THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT
US, 1995, 113 minutes, Colour.
Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, Richard Dreyfuss, David Paymer, Samantha Mathis.
Directed by Rob Reiner.
A `feel-good' film that makes for polished entertainment for an adult audience.
Michael Douglas portrays a surprisingly genial, charming and principled Democratic president. The way his day is shown helps give something of an idea of what a president does and how his generally hectic timetable works. The president has a crime bill before Congress and is negotiating anti-pollution legislation and standards and percentages for toxic emission cuts. Annette Bening is a top-level lobbyist.
The first part of the film draws us in with its opening up of White House life in lavish detail. The film is also a `romantic story' and the romance seems a healthy antidote to the frantic pace of meetings, negotiations and briefings by shrewd aides and pollsters.
However, half-way through, the issues become more serious (including a bombing retaliation decision against Libya). The Republican presidential candidate (Richard Dreyfuss) campaigns on character and uses the media to the hilt. While the plot is able to be enjoyed by all, the issues really do make us think and react emotionally about political life in the public eye, media perceptions and voting, the lobbying for legislation, the right of the president to privacy (and the screenplay does not shirk issues of private morality, public judgments and some consequent double standards).
The screenplay relishes words and wit, using only a minimum of crass language. The intelligent writing is by Aaron Sorkin who is best known for the military courtroom drama, A Few Good Men, which was also directed by Rob Reiner.
1. Popular entertainment? The entertaining blend of the serious and the light?
2. The Washington DC locations? The interiors of the White House and the detail of the rooms, official rooms, private rooms? The White House style, elegance? The musical score?
3. The background of films about American presidents? With the light touch? The memories of Frank Capra and his films of the '30s - Mr Smith Goes to Washington? The optimism of this tradition? The inherent goodness of the American way of life? Not subjecting itself to critique from the outside? Yet an ironic presentation?
4. The title, the focus? The credits? The reputation of the American presidency in the '80s and '90s? The contrast between Reagan, Bush and Clinton? The film's release in 1995 - and the identifying of the president with Bill Clinton? The identification of the reactionary senator with the Republicans and Senator Bob Dole and the preluded to the 1996 campaign?
5. American politics: the Constitution, principles of liberty? The principles of the Constitution and government? Liberal attitudes? The background of legislation and the politics and the lobbying? The legislation against crime and the possibility of votes? The environment as an election issue? Percentages, lobbyists and aides? The lobbying of government, presidential advisers, the president himself? Dangers and warfare and the strategies, presidential decisions - and the bombing of Libya? The public personality and the media coverage of the president? The issues of private morality and the role of the media? Expectations of decisiveness, honesty and integrity in the presidency?
6. The opening, the detail of the president's life and work? The president himself, movement through the White House, the day beginning, the aides and their advice, the assistant with the timetable? Walking in private and in public, the Secret Service and security? The office? The details of the president's life, media, the advisers, politicians, the polls, strategies? The interplay of the various aides and their advice? The issues of privacy?
7. The situation of crime: the needs of the American public, safety? Lewis and the anti-gun lobby and legislation? The realism about the crime legislation and the environmental legislation? The play-offs and the compromises? The percentages of emissions? Lobbies and deals, seeing deals as a betrayal of the people? The variety of factors and the poll results?
8. Michael Douglas's screen presence as Andrew? A genial presence and integrity? President for three years? The Democratic background, as a widower? The background to his marriage, his wife's death and its impact on him, on the American public and their sympathies? His relationship with his daughter? Taking time with her, her studies, her music? The various aides? Lewis and his advice, his adviser with her timetables and keeping him up to date? The rest of the advisers and their personalities, alertness, conference sessions, advice? The issue of the upcoming election? Senator Munson and his attacks? His overhearing Sydney and her strong remarks? Discussions with her? The attraction to Sydney, the variety of phone calls and her reactions? Making a date - and his tentative beginning of a social life? The reactions of his advisers, of Sydney herself? On the phone, talk and silences? The reaction of his daughter? His time of play with her, study of social sciences and discussions? The principles of the democratic president, the quality and style of his leadership? The Libyan situation and the effect on him of ordering the air strike? Moral, political, personal?
9. Sydney and Annette Bening's screen presence? Her career and ambitions? Her friendship with Leo, the opportunity of meeting the president, her lobbying? Her assistant and wariness about her approach? Her handling of clashes in the department? The briefings, her shooting her mouth off, the effect of the president hearing her? Apologies? The phone call and thinking that somebody was mimicking the president? Her response to the date? The discussions of the issues with her sister and her sister's wisdom and support? Her arrival at the White House, the date itself, the banquet, the French? Her ease and her speaking in French? Dancing with the president? Leo and his confronting her? The press responding to the situation? Andrew's daughter's response? The question of private behaviour and public image? Her time with Andrew, the dish room - and the decisions? His having to handle the Libyan situation? Her falling in love, the deal? The politics of it? The night and the consequences - and the aide getting her out of the White House?
10. Martin Sheen as A.J., his long friendship with Andrew, their playing pool and discussion? His calling Andrew `Sir'? His taking a stance against Andrew? His role as adviser, his personality and the possibility of personal investment in his job?
11. The contrast with Michael J. Fox as Lewis, his energy, issues, advice, the personal life?
12. The aides and their handling of the press, the black African woman and her skills, her sense of offending the president with the remarks about his wife? Her handling of questions at the press conference?
13. The assistant and her scheduling, her help in personal matters - for example with the ordering of flowers for Sydney? (And the comedy of the visit to the florist?)
14. The portrait of Andrew's daughter, her growing up in the White House, her studies, her music, relationship with her father, approving of Sydney?
15. Senator Munson and the conservative mid-'90s Republican Party stances? His presence at the dinner? His interviews on TV - and their being seen in the background? The personal slurs? The critique at the end?
16. The advice given to Andrew about Sydney, the decision whether to dump Sydney or not? Her lobbying and the president being caught, the compromises, her anger and departure, future?
17. The importance of Andrew's final speech, direct to the American public? The principles enunciated, the ideals, a positive presentation? Sydney's response?
18. The blend of the serious and the comic, the wit, the comedy? The impact on an American audience in the mid '90s? The face of the presidency outside the US?