Way back in October, around the same time that I first decided that I would do a series of reviews of political films and that I would call it Lisa Gets Preachy (subsequently changed to Shattered Politics), I noticed that the 1995 film The American President was scheduled to be shown on TVLand.
“Hey,” I said, “I’ve definitely got to watch and review that!”
So, I set the DVR and I recorded The American President.
And then, I just left it there.
You have to understand that it’s rare that I ever leave anything unwatched on my DVR. Usually, within an hour of recording a program, I’ll be watching it. I have even been known to go so far as to make out very long lists of everything that I have on the DVR, just so I can make check them off after I’ve watched. As a general rule, I am way too obsessive compulsive to just leave anything sitting around.
But, for whatever reason, I could never work up any enthusiasm for the prospect of actually watching The American President. I knew that, eventually, I would have to watch it so that I could review it. Unlike those folks criticizing American Sniper on the basis of the film’s trailer, I never criticize or praise a film unless I’ve actually watched it. But I just couldn’t get excited about The American President.
Can you guess why? I’ll give you a hint. It’s two words. The first starts with A. The second starts with S.
If you guessed Aaron Sorkin, then you are correct! Yes, I do know that Sorkin has a lot of admirers. And, even more importantly, I know that it’s dangerous to cross some of those admirers. (I can still remember Ryan Adams and Sasha Stone insanely blocking anyone who dared to criticize the underwritten female characters in Sorkin’s script for The Social Network.)
But what can I say? As a writer, Aaron Sorkin bothers me. And since Sorkin is such an overpraised and powerful voice, he’s that rare scriptwriter who can actually claim auteur status. The Social Network, for instance, was not a David Fincher film. It was an Aaron Sorkin film, through and through.
And, after having to deal with three seasons of the Newroom and countless Aaron Sorkin-penned op-eds about why nobody should be allowed to criticize Aaron Sorkin, I’ve reached the point where dealing with all of Aaron Sorkin’s signature quirks is a bit like listening to the drill while strapped into a dentist’s chair. I am weary of pompous and egotistical male heroes who answer every question with a sermon. I am tired to endless scenes of male bonding. I have had enough with the quippy, quickly-delivered dialogue, all recited as characters walk down an endless hallways. I have no more sympathy for Sorkin’s nostalgic idealism or his condescending, rich, white dude version of liberalism.
Most of all, I’m sick of people making excuses for an acclaimed, award-winning, highly-paid screenwriter who is apparently incapable of writing strong female characters. I’m tired of pretending that it doesn’t matter that Aaron Sorkin is apparently incapable of viewing female characters as being anything other than potential love interests or silly distractions who need to be told to go stand in a corner while the menfolk solve all the problems of the world.
Fortunately, as a result of The Newsroom, quite a few critics are finally starting to admit what they always knew to be the truth. Aaron Sorkin is not the messiah. Instead, he’s a somewhat talented writer who doesn’t understand (or, in my opinion, particularly like) women. At his best, he’s occasionally entertaining. At his worst, he’s pompous, didactic, and preachy.
And, of course, Aaron Sorkin is the man who wrote The American President.
So, The American President just sat there until a few days ago when I sighed to myself and said, “Okay, let’s watch this thing.” As I watched it, I promised myself that I would try to see past the fact that it was an Aaron Sorkin-penned film and just try to judge the film on its merits.
But here’s the thing. It’s nearly impossible to separate one’s opinion of Sorkin from The American President. If you didn’t know that Sorkin had written The American President, you’d guess it after hearing the first few lines of dialogue. The film, itself, was directed by Rob Reiner but it’s not as if Reiner is the most interesting of directors. (What’s odd is that Reiner’s first films — This Is Spinal Tap, The Princess Bride, Stand By Me — are all so quirky and interesting and are still so watchable decades after first being released that you have to wonder how Reiner eventually became the man who directed The Bucket List.) In short, The American President is totally an Aaron Sorkin film.
President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a liberal Democrat who, as he prepares to run for a second term, has a 63% approval rating. However, when Shepherd decides to push through a gun control bill, he finds that approval rating threatened. And then, when he listens to environmental lobbyist Sydney Wade (Annette Bening) and tries to push through legislation to reduce carbon emissions, his approval rating is again threatened. And then, to top it all off, he starts dating Sydney. It turns out that Sydney has protested American policy in the past. And, since this is an Aaron Sorkin film, everyone outside of the Northeast is scandalized that President Shepherd is having premarital sex in the White House.
And, to top it all off, there’s an evil Republican named Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) who wants to be President and is willing to use the President’s relationship with Sydney to further his own evil Republican ambitions.
But, ultimately, it’s not just those evil Republicans who make it difficult for Sydney and the President to have a relationship. It’s also the fact that the President agrees to a watered down crime bill and that he does not hold up his end of the bargain when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.
“You’ve lost my vote!” Sydney tells him.
But — fear not! There’s still time for President Shepherd to give a speech that will be so good and so brilliant that it will, within a matter of minutes, totally change every aspect of American culture and save the day. How do we know it’s a great speech? Because it was written by Aaron Sorkin!
Actually, I’m being too hard on the film and I’ll be the first admit that it’s because I’m personally not a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin’s. But, to be honest, The American President is Aaron Sorkin-lite. This film was written before the West Wing, before the Social Network, before that Studio Whatever show, and before The Newsroom. In short, it was written before he became THE Aaron Sorkin and, as such, it’s actually a lot less preachy than some of his other work. It’s true that, much like The Newsroom, The American President is definitely Sorkin’s fantasy of how things should work but at least you don’t have to deal with Jeff Daniels throwing stuff or Emily Mortimer not knowing how to properly forward an email.
Instead, it’s a film that will probably be enjoyed by those who share its politics. (And, make no mistake, The American President is more interested in politics than it is in the love story between Andrew and Sydney.) Michael Douglas does well in the role of the President. Meanwhile, Annette Bening is so likable and natural as Sydney that it almost make up for the fact that she’s yet another Sorkin woman whose existence is largely defined by looking up to her man while inspiring him to do the right thing and forgiving him when he doesn’t. Personally, I would have been happy if the film had ended with Sydney telling the President, “Thanks for finally doing the right thing but I have a life of my own to lead.”
But that wouldn’t be the Sorkin way.