The American President (Reiner, 1995)
It should have been apparent when “Written by Aaron Sorkin” appeared on the screen, but government is only a tool in this film. Sorkin uses it with his usual degree of shrewdness, but political concerns are nothing more than an impetus – a joke. The American President focuses on the most powerful man on the planet. To what is his power relegated? Jokes. Examining the film reveals that most references to political topics are implemented as gags. Shepherd’s position of power is a running line, joined by federal disasters, Tel Aviv hostility, assassination, corruption, and dead Japanese leaders, only to name a few. These references are often planted into the script as irony, encouraging the audience to feel that the President deals with Middle Eastern militants like we do the dishes.
The larger point of this is also tied to the remarkable success of the film. Sorkin knows every trick in the book and he is shamelessly employing them. Reiners directing is completely unremarkable, but it would be impossible to fail with this script. Why do the conservatives look bad? Because they care about family values. The American President is the pinnacle of Hollywood Liberalism, or “safe” liberalism. Shepherd is: the same as most people and entirely different from most people. The jokes and the sweetness all bank on Shepherd appearing as one of us. But he’s not. The worst things people can do in this film are prioritize something that conflicts with a man who seems not to conflict with anything.
The American President, while being a terribly successful Rom-Com, teaches us something interesting about how Hollywood operates. This movie could hardly anger anyone. And that is precisely because of the script’s perpetuation of contradiction and fantasy. The less political, the better.
Michael Douglas and Martin Sheen both deliver knockout performances that manage to become something more than Sorkin’s mouth.