Like a Prelude to the West Wing
The American President
Having watched through all of The West Wing it seemed only fitting to go back and watch the movie that basically led to the television series. Although it wasn't meant as a kind of "pilot" for the show, The American President had all the hallmarks of Aaron Sorkin's fast-paced governmental drama, right down to having Aaron Sorkin as the writer. Everything you expect from the show -- the fast dialogue, the walk and talks, the high-minded politics, and even some of the actors (in different roles, of course) -- is here in the film.
As the story goes, and associate of Sorkin's saw the poster for the The American President on the wall in Sorkin's office and noted to the writer/director that he really should make that into a series. That's where the show came from, and that's what the movie is all about: a detailed look at the life of the President and the matters of state that he, and his staff, have to resolve over the course of a few months. Oh, and it's a romantic comedy, because that's the only way Hollywood would make a movie like this.
In the movie, Michael Douglas stars as President Andrew Shepherd, a widower who squeaked through the election by the thinnest of margins. Since then, though, his popularity has only gone up, to the point where the movie opens with his polling numbers riding at 63% of the population thinking he's doing a great job. He -- along with his staff of Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), Deputy Chief of Staff Leon Kodak (David Paymer), Press Secretary Robin McCall (Anna Deavere Smith), and Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox)-- have a crime bill they're putting through, and it looks like it's going to be smooth sailing all the way until the next election. The days of a razor thin margin winning the race seem to be behind them.
But then the President's world is shaken up when he meets Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), an environmental consultant hired by the Global Defense Council to push through a sweeping environmental bill. They have a feisty meet cute and before too long the President is asking Sydney to be his date to a state dinner. Their romance becomes fast and sweeping, which is great for the President. But without his status as a widower anymore the Right is able to launch all kind of character attacks against him, and no one leads the charge harder than Senator Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), presidential hopeful. Soon, that magical 63% polling number begins sliding and the election begins to look harder and hard. Can the President have the love life he wants and still manage to be President?
Where The West Wing was focused on all the senior staff in the White House -- originally the plan wasn't to even have the President as a major character on the show -- The American President if very focused on Andrew Shepherd and his life, specifically his love affair with Sydney. It's a different perspective, to be sure, but for a story that can only last two hours or less (as it's a movie, not a show), this tighter focus makes sense. If the story had tried to broaden out and focus on more than just the President I think the pacing would have been thrown way off.
Of course, the meat of the story is the romance between the President and Sydney, and the movie handles this story wonderfully. This is largely because the two leads, Douglas and Bening, have real chemistry together. However fast this romance suddenly moves, and it does move very quickly, the leads are able to sell it admirably. Hollywood has a tendency to make loves stories move at an unrealistic clip, but in this case, because of the genuine chemistry between the two leads, the story, and the love, was believable.
But, really, let's give the credit where it's really deserves: Annette Bening. She's able to sell her performance, from the flustering early stretch when she's first getting courted by the President, to late in the movie when there's deep and genuine love, and its magnificent. She has a way of making her eyes sparkle that adds to every moment and raises the chemistry in the room up another notch. While I think any solid actor could have played Andrew Shepherd, I don't think this movie would work with anyone other than Baning playing Sydney Ellen Wade.
In fairness to the rest of the cast, this is a stacked movie. There are a couple of familiar faces in here if you've watched The West Wing, from Anna Deavere Smith (who would go on to play the National Security Adviser on the show), and Nina Siemaszko (who was later cast as Bartlett daughter Ellie), and, of course, Martin "Soon to be President Bartlett" Sheen. Along with them we have character actor David Paymer, who does a fantastic job as the dry and sarcastic deputy, and Michael J. Fox, who is really just great in anything. This movie could have been about anything and this cast would have sold it.
While the love story is the focus, the movie does at least devote some time to the actual job of running the country, and this is obviously where the inspiration for The West Wing really struck. You do get invested in the progress of the crime bill and the environmental bill, and you take a vested interest in how the President his handling the attacks from Rumson. The movie understands how to make the political side of the movie compelling, and the fact that this side of the movie is able to stand against the romance and remain interesting speaks volumes about the deftness of the movie and its script.
The movie even does something I wish The West Wing had done more: give us a villain we can learn about. Instead of just having Rumson show up as snippets on screen, the movie spends some time with him, a few brief scenes, to establish who he is. That's why we care when he attacks the President, because the film treats him as a proper rival. And when the President finally launches his own attack near the end of the movie it feels satisfying. This film has such a great climax, and it's all done (of all things) as a press conference. Try to find another movie that can have a climactic moment as a speech at a press conference. When the film takes its victory lap afterwards, it feels earned.
All that said, this film isn't perfect. While I enjoy the story, and I really dig the cast, there are moments when the film goes a little too hammy, not quite nailing the balance between comedy and drama that would work so well on The West Wing. Even though this film stands apart, it's in these moments that it does feel like a pilot to the series to come. It's not ever terrible, but there are moments that I wish had been just a little better, comedic notes that don't quite land right.
Still, on the whole this film is a winner. Every time I go back to The West Wing I end up watching this movie, too (whether before I hit the series or just after). It's a fun companion piece with a solid story and some really lovely moments. Maybe it's not as good as The West Wing when it reached it's perfect heights, but that's a high bar to nail. The movie is better than a lot of other love stories, and remains a pretty solid political movie even all these years later.