Politics as usual

Though The American President flounders, a radiant Annette Bening makes it worth watching

The first time I saw Annette Bening was in Valmont, Milos Forman's adaptation of Les Liaisons Dangereuses. She played Madame de Merteuil, a part portrayed the previous year by Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons. Both actresses gave terrific performances, although they couldn't have interpreted the role more differently: where Close's Merteuil was an intellectual spider lady, Bening's was sensual and impetuous, an 18th-century version of the bored, hot-to-trot young housewife. You could spot Bening's magnetism even then (though the film was a commercial failure). When she followed Valmont with her carnal, predatory turn as Myra Langtry in The Grifters, the early promise was fulfilled.

Although Bening's screen work has languished some since then (her performance in Bugsy was eclipsed by the publicity surrounding her marriage to Warren Beatty, and her role as the doting wife in the dreadful drama Regarding Henry was merely perfunctory), she delivers a radiant performance in The American President. The movie isn't much--occasionally funny, but mostly a routine, passionless comic romance--but she transforms what could have been a window-dressing role into a complex character, full of the very life and energy and humanity that the movie itself strives for but never convincingly achieves.

Bening plays Sydney Ellen Wade, a Washington environmental lobbyist who catches the eye of the most eligible bachelor in the country, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas). They begin an awkward courtship, and as Sydney slowly cures herself of the initial discomfort attendant on being famous for sleeping with the chief executive, his career suffers from their relationship.

The premise of the film--whether a widowed president could go out on a date (or, God forbid, actually have a girlfriend) without suffering severe political backlash--has the veneer of being fresh and intriguing, but it quickly devolves into one baffling cliche after another. When first we meet President Shepherd, he's a savvy and cynical politico; despite his 63 percent approval rating, he prudently shies away from promoting two controversial bills, opting instead for the safe, populist approach of an election-year incumbent. How is it, then, that he so blindly refuses to defend himself when conservative Kansas Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfus) attacks him for his relationship with Sydney?

Shepherd's conflicting attitudes over his public life are at the heart of Aaron Sorkin's puzzlingly schizophrenic screenplay. Shepherd's consultants, from his chief of staff (Martin Sheen), to his domestic policy advisor (Michael J. Fox), pollster (David Paymer), and press secretary (Anna Deavere Smith), insist upon an official White House policy regarding Sydney, but Shepherd refuses to dignify the innuendos with a response, even as his public approval plummets. Suddenly, he isn't making the calculated, decisive choices of a seasoned hack, but the loopy whims of a schoolboy with a crush. You wonder if the whole affair started as a reaction to his press secretary's comment that they never had trouble "selling you as the sad widower," since in the context of the rest of the film, Shepherd's actions just don't make sense. (In the film's capstone scene, Shepherd finally delivers the kind of speech everyone has wanted him to make from the beginning. The reason Shepherd behaves so incongruously until then is the bugaboo of the idiot movie plot: if characters didn't act like idiots, the movie would be over in 15 minutes.)

If the only obstacle was the film's naive treatment of the complicated issues of the presidency, you might overlook them. The flaws are unavoidable, though, precisely because the screenplay fancies itself as canny and realistic. It's so persistent about showing the trappings of modern politics that it invites an evaluation of how it handles political issues.

The movie only floats on the surface of actual politics; it wants you to believe that high-level staff meetings are as slick and fast, as meaningless and lightweight as they appear here--that despite the occasional unpleasant duties (like bombing Libya), a good, well-meaning, liberal president who exudes authority will breed devotion and loyalty. (You've got to smile at the ballsiness of a script that names the president "Shepherd," as though everyone in the free world will flock toward him.)

Unlike Dave, which took a mostly warm, lighthearted look at governing, The American President is veritably glum with self-importance. Despite a number of humorous lines, there's no real air of levity or honest enjoyment; everything about the movie seems so damned presidential, you just wish someone would break out into song or tell a dirty joke just to be sure these people are really alive.

That's mostly director Rob Reiner's fault. Reiner's directorial voice is probably the smoothest, least distinctive of any major director. His pictures are largely without individual character, vanilla-flavored snow globes of good taste and social consciousness. His obsessive craftsmanship is the impediment that keeps The American President from seeming vibrant and alive. Reiner's conception of politics is superficial; his camera lingers on the props of the presidency--from the dinner settings to the Marine Corps Color Guard--and the story lacks emotional resonance as a result. He doesn't direct the movie so much as stage the photographing of the sets; on the occasions when he finds it necessary to make a point, Marc Shaiman's intrusive score does it for him. (Shaiman never misses an opportunity to broadcast the content of every scene.) Reiner's clearly trying to foster a Capra-esque tone, though he doesn't approach the fluid corniness that the film Hero managed so effortlessly. Reiner just doesn't have his heart in it.

You can't fault the cast for succumbing to the stuffiness of Reiner's detailed but mopey direction, since they aren't given much of a script to work with. It's practically an unwritten rule in Hollywood that when a young actor is cast playing some indistinguishable policy wonk, his career has officially dried up. (When an actor hits 50, he starts playing starchy generals instead.) Poor Michael J. Fox is cast as the one stalwart in the administration, valiantly holding the torch of liberal idealism even when the other characters forsake it. Of course his short-tempered whining gets vindicated when Shepherd comes to his senses and endorses his original programs; that's when the halo around his head becomes almost blinding.

Anna Deavere Smith plays her part grim and tight, not exactly beneficial qualities in a press secretary. In fact all the staff are undefined and dull, cookie-cutter archetypes of coffee over-achievers. (How soon can I forget the overly familiar image of Martin Sheen, sleeves rolled up, leaning morosely against a pool table at the end of a long day, looking like an alcoholic in a Charter Hospital ad?) I suppose it makes sense that the President's staff, especially the flunky-level assistants (exemplified by his painfully anal personal aide, played with mousy static energy by Samantha Mathis), is whipcracking efficient--they probably never split infinitives and always floss between meals. But it would be nice once in a while to get a sense for these people as humans rather than automatons, to have them goof up or get in touch with each other. (If you doubt that they can be that way, catch The War Room, a documentary of the Clinton campaign.)

The two leading performers fare better, and they have genuine chemistry. Douglas has an unexpectedly convincing presidential mien. He's really underrated as a movie star--not that he's a great actor, but you can always tell that he has a handle on the broad ideas of the movie, and how his character fits in that scheme. While he doesn't have the control to subtly modulate his performance from scene to scene, he conveys themes clearly and precisely--he never seems out of touch with the audience. In one scene, he handles the prosaic silliness of ordering flowers for Sydney with the same deliberative befuddlement of George Bush buying socks at JCPenney; it's probably the most whimsical scene in the movie, but it's also symptomatic of the picture's good-natured but meandering nature.

It's Bening, though, who brightens up the film. As a character, Sydney has the most opportunities to communicate the potential for screwball liveliness, and Bening doesn't miss a beat. It becomes a running gag that she keeps embarrassing herself in front of the President--first by referring to him as a boob while he's standing behind her, then by treating him like a crank caller when he tries to ask her out--but she never reduces it to reflexive shtick. Her profound sense of uneasiness is pitched to comic perfection, and the flustery sense of gratification she feels upon being asked to attend a state dinner is riotous. Bening looks positively luscious, and the screen simply glows whenever she's on. Performances of such captivating spriteliness are rare enough that seeing Bening wink her way through a part of such smart sex appeal is reason alone to recommend The American President.

The American President. Castle Rock Entertainment. Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox. Written by Aaron Sorkin. Directed by Rob Reiner. Opens November 17.

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