For today’s next review of The American President (1995), here’s yet another review by Steven of Past Present Future TV and Film
Thanks again Steven!
Politics and comedy. Strange bedfellows indeed. Throw in romance and drama, and you’ve got yourself what seems like one strange film. Is it possible to have a film be all these things at once, and still be good?
The Warner Bros. Pictures film “The American President”, certainly aims to achieve this in a completely compelling and original manner.
This romantic comedy stars Michael Douglas (upcoming “Beyond the Reach”, “And So It Goes”), Annette Bening (upcoming “Danny Collins”, “The Search”), Martin Sheen (upcoming “Grace and Frankie”, “Selma”), David Paymer (“The Good Wife”, “Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit”), Samantha Mathis (“The Good Wife”, “Law & Order: SVU”), “John Mahoney (“Foyle’s War”, “Hot in Cleveland”), Anna Deavere Smith (“Nurse Jackie”, “Rachel Getting Married”), Nina Siemaszko (“Monday Mornings”, “The Bling Ring”), Wendy Malick (“Hot in Cleveland”, “BoJack Horseman”), Shawna Waldron (“Stitch”, “Night Lights”), and Michael J. Fox (“Annie (2014)”, “The Michael J. Fox Show”).
The film is directed by Rob Reiner (“And So It Goes”, “The Magic of Belle Isle”) and written by Aaron Sorkin (“Moneyball”, “The Social Network”).
The film originally opened on Nov. 17, 1995. The film would go on to be nominated for an Academy Award and five Golden Globe Awards among other nominations and single win.
When one decides to watch a movie, it’s not every day that the idea of popping in an old VHS would enter into it. But that is precisely what happened when it came time to pick which movie to watch first. “A Few Good Men” or this one. I chose this one, and was oddly excited about watching this on VHS. There’s just such an interesting video quality, that not only reminds you you’re watching an older movie, but that there was once a time when movies were released on VHS. Who would’ve thought you could miss something this ancient? It’s probably got a space next to rotary phones or phonographs.
Interestingly, this year marks the 20th anniversary of the films release. I didn’t fully piece that together until after I read the release date and realized what year we were in. Before, it was me just knowing the release year and that was it. The timing of it all amuses me.
To kick things off, let’s talk about that writing done by Sorkin. The story and the needed dialogue is absolutely brilliant! It’s got a pace that is perfect and rarely seen in comedies like this. It’s also still incredibly funny and fast. Faster in some places than in others. One thing to note, in a retrospective or hindsight kind of way, is that as this is written by Sorkin, there’s a lot of overlap with his previous or later works. More like reuse of dialogue in a few cases. Throwing the word plagiarism around, jokingly, of course, has been known to happen when speaking of Sorkin. He himself admits this much. There’s also familiar names that pop up, but those may be even harder to pullout. I notice it, as I’ve managed to, more or less, be impressed with everything he’s done. So, there’s also a bit of bias. I’m sorry, but there is.
Anyway, while this is a really good film, and one worth seeing multiple times, I couldn’t help but notice that it feels like an extended episode of “The West Wing”, even if I know this came a few years before the show. It’s an interesting thing to note, but it also serves as a good way of noting that he’s consistent in his writing style. Even when dealing with vastly different subjects and characters, he still approaches storytelling in the same, if not similar, manner.
With Sorkin as the one creating this world and characters, you don’t just get one central plot, but several very compelling subplots involving politics. This may not appeal to others, but it sends me over the moon! Even if you’re not interested in politics a whole lot, there’s still something for you to latch onto when watching this. Seeing what the characters decide to do, either to begin a conversation on any subject, or in response to an action someone else has taken, never ceases to be interesting and exciting. Without these subplots, this film wouldn’t actually be all that interesting. There’s a hell of a lot more life in this film than if it had just been Douglas existing outside of doing presidential work. Family and private life stuff can only be interesting for so long.
There’s even (spoiler), a breakup speech, and it was so sad, but so fascinating. This was primarily because of the way it was written and delivered. The contents of what was in this speech really helped sell the effectiveness of it. All in all, this is how the film as a whole succeeds. The writing coupled with the work that the very capable actors do, brings out the humanity, and the reasons you care. It also gives you a balance of drama and comedy, which is very hard to achieve.
Another instance, which I loved all over again, was involving a monologue. It was given at the press briefing towards the end of the film, and it was incredible! You’ve got Douglas standing in front of these people and finally laying it all out for the press corps. Maybe not entirely moving, but pretty powerful in both delivery and writing. Another reason why Sorkin is truly talented at writing. He really knows how to tell a story, as well as write monologues for various characters. It’s a trademark.
Walk and talk! Just had to throw that out there too.
Now, I know it seems like I’ve only been talking, again, on how great the script and the writing is, but there’s a reason for that. It’s really the only thing that warrants getting extremely excited about. Sure there’s the actors, but that’s only because of who they are and what we know they’ve done since this film. Let’s explore…
The actors are great, there’s no denying that. Every character is absolutely fascinating, even though you don’t really seem to know all that much about them. And therein lies the problem. There’s character information, but not anything particularly deep, moving or otherwise. No one character really seems to develop all that much. Yes, Douglas and Bening develop in the relationship they have, but they kind of have to. Replace either actor and the same is still going to be true.
Douglas’ character has a great relationship with his daughter and is a widower. That’s really all the information detailed to you that you couldn’t pick up on automatically. When we’re introduced to Sheen, Smith, Mathis, and Fox, to name a few, you quickly know who they are and what they do. There’s no need for any information to be directly handed to you and spoken aloud; another way Sorkin excels is he doesn’t write for idiots. But beyond this information, you don’t really learn all that much about these characters. They’re on the staff, but that’s it. They have opinions, but that’s mostly in the context of what they do. The only character we were lucky to get additional information on was Sheen’s. He has a wife, and we got to meet her. I lied, there’s also Bening’s character. She get’s a small amount of new insight given to us, but that’s purely to push another thread of the story itself forward.
But let’s look at the positive side. Douglas and Bening have such great chemistry. From the moment we meet Bening (really see her in action), she’s going on against Douglas, and he enters the room behind her. It’s embarrassing, but boy was she on a roll. Super fast! Then, they have a short private conversation in the Oval Office, and it’s equally exhilarating. That banter between Douglas and Bening was amazing! They’re charming and captivating together, which only grows as the film goes on.
The other actors also have strong enough chemistry with each other. No matter the situation the characters are in, they each work off each other quite well. We’re also fortunate because there are plenty of moments where it’s just Douglas and one other actor, which allows them to really shine. It’s because of these aspects that watching all these characters is fun. I’m okay then with not having any large amounts of information or seeing tons of development. This probably wouldn’t be true in any other movie.
The score, can’t forget the score, is the perfect blend of romantic, fun or light, and patriotic. As is becoming evident, Reiner apparently likes to work with composer Marc Shaiman (“And So It Goes”, “Parental Guidance”), and it seems to have paid off well.
Some films, it’s sad to say, are only sort of well known. It usually boils down to picking out one or two things that make you remember that it even exists. A director, writer, a few actors, and that’s it. Some, it’s entire scenes that are memorable. This film is one of those sort of well known films, which is a shame as it’s still a damn fine film. Worth the time to focus and get involved in the world, even if it doesn’t seem that there’s a lot that makes the characters all that memorable. I guess, in this case, the passion that each one has will have to suffice. After all, not every film can be some major character study. That’s what we have TV for.
Need convincing? Check out the trailer: