am 6. Februar 2006
Before the successful run of the series 'West Wing', Aaron Sorkin created another presidential drama for the big screen, entitled 'The American President' (the film co-stars Martin Sheen, who would go on to be the president, Josiah Bartlett, in the television series). This is one of the first fictional accounts of life in the White House to concentrate more on the private lives of the people who work there, particularly the president, more than the politics or policies that make up the work of the place. (I like to pair this film for viewing with 'Dave', a comedy starring Kevin Kline who stands in for a president who had a stroke; this also deals in a different way with the private lives of those in the White House.)
This film is very well done in terms of detail; the sets for the White House are incredible, and the footage for placing shots taken around the actual White House and around Washington are truly remarkable. The Oval Office set was constructed for the film 'Dave', and is also the one that continues to be used on the West Wing, along with other sets. A bit of trivia: When Shepherd first calls Wade to ask her out on a date, she doesn't believe him, and hangs up the phone. When Shepherd rang back, he gave Wade a number to call him back - 456-1414 - which is in fact the number to the White House switchboard (with a D.C. area code 202).
Also, for a film that doesn't concentrate on the issues of policy, the backdrop of the policy struggles are also very interesting to watch. For such dramas, policy issues must necessarily be bare-bones in terms of presentation, but one does get a sense of the politics involved when the president has to make a tough choice between two favoured projects as to which one is going to get his support. In the end (and I'm not giving away the ending, because it remains unresolved) President Shepherd does come to support both projects, but this is intended as a more feel-good move to set the film on a course of idealism and principle winning out over politics - in other words, a Hollywood ending.
President Shepherd is a liberal president, but quite distinct from being a copy of Clinton. We get the sense that character debates for Clinton are being played out by writer Aaron Sorkin and producer/director Rob Reiner (one of the leading directors in Hollywood), but they don't quite match, given the different personal situations for Shepherd and Clinton. Shepherd is a widower, whose wife died during the campaign. He has a high-school aged daughter, played by Shawna Waldron (who is remarkably well-adjusted for being someone who both lost her mother and being a politician's child), and tries to navigate the difficulties of being a single parent and president at the same time.
Enter into the scene, rather near the president's first term of office, Sydney Ellen Wade (played by Annette Bening). Wade is a professional lobbyist (who, we find out later, makes more money than the president - this is not unusual in politics) hired to bolster the environmental lobby's efforts to pass major legislation. Wade is an attractive, single lady used to the rough-and-tumble of politics, although occasionally seems a bit naïve, as does Shepherd, as their relationship deepens and the press papparazi begin to circle. Her appearance on the scene knocks Shepherd out of his complacency, and he begins a courtship that is in full view of the world press, as well as the conservative challengers to the election, that is happening in one year's time.
Michael Douglas plays the role of the president with panache but also with a bit of imperiousness; perhaps this cannot be avoided by anyone who wants such an august role, (in real life or in acting) but there is a tension between the idea of the liberal, for-the-people president who then also acts in a rather elitist and condescending manner. Douglas's main opponent politically is Senator Bob Rumson (doubtlessly a character drawn from the public image of Bob Dole), who is presented in a very monochromatic way (the complexity of the conservative side would be shown in Sorkin's series, 'The West Wing' in more detail, but still suffers from bias). Richard Dreyfuss plays this role well, but is prevented from developing this character as much more than a nemesis both by the writing and the on-screen time constraints.
Martin Sheen plays Andrew Shepherd's chief of staff, A.J. MacInerney (it would have been a nice touch if MacInerney would have been the president, rather than Bartlett, for 'The West Wing'). Sheen's role is well-done, but again we see more of the personal rather than the political here - MacInerney is Shepherd's best friend in here, rather than being chief of staff. Another major role went to Michael J. Fox, who as Lewis Rothschild was really playing the character of George Stephanopoulos. Also starring is Anna Deavere Smith as press secretary (she will also go on to 'The West Wing' as National Security Advisor, the role Condaleeza Rice had prior to becoming Secretary of State.
This is a polished film, very well done, with lots of details and a nice romantic story. It is biased in the liberal direction - many Republican friends I know like the film, but I have yet to find one who loves it. For Sorkin, this is the kind of liberal president that he'd like to have (and Bartlett on 'The West Wing' is a further extension of that), but reality rarely lives up to such ideals in any direction.
A well-done film, with minor flaws, but good appeal.