make Shepherd into a disenfranchised liberal Democrat's wet dream: a handsome, charismatic, resourceful freethinker who ultimately champions gun control, environmentalism, and the ACLU (mentioned by name!) A and still has a chance to beat those durn Republicans if he would just follow his heart. Yes, it's simplistic and manipulative, but so are most successful political campaigns.
By the end of its term, The American President proves far more engaging than it has any right to be, thanks largely to Sorkin's clever wordplay (Overworked Staffer #1: "It's Christmas?" Overworked Staffer #2: "Yeah. You didn't get the memo?"), the overall authentic behind-the-scenes-at-the-White-House feel, strong supporting performances from Sheen, David Paymer, Anna Deavere Smith, and even Michael J. Fox, and the nai#ve appeal of the courtship between Douglas and Bening. The real American president could do worse than hire Reiner and Sorkin to oversee his re-election bid.
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