The American President
Director: Rob Reiner / Screenplay: Aaron Sorkin / Editing: Robert Leighton / DP: John Seale / Music: Marc Shaiman
Cast: Michael Douglas / Annette Bening / Martin Sheen / Michael J. Fox / Anna Deavere Smith / Samantha Mathis / Shawna Waldron / David Paymer / Anne Haney / Richard Dreyfuss / Nina Siemaszko / Gail Strickland / Joshua Malina / Clement von Franckenstein / Efrat Lavie / John Mahoney
The View From the
Left West Wing…
For those who can remember that far back, the accession of Bill & Hilary Clinton to The White House, in January ‘93, really did feel – at least for a spell – like the benevolent ghost of JFK had returned, embodied in this folksy, sax-playing dealmaker from Arkansas…
The USA had a ‘cool’ President once again; one seemingly capable of treading the fine line between the responsibility of the Office and being seen to ‘enjoy’ it, as might any ‘ole regular Joe. The Clintonian Presidency would, of course, come to be remembered for reasons other than any progressive policy it might’ve pushed-through, though from the perspective of 2019, two years into the Trump Presidency, it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t be the last to fall short of the ideal….
The American President started-out life as a one-line premise from Robert Redford: [what happens] if the President elopes? Redford’s own Wildwood Films pitched the idea out to a few writers, with Aaron Sorkin’s response deemed the most intriguing. Sorkin’s idea revolved, not around a Presidential elopement, but a love affair involving a widowed President… At that point, Wildwood joined forces with Nineties ‘super-indie’ production house Castle Rock and found itself a Director: Rob Reiner, one of Castle Rock’s founders and someone with a track record at handling similar material.
Suddenly, elements were falling into place.
In addition to the rest of his filmography, Reiner had already directed a Sorkin piece to both critical & commercial acclaim, with A Few Good Men (1992) and the hokey, though warm-hearted tale Sorkin had concocted as a starring-vehicle for Redford had everyone excited. There was just one problem: a character clash between affable, laid-back Redford and the terrier-like Reiner, led to Redford passing on the lead role; he’d co-produce but wouldn’t star.
In his place, came Michael Douglas. The role marked an interesting choice for an actor who’d been enjoying a hot-streak to that point: Fatal Attraction (1987) had broken him through as someone who could ‘open’ a movie as an actor, rather than as producer. Attraction’s success led to some eclectic choices: Ridley Scott’s Black Rain (1989), Verhoeven’s Basic Instinct (1992) and Joel Schumacher’s Falling Down (1993) the stand-outs in a string of projects enabling Douglas to step further from his father’s shadow. Along the way, was the usual filler, intended for little more than keeping the pilot light aflame: not that President could ever be accused of being ‘filler’ – not with the calibre of talent behind it.
For what Sorkin had constructed so elegantly, was nothing less than a ‘Capra-esque’ modern fairytale; one in which the girl finds her Prince and together, they vanquish all antagonies. Given Sorkin’s, Reiner’s & Redford’s left-of-centre political views, this parlayed into a Democratic-Liberal’s wet-dream of a picture, in which the Republican ‘enemy’ are painted as little more than pantomime villains. Once again, from the perspective of 2019, little’s changed…
Things begin with a rote montage of objects & imagery associated with The Oval Office, alongside Marc Shaiman’s sweeping, lush score that’s doing much of the heavy lifting in imbuing gravitas & reverence to the sheer symbology of it all: how could those lilting strings fail to impress?
At which point, enter: President
Michael Douglas Andrew Shepherd, who’s walking down a corridor and talking to his trusty P.A., Janie (Samantha Mathis) as he leaves the residence and takes the short walk over to The West Wing, joined by Policy Advisor Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox) and others. Then you realise: This scene. This set. This ‘walk & talk’. This writer would later be inspired to create (and write the first four seasons of) The West Wing (1999 – 2006): one of the most critically revered & beloved TV series there has ever been. What we’re seeing, right here, is Genesis.
There’s more to appreciate, when Shepherd has an exchange with his Secretary Mrs Chapil (Anne Haney), prior to entering The Oval Office itself: there to meet his Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney, played by none-other than the man who would be ‘President Bartlett’, Martin Sheen. Even the Oval Office set, links directly to The West Wing (‘TWW’), becoming part of the show, after featuring in a few more pictures such as Independence Day (1996). I could go on with an appreciation of TWW, but will spare you, Dear Reader…
Shepherd’s morning begins with a ‘huddle’ in the Oval, at which an aide – Leon Kodak (David Paymer) reveals buoyant poll numbers, sufficient to carry-through a moderate ‘crime bill’, considered too lily-livered by Democrats but as daring as Republicans will allow. This is the ‘McGuffin’ on which Sorkin will later pivot but, for now, he switches tack by focusing on an up-coming State Dinner for the new French President and the fact that Shepherd’s date – his cousin – has ‘flu and can’t make it. Press Secretary, Robin McCall (Anna Deaveare Smith, who’d play the Defense Secretary in TWW) makes a crass remark about Shepherd being ‘paraded as a widower’ and now we get to follow the breadcrumb trail left by Sorkin.
Now we know why the film opened with Shepherd leaving the residence and not with him inside: because there would have been too many revealing clues, too soon. By delaying this reveal, Sorkin has given Shepherd’s character space to round-out in other areas of his life. He’s been shown as collegial, respectful & curious: all decent qualities that, by the time his ‘Cinderella’ shows-up, will have marked him out as more than ‘The Leader of The Free World’: he’ll also be seen to be a ‘good guy’ and, therefore, a ‘catch’.
‘Cinderella’ in this case, is Sydney Ellen Wade, played by Annette Bening. Bening’s an interesting actress, with a career full of eclectic choices; some that paid off and many that didn’t but, in President, she brings a genuine, unaffected warmth to the part that suits her range. I recently covered Film Stars Don’t Die in Liverpool (2017) in which she played the late Gloria Grahame and was delighted to see some of that warmth and sparky intelligence return.
When we first see ‘Syd’, she’s a newly-hired lobbyist at an environmental pressure group. The White House has tabled another Bill, calling for ‘10% greenhouse gas emissions’, believing that its original aim of a 20% cut won’t pass. But Syd’s new employer – the nebulous ‘GDC’ – has skin in the game and wants Shepherd’s administration to push for 20%. So, Syd gets to The White House, to push her agenda. When she’s at the gatehouse, signing-in with a colleague, Sorkin has her talk to the guard, about the ‘Capra-esque’ feel of the experience, thus acknowledging the fairytale quality of it all. It’s also notable, that he writes an unexpected response from the guard, who displays a pub-quiz level of background detail on Capra’s style; not for the benefit of Syd’s colleague, of course, but for us – the audience. This is Sorkin telegraphing what kind of film he has in-store for us, as much as treating even minor players as intrinsic to the experience. In such exchanges then, Sorkin is getting something from nothing and it plays further to the idea of fairytale: in THIS world, even a guard on-duty at The White House knows who Frank Capra was…
Now comes the embarrassing faux-pas that’ll endear Syd to Shepherd: she’s castigating his ability to deliver on the 20% target to a bemused A.J. and others, when Shepherd enters the room unseen and unheard by Syd. Only when he chides – well, teases – her, does Syd crumble with embarrassment. Shepherd asks her to join him for a private discussion ‘in the ‘Rec’ room’, otherwise known as The Oval Office. Sorkin’s using a playful euphemism to undersell a symbol of authority that, to the uninitiated, can overwhelm: as it does Syd, when she finds herself there, alone (which, incidentally, is exactly what Shepherd intends).
Sorkin might’ve written it, but kudos to Reiner, for mounting DP John Seale’s camera on a crane and have it gaze-down, taking-in both the room’s, err, ovality and diminishing Syd’s place within it. If you’re the incumbent, of course you’re going to refer to the trappings of state and privilege in such casual terms: it might be the only way to come-to-terms with it all. As a side note, Reiner followed President Clinton for two days around The White House as part of his research and this is precisely the kind of telling detail I can see him adding.
Shepherd’s intrigued by Syd. He even asks her for a coffee & doughnut then and there, but she can’t hear him; she’s all but got her fingers in her ears and chanting ‘LaLaLa!’. All she wants, now that she’s alone with the President, is to promote her agenda.
Later, Shepherd calls her – why wouldn’t he? She’s staying at her sister’s apartment, having just moved to the city and at first, we go through another classic routine: the mistaken identity of the mystery caller. You all know the drill:
‘I’m the President!’
‘No, I really am. Call this number and tell the switchboard your name…’
[Operator] ‘This is The White House.’
‘Oh, [insert expletive here]…’
After a little futzing, Sorkin cuts-to-the-chase and has Shepherd invite her to be his date for the State Dinner; the cue for Syd to squeal in excitement and ask the obvious question; the kind that we might ask in that moment: ‘What do I do? Where do I go?’ If you wondered? THIS is Capra-esque territory…
Cue: More of the fairytale at the Dinner as Syd meets the President’s circle, gets to show-off her French to, err, the French President and is then asked by Shepherd to dance:
Syd: ‘Two hundred pairs of eyes are focussed on you right now, with two questions. Who’s this girl and why is the President dancing with her?’
Shepherd: ‘Well, first of all, the two hundred pairs of eyes aren’t focussed on me. They’re focused on you. And the answers are: Sydney Allen Wade and because she said ‘yes’.
As they dance, alone out there on the floor, Reiner thoughtfully cuts-away to cover A.J’s wife squeeze her husband’s shoulder; pleased at seeing their old friend dance again. In that one moment, so much is acknowledged yet left unspoken; it’s a tiny detail, but classy of Reiner to spot it. All the more so, because we’ve already learnt that A.J. was Shepherd’s Best Man at the wedding to his late wife and that he carries such respect for the Office his best friend now holds, that he can’t bring himself to address him as anything but ‘Mister President’. Now that’s love…
Reiner pulls a second trick in the closing shot of the sequence, when Syd’s car passes by the White House railings, and we see her gazing over, wistfully: if that isn’t alluding to Cinderella leaving the ball…
The following day brings questions, of course. Syd’s boss (the wonderful John Mahoney) wants to know if she’s now fatally compromised as a lobbyist and Shepherd is having to bat-away leading questions of his own, as he struggles in-vain to order a bouquet from a florist; Sorkin giving us a glimpse of the practicalities involved in the job of President. He’d return to this theme in TWW, when he had Bartlett call the ‘Butter Ball Hotline’ for advice on roasting a Thanksgiving turkey. If a gag’s worth doing once, it’s worth repeating…
Syd wants to go-slow with Shepherd, yet she still demurs and agrees to have dinner with him and pre-teen daughter, Lucy (Shawna Waldron). Sorkin has already shown Lucy before. Once, when her dad interrupted her trombone (?) practice to give a homily about studying the US Constitution (‘It’s a real page-turner!’) and again, when she ties his dickey-bow in a manner ‘learnt from mom’. That admission led Shepherd to run the idea of him even dating past his daughter. The result, is that as things turn serious, we don’t think of Lucy as being hurt in any way. On the contrary, as all three of them appear to enjoy dinner and a post-prandial game of Scrabble. This is important, because it counter-balances Sorkin’s other sub-plot: that of Republican exploitation of the emerging situation, by one Bob Rumson (an under-written part for Richard Dreyfuss), that has him set-up as a ‘straw man’ running for President against Shepherd’s re-election, with the slogan: ‘The Pride is Back!’. Well, I suppose it trips-off the tongue easier than ‘Make America Great Again’…
Rumson – our Pantomime Villain – will cast doubt and make ungrounded assertions about Syd’s past achievements; he’s the antagonist, after all, yet Sorkin leaves it as a sideshow to the main event – the romance; any writer worth their salt knows, they can’t have it all in a two-hour popcorn movie: this isn’t All the President’s Men. This is a warm-hearted Rom-Com that just happens to have the President as one of its players. Sorkin will include only as much of the job as he needs, in order to keep things bubbling.
Things are moving-on for Syd. She confesses how-much, to her sister, in a snappy exchange that’s straight out of a Hepburn-Tracy screwball comedy:
Beth: ‘You kissed him? You didn’t tell me that.’
Syd: ‘I kissed him.’
Syd: ‘On the mouth.’
Beth: ‘Where in The White House?’
Syd: ‘The Dish Room. Err, The China Room.’
Beth: ‘And then what happened?’
Syd: ‘He had to go and attack Libya.’
Beth: ‘There’s always something.’
This segues into Syd arriving unexpectedly at the White House, to tell Shepherd that she intends to slow-down, in a sequence that culminates with a well-written (and shot) sequence in which she actually beds him; the joke being here that, at the time, Douglas had admitted to undergoing treatment for ‘sex addiction’ yet here, his character is the reluctant one. Shepherd can talk all he likes about Syd’s reservations being the result of ‘sex and nervousness’, but the writing shifts ever-subtly, to being read by Syd as the thing she needs to hear, before she makes the next move. There’s no predatory behaviour from Shepherd here, so again, we see this widower as ‘getting lucky’, rather than bringing the Office into disrepute.
Sorkin’s various strands then play themselves-out. Rumson comes-and-goes; whatever threat he poses, is nullified in the edit, along with Lucy, who seems well-adjusted enough not to worry about. There’s some flimflammery about a U.S. weapons system that’s struck by ‘The Libyans’ (in ‘95, the go-to sponsor of terrorism for screenwriters the World-over). This thread exists merely to let our man ‘display the feels’ for those about to be hit by America’s ‘proportionate response’. Again, Sorkin allows character to flow from action: in this case, we learn that, despite lacking any military experience, Shepherd’s unafraid of making the tough choices (an aspect of character Sorkin would bestow upon Bartlett in TWW).
The last major speech of the show, is given to Lewis, who calls-out Shepherd for not giving leadership, citing his lack of defence in-support of Syd against Rumson and for losing sight of his political mission in the process. It’s a stirring call-to-arms that, while effective as a speech (and might very well be Sorkin telling us his own truth), it also galvanises Shepherd into being Shepherd once more. In this picture, that means the scrapping of the (mediocre) crime bill and the re-promotion of Syd’s 20% eco-target. When Sorkin re-uses this ploy in TWW, it secures Bartlett’s re-election and refocuses his administration on what matters. Turns out, in this fairytale, you really can have it all and with next-to-no political compromises, either: but THAT’s what makes it a fairytale, right?
This review might’ve focused on Sorkin’s peerless writing, but credit to Reiner for delivering on the script’s promise. I admit to having a soft spot for him as a Director, right from his debut with This Is Spinal Tap (1984), through The Princess Bride (1987), When Harry Met Sally (1989) and A Few Good Men. In most of his films, Reiner demonstrates a straightforward conviction that, in the end – and somehow – ‘Good will triumph’. To a degree, his pictures have outcomes that can be predicted early, yet he delights in crafting a narrative experience that flows – via a series of vignettes – seamlessly towards that foreseen outcome. In other words, a Rob Reiner picture is not always about the destination: it’s also about the sights, sounds and smells along the way, that make the journey so memorable. Since President however, he’s delivered a string of worthy, left-of-centre pictures that don’t travel well: LBJ (2016), anyone? Still, for those who find it, The Magic of Belle Isle (2012) is worth a look, if only to see how Virginia Madsen resuscitates Morgan Freeman’s lost muse.
In conclusion, then, The American President stands as a solid piece of writing from Sorkin that did more than inspire a TV classic. It showed his range as a writer (TV! Film! Theatre!) and stretches the legs of a few careworn tropes; all gleam in their new outing. Casting, too, is top-notch; amongst the ensemble, there’s not a single face underserving of their spot; had Redford signed-on with Reiner, we’d have had a different picture, that’s for sure, but not necessarily a better one. Michael Douglas is comfortable here and enjoying Sorkin’s mellifluous capacity for dialogue. It’s all working.
If I have any criticism, I think it lies with the tightrope that comes from spreading your plots too thin… After a while, you end-up shoe-horning stuff in, for the sake of form as much as continuity. Take Rumson, for example: a strand that’s tonally flat and goes nowhere. While I agree that Sorkin needed some kind of spanner in-the-works, I can’t help but feel that this one was the wrong size for the job… At its heart, the plot is also thin. There’s a lot going on around the periphery of what is just a boy-meets-girl love story. I think it forgets that sometimes, in favour of Sorkin’s ‘Razzle-Dazzle’.
Still, sometimes you have to ignore the width and just feel the quality…
“People want leadership, Mister President and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps-up to the microphone. They want leadership. They’re so thirsty for it, they’ll crawl through the desert toward a mirage and when they discover there’s no water, they’ll drink the sand.”