Let’s travel back in time. Not that far back, though it might seem like a long trip. The year is 1993, and after 12 years railing against the policies and aftereffects of the Reagan/Bush years — from deregulation to foreign intervention to the rise of the religious right — the Democrats have finally elected a president: Bill Clinton. But any hopes that simply electing a left-leaning President with a populist touch will fix everything fade pretty quickly. Even the law that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction doesn’t account for the backlash that greets the Clinton administration, first with the rapid ascent of right-wing media figures like Rush Limbaugh, the subsequent onrush of difficult-to-parse-but-just-as-difficult-to-kill scandals like Whitewater and Travelgate, and the disastrous midterm elections of 1994. Dogged by uncomfortable rumors before his election and accompanied by a powerful, and thus divisive, First Lady, Clinton did not instantly heal the nation by offering logically infallible common sense solutions to America’s greatest problems.
But what if he did? That’s more or less the starting point for The American President, which opens a few years into a presidency in which Michael Douglas’ eloquent, charming, playful Andrew Shepherd has won overwhelming national approval by telling it like it is and — with the help of a support staff that includes characters played by Michael J. Fox, Martin Sheen, and Anna Deavere Smith — skillfully pushing legislation through a sometimes oppositional Congress.
But even presidents with a 63% approval rating aren’t infallible, nor are they necessarily satisfied. As the film opens, Shepherd has delivered a speech with that ended cryptically with the words “Americans can no longer afford to pretend that they live in a great society.” There’s still work to be done: on crime, on gun control, on the environment and more. And Shepherd is working hard to find practical solutions that don’t find him surrendering his ideals when the unexpected happens: he falls in love with a woman who’s like him in many ways: Sydney Wade, a hard-charging environmental lobbyist who puts her beliefs first but still gets the job done.
Arriving at the White House for the first time, with little expectation of even meeting the President, much less falling in love with him. Sydney pauses to “savor the Capra-esque quality” of the moment. This is Sorkin’s script hanging a lantern on both an obvious source of inspiration — Frank Capra’s idealism-fueled Mr. Smith Goes to Washington — and that inspiration’s roots in fantasy. Capra’s own politics could be a little confusing. He was a Republican who stood up to Franklin Delano Roosevelt, even expressing admiration for Franco and Mussolini. But he also went all in to support America’s war efforts in World War II with his Why We Fight Films and ended his life opposing the war in Vietnam. Mr. Smith has less to do with the particulars of politics than beliefs, at least theoretically, shared by all honest participants in American democracy. It’s a beguiling fantasy of our common values triumphing over what divides us.
To that, the film film adds at least a suggestion of depicting how politics is actually practiced — with nods to the two-fisted business of winning votes and the occasional need to compromise now for another victory down the road — but not enough to sour the wish-fulfillment, giving audiences the all-things-to-all-people liberal healer that America maybe thought it was electing in 1992 — and sprinkles a winning romance on top of it all.
The film remains enchanting — powered by Douglas and Benning’s charming chemistry. But it also looks positively ancient and a little shopworn. Sorkin has returned, again and again, to projects in which wise middle-aged men set the world straight with forceful erudition, including his series The West Wing, which often played like an extension of this film. Beyond that, while its fantasy version of Washington may always have been only loosely tethered to the real Washington, it now seems positively disconnected. In an era in which a President’s affair with a porn star barely makes the news because of even more shocking scandals, who can buy a film in which the thought of, gasp, a single president having consensual sex with an unmarried woman will shock a nation.
Yet, there’s that word again: Capraesque. The American President isn’t a film that wants to show us the America we live in but the America we want to live in. Maybe that’s why it’s possible to poke holes in the film’s high ideals and willful naivete while still enjoying, and maybe even believing in it.