The ghost of Frank Capra must have been shining down on Rob Reiner’s The American President (1995); an unabashedly sentimental and utterly heart-warming romance imbued with the frothy ‘feel good’ of a classy screwball comedy. Scripted by Aaron Sorkin, the film is often seen as a precursor to his popular TV melodrama, The West Wing. But actually the property began nearly two decades before as ‘The President Elopes’ – a screenplay first optioned by Robert Redford that for one reason or another simply changed hands in Hollywood before languishing inside studio vaults for nearly 20 years.
Redford, who had aspired to play the lead himself, eventually bowed out of the project. At the time Reiner was approached to direct he became enchanted with idea of telling an intimate story about a largely idealized White House and its dedicated administrative staff. But Reiner saw the piece as more ensemble and political than romantic. Nevertheless, the Capra-esque quality of the film may have been pre-ordained rather than kismet. After all, Frank Capra III was first assistant director.
The American President is really the Aaron Sorkin show; a turning point in both the writer’s career and his private struggles; intelligently scripted during a very dark period while he was battling cocaine addiction. Despite this backstage melodrama, Sorkin manages to create a witty elegance on the screen. His characters are flawed but always bursting with something compelling to say. The American President is also blessed with a stellar ensemble fronted by Michael Douglas and Annette Bening, both of whom give indelible performances. Of the two, Douglas’ is perhaps the more startling; coming as it did after nearly a decade of playing significantly flawed, morally ambiguous and slightly scummy philanderers. Herein, Douglas embodies a man of conviction, equally balanced in his gentlemanly grace as his politically motivated gravitas.
Our story begins the morning after a televised address with Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), the most popular president in years preparing his second run for the White House. A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), Shepherd’s Chief of Staff, encourages the president to put his full support behind a moderate crime control bill that is currently lacking favor in both the House and the Senate. The President’s PR strategist, Robin McCall (Anne Deavere Smith) believes Shepherd is a shoo-in, his status as a lonely widower exploited in his favor, swaying popular sentiment from the electorate the first time around. Time for a second trip to the well.
But Shepherd’s ever-devoted campaign manager, Lewis Rothchild (Michael J. Fox) is in a frazzle over the president’s moderate ‘slip up’ in which he suggested that ‘America is no longer a great society.’ “Now there’s this ‘thing’ out there!” Lewis suggests. Shepherd, however, is unnerved and even jovial while contemplating the way his words will be reinterpreted by his pundits. At a private lobbyist’s meeting the president is introduced to hardline environmentalist, Sidney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening).
Sidney fumbled her chances, calling out Shepherd for what she perceived as his weak kneed policies, but without first realizing that he is standing directly behind her. It’s an awkward start to say the least. But Shepherd is mildly amused by her fortitude and guts. And Sidney does redeem herself rather nicely when, at a state dinner honoring President Rene Jean D’Astier of France (Clement von Franckenstein) she salvages the rather dull conversation by speaking to D’Astier in his native language. The evening ends on a high note and Sidney returns to work invigorated.
But Leo Solomon (John Mahoney) and the firm who hired Sidney are not entirely certain Shepherd’s new found attentions being paid their hired gun will lead to wider acceptance of their political lobbying. In fact, Leo openly tells Sidney that “we hired a pit bull, not a prom queen”, and forewarns Sidney that her popularity in Washington can be clocked with an egg timer. Throwing caution to the wind, Sidney begins a romance with the president that places both their careers under close scrutiny from the press.
Republican incumbent Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) seizes the opportunity to attack Shepherd’s morality and family values. He also vilifies Sidney in the press, labeling her ‘the first mistress’. Moderately embarrassed, though ever persistent, Sidney campaigns hard for the environmentalist bill and Shepherd decides to play a numbers game that he is certain she will be unable to match. If Sidney can secure 24 votes by the time of his State of the Union the president agrees to deliver the last ten votes necessary to put the proposal forth as a bill.
Unfortunately, Bob Rumson’s accusations, though unfounded, have done considerable damage to Shepherd’s credibility and his poll numbers plummet. Diehards in congress suddenly back down from bolstering their support. Meanwhile, without first considering the political ramifications, Sidney unknowingly gives the president and MacInerney some insider advice during a Christmas party at the White House. She confides that one of the congressmen from Michigan she has been trying to woo to support the environmental bill has revealed to her that the only piece of legislation he and his backers are more interested in defeating is the President’s new crime bill.
Sidney gets enough votes to meet her quota. Unfortunately, Shepherd’s team informs him that he is three votes shy and thus must shelve his commitment to the environmental bill, thereby solidifying campaign support from the Michigan congressmen. MacInerney tells Shepherd that he had better start thinking with the right head if he intends to win his re-election, causing a temporary rift in their professional and personal relationship.
In the meantime Solomon apprises Sidney that she has been duped by the president and then unceremoniously fires her for failing to meet the committee’s objectives. Her political reputation in tatters, Sidney wastes no time in speeding to the White House to admonish Shepherd for betraying his promise to her. She informs him that she has decided to regroup and take a job in Harford, Connecticut. Shepherd implores Sidney to reconsider, but she condescendingly replies, “Mr. President, you have more important things to worry about than losing me…you’ve just lost my vote!”
Realizing that he has deceived not only Sidney but the fundamental principles he once so firmly believed in – responsible for his election in the first place – Shepard addresses the press on national TV; discrediting Rumson’s attacks on Sidney, throwing his full support behind the environmental bill and suspending his crime bill until tougher terms can be rewritten into its legislation. The strength of his convictions rouses the White House to its feet and resurrects the people’s faith in him.
Hurrying from the Press Room to the Oval Office, Shepherd informs MacInerney that whatever it takes he intends to win back Sidney’s love and respect, only to discover her waiting for him inside, teary-eyed, heart swollen with pride. The film concludes with Shepherd appearing in the House chamber to give his State of the Union.
From start to finish, The American President is beguiling entertainment. It sparkles with the rarest form of movie magic. Time has not diminished its strength of sentiment, perhaps because at its core Sorkin has given the actors something more meaningful to say. Superficially, the film is a love story. But beneath the warmth of this unlikely relationship are some more resilient precepts about freedom, democracy, politics and the moral sanctity of the presidential office.
There is a palpable and genuine romantic chemistry brewing between Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. It is gratifying to watch these two actors convince us of their characters falling in love rather than simply going through perfunctory emotions as written. This is what’s referred to as ‘living the part’. Both Bening and Douglas excel at being true to themselves and each other. The results seem quite effortless, organic and believable. Michael J. Fox, David Paymer, Anna Deavere Smith and Martin Sheen give stellar support. Richard Dreyfuss, looking like a John McCaine knock-off, overplays his hand. In the final analysis, The American President is a winner through and through, and so perfectly timed on Blu-ray to take advantage of this year’s election.
If only Warner Home Video had done a bit more homework on this 1080p transfer. For decades fans have had to contend with gawd-awful transfers of this movie on home video. The cropped VHS tape notwithstanding, the various digital incarnations on laserdisc and DVD have been miserable to say the least, non-anamorphic and riddled with a barrage of edge effects that have rendered the image virtually unwatchable. Warner inherited this movie’s distribution after Castlerock was acquired by Turner, later acquired by WB.
The good news: this time we get an anamorphic transfer with color fidelity much improved and most – though not all – of the edge effects gone. Unfortunately, the image is still wanting for overall solid contrast levels. Grain appears naturally rendered in some scenes but digitally scrubbed in others. I have to say that visually this was a bit of a disappointment for me. The image doesn’t pop as it should and occasionally looks weaker overall than I expected. Fans who have only been exposed to the DVD will consider the image a revelation and, from that limited perspective, I suppose I must agree.
But the visuals do not live up to the Blu-ray format – for what reason? I’m not entirely certain. The 5.1 DTS audio too wasn’t all that impressive. The best thing about it is undoubtedly Marc Shaiman’s gorgeous score finally given its due. But dialogue didn’t have that immersive fidelity, and frankly, sounded quite tinny at times. The final insult comes in the extras. Like the DVD before it, we get zippo – just a badly worn trailer in 720i. For shame!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)