I watched The American President on regular cable a few years back, after having been indoctrined in The West Wing fandom. Aaron Sorkin wrote The American President before creating The West Wing.
So I felt a sense of deja vu catching up on Sorkin’s previous work.
You can tell he was hashing out ideas which would eventually make it into the series. The presidents of both the film and the TV show at one point pose the question, "What’s the value of a proportional response?"
In essence, The American President is The West Wing as a romantic comedy.
Michael Douglas plays President Andrew Shepherd, a widower who won his election by a narrow margin. He has a 67 percent job approval rating in the third year of his first term, and he’s gearing up for re-election.
He walks in on a meeting with an environmental group, and he’s smitten by lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Benning). She threatens him, he patronizes her, as Sydney would later describe their first meeting.
As the two develop a relationship, Shepherd underestimates the political ramifications and the obvious conflict of interest comes to the fore.
The political technical talk which made The West Wing sound smart also separates The American President from the rest of the rom-com genre. Sure, the awkward fumblings of a single widower forging a relationship with a new woman is reliable comedy fodder, and yes, it’s compounded when the widower in question is the leader of the free world.
But as Sorkin would later demonstrate with The West Wing, separating the man from the office is a precious balance, which The American President also handles well. If only Dave would have done something similar.
Of course, The American President is a Hollywood film, and the nuance of Sorkin’s characters have their rough edges smoothed out.
Richard Dreyfuss’ conservative antagonist Sen. Bob Rumson is pretty much a "family values" straw man. He doesn’t wield the power hungry ruthlessness of Steven Culp’s Rep. Haffley in The West Wing.
Shepherd’s Chief of Staff A.J. McInerney — played by President Bartlett himself, Martin Sheen — seems to share with Bartlett’s Chief of Staff Leo McGarry the heavyweight-as-second-fiddle role. In a pivotal scene, Shepherd confronts A.J. about why A.J. was always a step behind him. "Because if I weren’t, you’d be the most popular history professor at the University of Wisconsin," A.J. retorts. In the two-hour span of The American President, that relationship doesn’t get the room to play out.
The American President also falls back on rom-com conventions. Benning is pretty much reduced to the role of giggling girl throughout most of the movie. In only a few instances do we see her come through as a reputed power broker.
Douglas, on the other hand, plays against reputation. He’s actually pretty hot as the suave, collected President Shepherd.
Despite its rom-com conventions, The American President lets its intelligence show. Fans of the snappy, walk-and-talk dialogue of The West Wing will find The American President enjoyable, and it’s refreshing to see Sorkin’s more comedic side get center stage.