Richard Dreyfuss is boring with a capital “OR,” but otherwise this film is all set to move center stage next time the Democrats run out of material at a fundraiser. Power, romance…and no real sex scenes or else it’d be the perfect Bill Clinton date movie.
WARNING: This review may include spoilers!
Rob Reiner, of yesteryear’s Archie Bunker fame, is now one of the top directors in Hollywood. From This is Spinal Tap to A Few Good Men to Stand By Me to When Harry Met Sally, Reiner just keeps churning out quality box-office material. The American President, starring Michael Douglas as President Andrew Sheppard and Annette Bening as his would-be girlfriend Sydney Ellen Wade, is no exception.
Sheppard, a widower with a 12-year old daughter, is a lonely, cerebral, highly sarcastic president. Though just entering an election year, Sheppard ignores his staff’s advice and begins dating environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade. In their first meetng, Sheppard offers Wade a deal: you pick up 24 votes for your environmental package, I’ll throw the full-support of the White House behind it. Sheppard figures that after Wade fails, he’ll step in with a softer environment bill and be a hero.
Problems begin when the president’s dating leads to a plummetting of his job approval numbers as voters and opposition party members begin questioning his character. As the numbers drop, Sheppard begins losing support for his crime bill, supposedly the cornerstone of his re-election campaign. In a stirring denoument (you can tell by the swelling of the orchestral score), Sheppard must choose between passing his crime bill and dissing his girlfriend or supporting the less politically popular environmental package and keeping his girlfriend. This is a romantic comedy, so you do the math.
Douglas is so believable as president it’s scary. In this post-Reagan era, he fits the role of Commander-in-chief perfectly. At the same time, Douglas is able to emphasize the humanity, the “just a regular guy” quality, of Sheppard, which is key to his character’s courtship of Wade. The scene of Sheppard’s relationship “slow-down plan” is priceless.
Bening is likewise brilliant. Wade is clearly a capable professional, but she’s also in awe of the president, and her struggle to see beyond the office of president to love the man who happens to be president is touching and genuine. Bening’s French is terrific, by the way.
The supporting cast (including Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox and David Paymer) is excellent. Sheen (Apocalypse Now) has the presidential chief of staff role down pat, and proves an outstanding compliment to Douglas. Fox (Back to the Future), playing sort of an Alex P. Keaton as Democrat (if such an other-worldly thing is possible), has a number of good moments. Sure, it’s basically the same likable character he’s always played, but so what? I like to like him. Paymer (City Slickers) is perfect as a dry-witted pollster, and his lines are some of the movie’s funniest. Other, more peripherial, members of the cast are just as enchanting.
So what’s not to like? Well, the opening Capra-esque montage, for starters. Dizziness is a bad way to begin a movie. Second, Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws, American Graffiti), a man who defines the term “mixed success,” is boring as can be as Senator Rumson, Sheppard’s Republican challenger. As a character driven piece, the film lags in terms of action as well. Perhaps I’ve just seen too many action flicks, but I expected more than just character development to happen in the course of the movie. (This is more likely my shortcoming than the film’s.)
But the biggest failing of the picture is easily that it is so overtly political. To a certain extent this can’t be helped given the subject matter, but we’re treated to extended monologues on the ACLU, gun control, flag burning and global warming among other issues.
And make no mistake: This is a solidly partisan picture. I’ve got nothing against the Democrats (at least not any more than I do against the Republicans), but the film was a little over the top in sections. I didn’t know whether to be amused or appalled that they made Sen. Rumson’s home state Kansas, just like Sen. Bob Dole. The comparisons don’t stop there: Sheppard is a president without prior military experience, Sheppard’s daughter Lucy is an only child, the president won election because there was no character debate…
Still, The American President is a fine effort. It’s light, enjoyable entertainment. True, Reiner loads it up with enough overt political messages that someone should find out if the film was financed by the Democratic Party. And seeing all the presidential perks makes it something of a Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous episode. But I didn’t find either event terribly distracting. This is a good picture, and it’s recommended viewing.