Tuesday, August 21, 2012

The American President: The American Intellectual, Sorkin Hits The Big Time!

The Good: Intelligent dialogue, Interesting characters, Romantic, Quality acting
The Bad: Standard plot, Light on DVD extras
The Basics: A fun romantic comedy that is intelligently written and wonderfully acted and foreshadows more greatness to come from writer Aaron Sorkin, The American President is still worth seeing!

Aaron Sorkin, the literary brains behind the brilliant Sports Night (reviewed here!) and the television blockbuster The West Wing (reviewed here!), started off with plays and films and this is one of his. When I first saw the movie, I enjoyed it so much I watched it a second time immediately. Seriously. I can count on one hand the number of times that I have seen a movie and sat and rewatched it right away.

President Andrew Shepherd is finding life as President less than stellar when a political rival begins to publicly attack his policies as a ramp up to election season and his own bid for the presidency. As Shepherd tries to ignore Senator Rumsom's sabre-rattling, he marshals his staff to try to pass a gun control bill which he watches steadily get gutted of all meaning. At the same time, the environmental lobby puts pressure on Shepherd to pass a strong environmental bill.

The environmentalists hire Sydney Ellen Wade, one of the best lobbyists in the business and she begins to work her magic of drumming up support for the bill. Wade and Shepherd collide and the president finds himself instantly attracted to her. As the two begin a relationship, Sydney's past, Shepherd's widowerhood and the ambitions of Rumsom all begin to get tremendous media attention. When Shepherd's chief of staff sees an opportunity to get the gun bill passed while burying the environmental one, a conflict is set off between the new lovers that threatens both of their careers and their agendas.

The plot is fairly simple: Michael Douglas plays the widowered president of the United States who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist. In the course of their courting, political adversaries fight the president and personal rivals attack Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) and their budding relationship is threatened. Pull out the social roles and it's just about every other romantic comedy ever written. The plot is not at all original. Indeed, the plot is terribly formulaic and director Rob Reiner seems to know that. He directs The American President with a very safe look, such that it appears as virtually every other romantic comedy does.

But that is where the conventionalism of The American President ends and it comes back to the genius that is Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin has an amazing knack for dialogue and characters. Sorkin's Shepherd, Wade, and staff members Lewis, Robin, and Leon all speak like we wish our American politicians and public servants would speak. They use a level of diction that makes them seem like they know what they are doing. They sound convincing and they take principled stands. But the level of dialogue, the sheer volume of words spoken in this film so truly captures the reality of human interaction and conversation like too few films do.

And the thing is, Sorkin does not shrink away from this. He even acknowledges it. One of the funniest moments in the film involves Shepherd watching Rumsom on television doing a campaign speech and critiquing his closing line. It's great and it acknowledges for the audience that Sorkin understands he is creating an ideal world that fills the viewer with some sense of hope and yet roots it with a realism that is just on the recognizable side of fantasy.

The characters are niche characters that manage to overcome their niches. So, for example, First Daughter Lucy acts like the docile daughter who has lost her mother, but also is able to confront her father in a way that is realistic and not bratty. The few scenes she is in humanize Shepherd like none of the rest of the scenes do. Similarly, Lewis Rothschild could easily be seen as the generic young upstart as one of the President's aides. But when one would expect him to be motivated solely by personal ambition, he takes an ethical stand and works with the president rather than to usurp him.

And Shepherd and Wade are not the typical romantic comedy lover characters. For sure, their jobs define much of what makes them different and unique, but Wade's past and her sense of ethics makes for a compelling character. Similarly, Shepherd's refusal to mudsling, even in the face of Rumsom's attacks, makes him a truly compelling character that is unlike most politicians we see on screen. He has a very Capra-esque quality to him.

And Wade and Shepherd make for an intriguing couple that works. Their romance may be somewhat predictable, but the characters work well with one another and there is a very real sense of chemistry between them. It helps that Shepherd is quite presidential and Wade is quite self-motivated, making for two strong, opinionated characters to come together, which usually works quite well for a story.

Shepherd is played by Michael Douglas and for an actor who seems to be relegated to many roles with action and adventure subtexts, he pulls off being presidential in this with amazing quality and consistency. Douglas is nothing like, say, his performance in The Game (reviewed here!). He is rational, dignified and always in control. Even while Shepherd's poll numbers slip, Douglas maintains a strong backbone and the sense that he is ready to accomplish anything. He infuses the character with a true sense of fighting spirit, despite the almost complete departure from anything resembling a physical role in this part.

Similarly, Annette Bening gives another phenomenal performance as Sydney Ellen Wade. A tremendous departure from her neurotic, stressed out role in American Beauty (reviewed here!), Bening is articulate, collected and surprisingly normal as Wade. Indeed, the strength of her performance is that she takes the character who - on the page - could be fiery and overshadow the leader of the free world and instead tempers her performance with a very realistic quality of deference. Bening's strength is illustrated in her scenes where she plays Wade as a tough lobbyist and her humanity is illustrated by the way she softens - especially her facial expressions - when Wade and Shepherd begin their courting. Bening makes much of the film seem realistic as a conduit into the unreal world of Capitol Hill politics!

But more than that, the supporting actors are wonderful. The American President has a tremendous supporting cast which includes Martin Sheen, Richard Dreyfuss and Michael J. Fox. The actors are astounding and believable. They were perfectly cast and the film is just packed with talent.

They come together under the writing of Aaron Sorkin who has a ridiculously amazing control of the American English language. He knows how intelligent people speak and he creates a situation filled with intellectuals speaking fast and smart to each other. A fair number of the lines are packed with double meaning or deeper meanings or understandings. And the film holds up well over multiple viewings, even when you watch it one time right after another.

On DVD the film suffers from a lack of genuine bonus features. Sure, there's the trailer and a few production notes, but there are no commentaries, no featurettes, no flair. This is a film that deserves a better DVD treatment.

But this is an occasion where the strength of the material makes it easy to recommend, despite the limitations of the media it is presented in.

For other works with David Paymer, be sure to check out my reviews of:
Bad Teacher
In Good Company
State And Main


For other film reviews, be sure to visit my Movie Review Index Page for an organized listing!

© 2012, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.
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