The American President (1995)
Written by Aaron Sorkin
Directed by Rob Reiner
President Andrew Robinson is looking for support on a crime bill, having dropped the gun control pieces much the chagrin of an ideological staff member. While his people work on the crime bill, Robinson meets Sydney Ellen Wade, an environmental lobbyist with her bill to push. She accidentally insults the president to his face, and they proceed to spar with Robinson feeling very charmed by her lightly. He’s been a widower for several years, going between being president and raising his daughter. Robinson and Wade develop a mutual attraction and eventually being a relationship that becomes impossible to maintain privacy with as the media swarms. Conservative politician Senator Rumson sees this an opening for presidential election bid and begins to frame this relationship as antithetical with American family values. What throws another wrench in things is that support for the crime and environmental bills is becoming a tug of war in the Senate.
Rob Reiner’s The American President is such a product of the Clinton era it verges on becoming embarrassing. Reiner makes no bones about being a dyed in the wool liberal, and the entire film is framed in his politics: the President is a kind-hearted yet prudent Democrat, and the “villain” is a conniving Republican exploiting family values rhetoric. The American President feels like such a relic of another era which after its release saw the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, the Bush/Gore election debacle, 9/11, the election of Obama and the rise of Tea Party politics, and now the hideous era of Trump. Twenty-two years doesn’t seem like a long time especially when compared to the fifty plus years between our time and some of the other films I’ve watched, but in the context of The American President, it feels like another planet.
There is no chance a film will ever seriously be made along these lines about Trump or any future president for that matter. The fundamental nature of how we see the presidency has been forever shifted and not to a place of reverence or respect but into one of suspicion and mistrust. In a Hollywood system which depends on asses in the seats, framing a movie along such stark political lines would be a box office disaster. I would say that Hollywood falls into the socially liberal, economically conservative camp. You don’t see many movies about crumbling infrastructure or stagnant wages, but we do see many films about the role of women, people of color, and LGBT in our history (Hidden Figures, Milk). I suspect any future movies about politics or presidents coming out of the United States would be more in line with Sorkin’s script for The Social Network, darker and more cynical.
The American President plays out like a test run for Sorkin’s West Wing series. Heck, even Martin Sheen is here in the role of Chief of Staff. There is a strong emphasis on the inner workings of the President’s staff, highlighting the conflicts between the eager and aggressive against the pragmatic and careful minds. Having the president not be a liberal wet dream signing off on every piece of progressive legislation was smart and given Sorkin points for that. Of the two big Clinton era presidential films, this and Dave, The American President does a much better job showing us the process alongside the romantic comedy-drama story playing out.
I don’t know if it is my current, cynical state of mind but I didn’t enjoy The American President. It felt too distant from the reality we are facing today, a liberal fairy tale. I’d love to live in the world of that movie where even the villain doesn’t put up much of a fight beyond running his mouth a bit. The American President has become the equivalent of superhero movies as escapist entertainment in these dark times for the nation. It also reeks of privilege with little no appearances by people of color outside of secret service agents and groundskeepers. Anna Deavere Smith does play the press secretary, but that is the prominent role for a person of color in the film. The American President would signal the last reverential film about presidencies, and our next picture will start to look at the ugly side: Primary Colors.