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If Michael Douglas were a little more like James Stewart and a little less like, well, Michael Douglas, maybe Rob Reiner would have come closer to making the ingenuously patriotic Capra-style romance he intended to. But The American President is no Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Instead, it’s like When Harry Met Sally… with Secret Service agents. The film opens with a magnificently corny montage of American icons: the Stars and Stripes, an American eagle, George Washington’s portrait. Lest audiences miss the point, Reiner even has the movie’s leading lady describe her first visit to the White House as “Capraesque.”
Andrew Shepherd (Douglas) is a widowed Democratic president whose desire to ask environmental activist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) on a date throws his staff into an uproar. The president’s closest advisors—Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), Domestic Policy Advisor Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox), White House pollster Leon Kodak (David Paymer), and White House Press Secretary Robin McCall (Anna Deavere Smith)—fear that a high-profile presidential courtship will affect his approval rating, which rests comfortably at an all-time high. Their anxiety is compounded by the fact that, of course, it’s an election year.
Shepherd and his future date meet cute—very, very cute—when he walks into a meeting where she’s energetically bad-mouthing his wishy-washy stance on environmental issues. When the president whisks her into the Oval Office, however, Wade’s politics devolve into a flurry of blushes and giggles. She pulls herself together for some halfhearted bluster toward the end of their meeting, but her girlishness has already overcome her convictions. Not only is he the leader of the free world, but, as she mentions later, he’s “got a great ass.” The film’s comic premise is that dating can reduce even the President of the United States to a babbling idiot. And so it goes; that evening finds Shepherd anxiously asking his chief of staff, “Did she say anything about me?”
For the remainder of the film, Shepherd struggles to be a regular guy in an office that doesn’t allow it. He tries, for instance, to send flowers from the White House, only to discover that he doesn’t know how to get an outside line. (If Douglas were at all engaging, such moments would not be quite so charmless, but he’s far too wooden and uncharismatic to convey much of anything, least of all warmth and vulnerability.) Before Shepherd asks Wade out, an aide suggests taking a polling sample to see how it will go over with the American public. After the couple spend the night together, a crowd of advisers gathers in his White House bedroom to strategize about how to handle what is now the “situation.” Not that dating the president is all bad: When Shepherd makes his girlfriend angry, she doesn’t resort to personal attacks. Instead, she retorts, “You just lost my vote.”
As if all this weren’t cute enough, Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin up the sentimental ante by giving Shepherd an adorable 12-year-old daughter. Like the little boy in Sleepless, she gives her bumbling widower Dad precociously savvy dating advice, and is seemingly untroubled by the notion of her dead mother being superseded by another woman. She’s also flunking social studies, which gives the filmmakers the opportunity to exhibit Shepherd’s simple-hearted enthusiasm for American politics. “This is exciting stuff,” he gushes, reading the preamble to the Constitution aloud from his daughter’s textbook.
The President crew spent time in the Clinton White House in order to prepare for the film, but its realism seems to be primarily architectural. (The movie’s interiors, anyway, are accurate enough to require listing a “Drapery Foreman” in the credits. Its exteriors, however, are already out of date: They depict traffic passing up and down Pennsylvania Avenue.) Yet no matter how informal the White House actually is, it’s hard to imagine a presidential aide chiding the president for omitting the “kick-ass section” of last night’s big speech, as Fox’s Rothschild does. The actor has said that he modeled his character on both George Stephanopoulos and Jiminy Cricket, and it’s not hard to believe him. He does get all the good lines, though: “It’s characters like me,” he observes, “who always end up spending 18 months in Danbury minimum-security prison.”
The filmmakers make no secret of their politics. President‘s characters are forever spouting liberal truisms like “people don’t relate guns to gun-related crime.” Douglas is a not-so-subtle Clinton figure (whenever something goes wrong, his aides worry that his “lack of military service” will come up again), while Richard Dreyfuss, as Conservative Coalition on America leader Robert Rumson, is the Newt Gingrich/Pat Buchanan stand-in. While the film’s Democrats sit in the Oval Office wringing their hands over things like gun control and fossil fuel emissions, its Republicans, sporting dark suits and bad haircuts, sit in a dark room and plan the character assassination of a president so dedicated that he breaks a date with Annette Bening so he can personally avert an airline strike.
This being a Capra knockoff, when Shepherd finally fights back, he does it in a heartfelt monologue baked by surging music. And aptly enough, his speech glorifies the refusal to compromise—an irony not lost on the audience of federal and District staffers who packed the weekday screening I attended.