THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (1995) ***
Had General Colin Powell seen this film, his decision not to run for the Presidency might have come earlier. Who, in his or her sane mind, wants to be President? Look at the beginning of the film. It shows the start of President Andrew Shepherd's (Michael Douglas) day. It's a talk-as-you-walk clipetty clop sequence of the President rushing through the corridors of power to his office, with a busy, busy staff briefing him, asking him to make decisions, fast, fast, and whispering in his ear the names of persons who greet him.
Soon President Andy starts remind you of President Bill. The main difference is that this President lost his wife to cancer three years ago. She was his one and only love. Now, with high approval ratings, he has his eye on re-election.
Otherwise, he has a teen-age daughter, shows liberal tendencies ("liberal" here meaning a positive 7-letter word, not a 4-letter insult), cares for the Nation in general and for good causes in particular, such as the environment and gun control. He is a Good Man -- and lonely. (Not enough is made of his solitude).
Perhaps we shouldn't pity him too much when we see what a dazzlingly efficient and devoted staff he has, all good people, some with great symbolic names. President Shepherd's own is pastoral and paternal. His Chief of Staff and best friend (Martin Sheen) is A.J. MacInerney. (Godard, I bet, would have preferred I.B.M. Macintosh). His pollster is Leon Kodak. His outspoken advisor (Michael J. Fox), obviously patterned after George Stephanopoulos, is Lewis Rothschild -- one minority name cannily replacing another.
The film rapidly introduces the sinuosities of Washington, their grandeur, pettiness, and in the President's case, some examples of a decent person practicing "Real Politik." Soon the President and Sydney Wade (Annette Bening), a hot shot environmental lawyer-lobbyist, meet cute, roughly in the Tracy-Hepburn tradition of initial antagonism.
For non-philanderer Andy, it's love at first sight, so quick that you have to wonder. Still, Sydney is charming, has personality and is no bimbo. Andy makes overtures, calls to invite the disbelieving Sydney (she thinks it's a hoax) to be his date at a State dinner.
The function is in honor of the new President of France and his wife. They are bored because, I suppose, of the well-known lack of social graces in America. Because, too, the American President is too wrapped up in Sydney. Also because he speaks no French.
Sydney does, with an atrocious accent, and saves the day. The whole sequence (as weak as any, especially in the un-etiquettish way Shepherd flaunts Sydney) would have been bad enough without adding linguistic insult to plot injury. The French President responds in his native language, which is so incredibly, lousily un-French that I can predict riotous laughter when this movie gets to Paris.
Now, one of the better aspects of this film is its impressive studio reconstruction (with liberties) of the White House. But if you can't trust Hollywood to find just one Frenchman for the microscopic part of Monsieur le President, what can you trust it for? It is appalling.
Research on who played the French Presidential couple has a funnier payoff than anything in the film: the thespians are called Clement Von Franckenstein and Efrat La Vie.
Sydney rapidly responds to the President's advances, with royal disregard for safe sex. What we have here is really a return to Ruritanian romances between royalty and commoners. In the early stages of this love affair, Douglas is more amusing than Bening. Like the insulated George Bush who was amazed by supermarket uses of check-out scanners, Mr. Shepherd does not know how to order flowers, pay for things or even get an outside phone line.
The satire is pleasant. On the other hand, Bening who normally overwhelms all around her, is herself so overwhelmed by the Presidential advances that her reactions are of the "Oh, my God, the Most Powerful Man in the World has asked me out!... Is in love with me... Has slept with me!." This excessive kowtowing and shuffling of feet makes one wonder if Bening's love for Douglas is not initially a form of Presidentolatry and Groupieism.
Mercifully, as the relation progresses, the couple become more of a man and a woman in love. The film acquires more convinction. The protagonists get more likable. What also helps is the old Heroes-in- Adversity ploy. The opposition, led by Richard Dreyfuss as the unpleasant Minority Leader, Republican Presidential candidate and Senator from Kansas Bob Rumson (you get the gag), adopts smear tactics vis-a-vis the President and his lady. Those ridiculous charges will lead to the Mr. Shepherd showing his mettle, doing the right thing by his conscience, his party, his country, the ACLU and his woman, and closing the movie with one of those cornily warm and eloquent "Wow!" speeches that were the domain of Frank Capra's heroes.
There's not a single scene in "The American President" that breaks new filmic ground. The movie does not hold water. It is not really interesting , yet, paradoxically, it does hold your interest.
The actors are all very good, in a "deja played" sort of way. Douglas, as a rule likable only when playing bad guys, is here a simpatico, straight arrow (for a politico) good guy. The movie is sweet and idealistic. Hollywoodisms, silliness and all, it contains a certain amount of Beltway truth. And it moves at a fast, un-boring clip. It may also be that today we need the reassurances of Capracorn just as much as in the days of Mr. Deeds, Mr. Smith and John Doe.