Americana Movie Month: "The American President" Review

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A widowed US president and a lobbyist fall in love in this comedy/drama film. Michael Douglas and Annette Bening star as the lead roles
3.5

Americana Movie Month: "The American President" Review

-- Rating: PG-13
Length: 114 minutes
Release Date: Nov. 17, 1995
Directed by: Rob Reiner
Genre: Comedy/Drama/Romance

Ah, for the days of the silver screen, when American films, if they had to depict the president at all, usually did so from a respectful oblique angle, so as not to humanize him too thoroughly. It was a part of the prevailing culture that the President of the United States should not be quoted out of context, should be allowed what privacy he insisted upon, and most definitely, never in a million years should the media entertain speculation regarding his romantic activities. It really was that simple: if showing Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his wheelchair or walking with a cane were forbidden by a gentleman's agreement, then depicting him as a widower who was just beginning to get his toes wet again would have been something akin to blasphemy against the ghost of George Washington.

Nothing of this attitude has survived to the present day, of course. Today, "be watched all the time" seems to be in the job descriptions of all modern United States presidents. Though reverence for presidents seems to have evaporated, Hollywood sometimes appears to be almost indecently eager to depict the incumbents on film. In "The American President," the audience is treated to one of those more modern, personable chief executives. As President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) nears the end of his first term as America's bachelor president, he's facing stiff opposition from a rival, Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), who seems willing to do whatever it takes to win the presidency. When President Shepherd meets an environmental-read: okay to root for-lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), sparks fly and soon they're a couple. However, they may not be able to resist the combined pressures of publicity, the presidency, and politics.

"The American President" is a technically sound motion picture. Clearly, professionals were hired to write and act, as well as set up the shots and fix the lighting just so. The editing of this film-a far more important factor in the finished product than is typically appreciated-is crisp and coherent and never leaves out a shot or allows the audience to linger on distracting details. It is, in other words, a solid film.

The cast has also turned in a solid performance. Michael Douglas seems to be at his best when he's playing an executive of some sort and wearing a suit. Obviously, the President of the United States of America, being the nation's chief executive, is the role he was born to play. His style is a good fit for the role, as well. With clear dialogue spoken sharply, Douglas commands every scene he is in; also, such is his presence that his performance as President Shepherd manages to infiltrate even scenes in which he does not appear.

Annette Bening suffers from a terrible degenerative condition common to actresses in America, which is usually referred to as "being over thirty." The problem with this, as any agent would agree, is that unless an actress has seriously made her mark by blazing a trail across Hollywood while still in her twenties, the roles she is assigned will be generally confined and restrictive, with precious little room to develop a living, breathing character. Bening's Sydney Ellen Wade has been given this treatment through no fault of her own. The Wade character is painted with such a broad brush, and with so little thought seeming to have been given to the concept of female lead, her performance is foreordained to be two-dimensional. It is as if a writer simply inserted a bracketed placeholder where her character was supposed to develop, with a note reading. "insert generic female who can pass for a lobbyist." This is supremely frustrating to people who would have liked to have seen what is essentially an unprecedented situation explored from a perspective somewhat different from that of the usual boy's club. This failure dogs "The American President" and prevents the emergence of a real character that is portrayed by a competent actress.

This is a shame, since "The American President" is a very capable film in just about every other way. The premise of the film, while counterfactual, is not ridiculous to the point of becoming unbelievable. The actual process that a widowed man, with all the responsibility he can handle, slowly goes through as he learns to let go of the pressure that has sustained him throughout his career is believable and sound.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5