The American President is Aaron Sorkin’s predecessor to the television marvel that would come to be known as The West Wing. Although contextually similar, the movie and the TV show are at opposite poles of the dramatic spectrum.
The American President is quiet simply just a rom-com. Released in the 90s this movie did away with anything related to the complexities of leading a country and replaced it with mild political jargon to fill in between what would primarily be a love story. This is probably Sorkin’s only shot at a rom-com, and for a good reason that too. But that being said, everyone knows how well Sorkin can write corniness. In fact, right through the movie, I could sense the cheese melting somewhere in the vicinity only to be hurled at my face in the last act.
The original screenplay apparently had more elements than just the romantic flavour, but Sorkin had to do away with them on studio intervention. That’s right. The high lords of studios have been ruining good movies since ages. But on the bright side, all those left overs winded up forming what we now know as The West Wing. My biggest issue with this movie is that it wasn’t over the top enough. The cleverness of dialogue is there. There is wit, there is tension and there is drama. But where the movie falls flat is that the narrative isn’t captivating enough. The obstacle is way too mild. The President has an oh-so-comfortable premise for anything that he needs to do.
We all know that the catalyst to good rom-coms is the extent to which the man (Damn the generation of misogyny!) has to use a grand gesture to woo back the woman. Chase her to the airport, before she’s able to get on the plane. Have her at hello. Plan some extravagant apology. The thing with this rom-com is that anything that the President of the USA does for his date is an inevitable grand gesture. I mean, he is the President for crying out loud!
Being a Sorkin fan I just knew that the movie was building up to a grand monologue that would conveniently fix all of our President’s problems. And it did. His love-life, his presidency, his political staff’s worries. Everything was fixed with just that one speech. But that speech wasn’t, well, wasn’t good enough. Maybe I’d have enjoyed that moment so much more if I had watched it back in ’95.
Funnily enough I just couldn’t help myself but realise Sorkin’s escalation from Andrew Shepherd’s climatic monologue in the American President to Will McAvoy’s introductory scene in The Newsroom. And that my friends is a beautiful thing.
Director Rob Reiner does a fair job at pulling together a movie that dwelled in an era that’s very delusional. Politicians in Reiner’s universe scored political points for appealing to one’s character than anything else such as governing policies, or political inclinations. Which is alright because, again, this wasn’t a political drama at all. Michael Douglas is smooth as the American President and Annette Benning is laudable with her comic timing. Watching Martin Sheen play the Chief of Staff was pleasant as well, and an interesting contrast to his portrayal as the president on The West Wing. Michael J. Fox for me was a good casting decision. But man, was he ridiculously underused or what?
All in all, at the end of the day this movie is a 90’s rom-com, and to that title it doesn’t fail. But hold it up against the catalogue of great movies in general and you might shove it way down in the stack.