I have a definite love/hate relationship with The American President’s writer Aaron Sorkin. I admire his intelligence, his technique, and the fact that he can use a word like “erudite” without sounding like a hack. But I hate the fact that he consistently uses his material for moralizing, that each of his protagonists seem to be Gary Stus, and the fact that he has this inability to write for anyone who is not either a television writer or a politician.
Let’s look at this film, which was a sort of precursor to the phenomenally popular The West Wing. It is also the last good movie Rob Reiner directed, but I think that the real draw is Sorkin. It exemplifies everything that is right and wrong with Sorkin. At it’s best, the film is the best representation of the stress the modern infotainment culture has given to any public figure, especially one as important as a president. It is also a very good love story. At it’s worse, it is a constant moralizing sermon that portrays everyone in the U.S. as a bunch of inbred yahoos who are too stupid to realize what is best for them. Sorkin criticizes those who simply wish to demonize those they disagree with. Then, Sorkin falls into that exact trap himself.
I do not know how many times I have said it, but I need to say it again. The best films are the ones that give people something to think about. The worst ones are the ones that tell people what to think. The American President does not quite do the latter, but in those moments that it does, it becomes a frustrating venture.
The film follows the fictional Democratic president Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas). I don’t know if he is ever directly identified as a Democrat, but it’s pretty obvious. Anyway, he falls in love with a lobbyist named Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening) and tries to woo her in the traditional methods. These do not work, as he is constantly scrutinized by the press and criticized by his Chief of Staff A.J. (Martin Sheen). His Republican opponent Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss) also uses some of the more scandalous elements of Wade’s past to his advantage on the campaign trail. Shepherd merely longs for a life in which he can have Wade and not have the public criticize his every action.
I could mention what the performances are like, but you can probably already guess. Every single character speaks with great urgency, and with great sarcasm about everything they disagree with. Even Michael J Fox comes across as remarkably intimidating. Such is the universe Sorkin creates. Everything that comes from anyone’s mouth is the most important thing that has ever been said. Luckily, he placed the characters in such an arena where this would be treated as normal, and the actors all embody the intensity necessary for the project to work.
What I really wish to discuss here is how Sorkin examines American political life. I feel that this is what the draw was anyway. I do greatly admire how the film handles the public life of the presidency. Obama, in a recent interview, stated that the hardest thing about being the president was about how the media constantly reports everything he does. Some Republicans complained, but I thought it was a very honest and poignant observation. Sorkin attempts to help the general public understand why. Even the simple task of ordering flowers for his girlfriend or going out for a drive is rendered obscenely difficult. Actually, the payoff of the scene with flowers (which comes late in the film) may be the funniest part of the film. Shepherd’s initial phone conversation with Wade almost becomes a farce, as she does not believe that the President is calling her at home. At these moments, the film ranks among the best romances of all time, simply because of its ability to show how a courtship can still succeed despite great odds. It gives hope to the romantics of the world.
But when Sorkin discusses the political aspect of the office, he falls off the rails. Now, I don’t expect (or even want) everyone in Hollywood to agree with me. I also think it’s quite good for a film to be political to a certain degree. But when I get the sense that they genuinely hate me for it, then I feel there is a problem. There are many moments when Shepherd calls the American public stupid. There are also many times that the film devolves into a discussion of gun control. Fine, but these moments serve the exact opposite purpose of the theme. If we want to view the president as human, then why does the film show him telling us what we all should be doing with our lives? That sort of places him back on his pedestal. And that is the ultimate disconnect of the film. When the film decides the president is human, it works. When it decides that he is something more, it fails.
I don’t wish to convey the idea that Sorkin is an untalented writer. He is not. His Oscar win for The Social Network was deserved, and his mentioning of Paddy Chayefsky was apt. Both men are highly intelligent and have an ability to speak to an audience that inspires the envy of many lesser writers. I just think it is a mistake to declare Sorkin THE best writer of this or any generation. He makes far too many mistakes and falls into too many pitfalls to allow such a claim. The American President is great because it shows the best and worst of Sorkin.