Sunday, January 15, 2012

The American President

It was pretty amazing how much this felt like an alternate universe's version of The West Wing. Aaron Sorkin wrote it, in much the same style as the show, with lots of intelligent back-and-forth dialogue and well-timed dramatic speeches. It has a movie budget with a movie cast and a movie director in Rob Reiner, but it's filmed pretty plainly and on the same sets as the show. Most of the characters have pretty clear equivalents from the show. Michael Douglas' President Andrew Shepherd is not that different from Josiah Bartlet, and Martin Sheen even plays a chief of staff similar Leo from the show. It shares a couple other cast members like Joshua Malina, and the rest of the actors are a mostly recognizable bunch, playing roles they might have played on television had they not been more successful. Michael J. Fox is another member of the staff, and Richard Dreyfuss plays a Republican senator with designs on the presidency.

The focus is a bit different than The West Wing though - while it does get into some of the nuts and bolts of politics, particularly the wrangling it takes for controversial bills to get through, it's mostly in the service of a romantic plot that's the real core of the story. The President is a widower due to his wife's death before his election, and he hasn't been really looking to date while in office. Annette Bening plays a lobbyist who gets a job in Washington, but things quickly get weird when she and the President hit it off and they start seeing each other regularly. There's a lot about whether a President, even a very popular one, could ever have a non-marital relationship in office in this day and age.

Dreyfuss' character is cartoonishly evil and slimy, and uses the situation to smear the President, who doesn't stoop to defending his personal life despite falling approval ratings. His personal and professional lives though finally collide near the end, once the health of his political goals come into conflict. It's a bit more silly and outlandish than anything you'd normally see in a regular story of politics, but it's not a politics movie - it's a romantic comedy with a political setting. It does the job well enough, but I'm glad Sorkin didn't get it out of his system and went on to use a lot of his ideas to create one of the best TV dramas of the last decade.

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