The American President (1995)
Director: Rob Reiner
Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J Fox, Richard Dreyfuss
Aaron Sorkin has been an eminent figure within the film and television industries for four decades. Having initially worked primarily as a screenwriter for the likes of David Fincher, Rob Reiner and Danny Boyle, he moved into the directorial arena with the well-received Molly’s Game in 2017 and continued that journey with awards season frontrunner The Trial of the Chicago 7 in 2020. In between he has found time to helm multiple acclaimed television series, most notably critical smash hits ‘The West Wing’ and ‘The Newsroom’. Several years prior to ‘The West Wing’, Sorkin penned one of his lesser known works The American President (1995), an often overlooked film that is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year.
The American President has received largely positive reviews, if not quite the overwhelming response to much of Sorkin’s other work. Ian Nathan in Empire noted that “Of course it’s hokey and silly, but [director] Reiner really knows how to skirt potential schmaltz and there is a political backbone to the piece which gives it reassuring depth. Scriptwriter Aaron Sorkin has done a polished job of injecting a viewpoint without letting it dominate, or have the political vernacular suffocate the comedy”.
The American President is focused on widowed President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) and his efforts to pass a groundbreaking crime bill while battling press attention for his developing relationship with environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). The continued relevance of crime reform and the environment at the forefront of US political discourse two and a half decades on is one of the most surprising and frightening elements of a film that otherwise takes a more lighthearted approach.
The cast are impressive across the board with many well established names filling out the supporting roles. In a foreshadowing of his role as President Bartlett in Sorkin’s ‘The West Wing’, Martin Sheen plays President Shepherd’s Chief of Staff and close friend A.J. MacInerney, while Back to the Future star Michael J Fox features in one of his last major on-screen roles as the President’s assistant on Domestic Policy, Lewis Rothschild. Fox and Sheen bring strong support, but the cast’s other major supporting actor Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) is not given the screen time needed to fully flesh out his character as Shepherd’s political rival Bob Rumson, ultimately coming across like a bit of a caricature. It is the relationship and chemistry between Douglas and Bening that anchors the film however, their relationship being front and centre, each performer being able to balance romantic comedy elements with more serious moments of politically fused drama.
This is arguably the least Sorkin film of his career, The American President featuring significantly lighter moments than those on offer in say Moneyball or The Social Network, this 1995 release being much closer to his work on Charlie Wilson’s War than A Few Good Men. Rob Reiner, however, was no stranger to comedy having helmed some of the 1980s’ most iconic comedies in When Harry Met Sally, The Princess Bride and This Is Spinal Tap, and while The American President doesn’t hit the heights of those films, there are still hints of the director’s greatness in this realm.
The tone of the film could perhaps be seen as one of its weaknesses, as while it succeeds in parts as both a romantic comedy and heavyweight political drama, it fails to fully commit to either. Sorkin would obviously scale the heights of political drama to far greater effect on other projects throughout his career, but it is frustrating that there is a slightly jarring tone to The American President when the work of both Reiner and Sorkin has been so strong elsewhere.
Perhaps easier to digest than some of Aaron Sorkin’s other work, The American President offers an early career glimpse at a writer who would spend much of the next two decades committing to stories on the US political system, and is a refreshing contrast to Reiner and Sorkin’s work together on A Few Good Men or, indeed, the fall off in quality of Reiner’s late career output. It is a well acted ensemble piece, featuring a charming lead performance from Michael Douglas and consistent support work across the board from a series of recognisable veteran actors, and while far from groundbreaking twenty five years on, The American President remains a watchable and somewhat relevant character piece from one of the screenwriters of a generation.