President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a tall, jocular, handsomely graying baby boomer who never served in the military, who balances his liberal crusade against assault weapons with his centrist desire to appear tough on crime, and who approaches everyone he encounters with the touchy-feely earnestness of a guy who cares. (Authorizing a bombing of Libya, he feels the pain of every civilian who may be killed.) He has a devoted yuppie adviser (Michael J. Fox, in a George Stephanopoulos hairdo), a very ordinary teenage daughter (Shawna Waldron), and a knack for hedging his ideological bets right in the middle of a policy declaration. Oh, one more thing: After his first three years in office, his public approval rating stands at a glowing 63 percent.
No, that isn’t a misprint. After you’ve knocked the fairy dust from your eyes, it becomes clear that the hero of The American President is a kind of klieg light idealization of Bill Clinton — he’s the Clinton a lot of Americans hoped (or feared) they were getting back in 1992. The movie places this mythical man of hope in the middle of a romantic scenario that might have been dreamed up in a collaboration between Frank Capra and James Carville. What, The American President asks, if the chief executive were a widower whose wife had died shortly before he was elected? What if he got lonely, met a beautiful environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening), and began to court her right in the middle of his presidency? Shouldn’t the most eligible bachelor in the free world have the right to pursue a private life like any other citizen?
Director Rob Reiner and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who previously teamed up on the 1992 adaptation of Sorkin’s play A Few Good Men, have devised a very ’90s concept, a love story for the age of spin control. As long as it concentrates on such pressing issues as how, exactly, a standing President should go about ordering a dozen roses, or whether it’s okay to dance cheek to cheek on the first date (that is, when you’re dancing in front of 200 dignitaries at a state dinner for the French president), The American President is pleasing fluff. The image of a chief executive as moonstruck single guy taps something buoyant and touching in our collective democratic imagination. And Douglas, wearing a fast-break smile in place of his usual frown, strikes a tender rapport with Bening, who’s regained some of the perkiness she had in 1990’s The Grifters. But the movie’s screwball charm goes down a lot easier than its glib topicality, which has been intertwined with the love story at every turn. Simply put, The American President is out to sell us the naive — and patronizing — notion that a President like Andrew Shepherd could cut through the thorny dilemmas of modern leadership if he’d only, you know, follow his heart.
Shepherd meets Bening’s Sydney Ellen Wade, a tough-shelled Virginia lawyer, when she is hired by the Global Defense Council to play hardball over an impending environmental bill. After a meeting, he agrees to fight for a 20 percent reduction in fossil fuel emissions. He also asks her to dinner. The day after their solo ballroom dance, their photograph is plastered all over the papers. As the press begins to tweak Shepherd for his ”private” liaison, his poll ratings slide into the basement, and the romance becomes fodder for a series of attacks by a Republican presidential contender (Richard Dreyfuss, combining the cardboard-cutthroat manner of Bob Dole with the hair of Bob Packwood). Despite the aspersions cast upon his character, Shepherd, cloistering himself in the White House, refuses to respond to his critics. He claims that it’s scurrilous even to suggest a connection between his support for a bill and his romance with its chief lobbyist. But wait a minute: Who on earth wouldn’t make such a connection? And are we supposed to believe that even the most idealistic President could afford to be this cavalier about the appearance of impropriety? How does the movie think he got elected in the first place?
The irony of The American President is that Andrew Shepherd’s chivalrous romanticism comes off as a starry-eyed reversal of Bill Clinton’s own most telling character flaw, his fabled promiscuity (which mirrors his fickleness toward his own policies). In the end, the movie says that the President’s private life matters, all right — that Shepherd should get the girl and reestablish his leadership by giving in to the noble liberal he always was inside. Even for a modern Capra fable, that’s a bit much to swallow. That a widowed President would find romance on the job is an engaging and, in its way, highly plausible fantasy. That he’d regain the trust of the American people by falling back in love with liberalism is a daydream that, by now, exists in few places outside Hollywood.