Before the dignity and prestige of the office was befouled and irreversibly tarnished by a bloviating titian demagogue, there was a time when America had fallen madly back in love with their Commander In Chief and Hollywood was falling over itself to ingratiate itself with the occupant of The White House.
1990s films such as “Dave“, “Deep Impact”, “Independence Day” and “Air Force One” cast the office in a flatteringly wise and often overtly heroic light but none looked at the ‘leader of the free world’ with such rose tinted glasses as Rob Reiner’s “The American President”.
As the widowed occupant of The White House, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is struggling to push a watered down crime bill through a reluctant Congress while being lobbied to push for a bold climate change target by an environmental pressure group. When the group hire experienced political lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), sparks fly. But as the romance comes under scrutiny and opportunistic political pressure, President Shepherd must decide how to juggle his political and personal life without compromising his principles or his integrity.
Written by Aaron Sorkin in a (with hindsight) dry run for “The West Wing”, “The American President” brings wit, wisdom and warmth to the screen, showing the very best of the American political system and making the most of its to-die-for cast. Alongside Douglas and Bening, who quickly develop an irresistible romantic chemistry, you have Martin Sheen (“The West Wing” president-in-waiting), Michael J Fox, Samantha Mathis, David Paymer, Richard Dreyfuss and John Mahoney to name but a few, each of them making the most of the expertly crafted script at their disposal.
Unlike “Dave”, the political McGuffins at the heart of the romantic-comedy-drama are the all too credible and real world concerns of gun control and climate change, as is the gerrymandering and manoeuvring to build a willing coalition of votes to pass the legislation.
Michael Douglas is superb as President Shepherd, the perfect mix of confident authority and playful humanity while Bening is delightful as the hard-boiled lobbyist being unexpectedly swept off her feet.
Where the film now scores extra points for stunning prescience is in its depiction of the opportunistic actions of Senator and would-be Presidential candidate Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), who sees the President’s burgeoning relationship with Sydney Ellen Wade as his chance to character-assassinate his way to power. The way Rumson’s self-aggrandizing, desperate and viciously shallow GOP candidate starts spreading rumours before cultivating them into ‘facts’ is eerily, depressingly topical. Sorkin’s choice of language and exquisitely crafted dialogue is so on point, it could easily have been lifted from Buzzfeed’s ‘Top 20 Trump Tweets’ (if, you know, they weren’t a ‘failing pile of garbage’).
In fact, the spectre of Trump lurks in many of the pithy exchanges between the White House staffers as they seek to support the President and fend off the increasingly personal attacks of Senator Rumson.
It’s no mean feat to craft a film which works equally well as a comedy, a romance and a political drama but Reiner, Sorkin and the stellar cast pull it off. Glossy, uplifting and warmly rewarding, this is another film to have on stand-by for the next four years.