The romantic comedy has proved an enduring genre for the silver screen, from the screwball comedy of the 30s to its peak in the 90s, and resurgent popularity in the 2010s. Set The Tape presents Rom-Com Rewind, a series looking at the history of the genre and how it has developed over the course of nearly a hundred years of movie history.
If it hadn’t been for The American President, we would never have gotten The West Wing. The story goes that Akiva Goldsman looked at the poster for the film in Aaron Sorkin’s office, pointed at it and told him that it would make for a good television series. When it came time for Sorkin to pitch ideas to television executives, he remembered Goldsman’s suggestion and the rest, as they say, is history.
The West Wing is without a doubt one of the greatest ever works for television, a mighty seven-season run that conceptualised a fantasy White House that we wished was the one that existed in real life as its duration coincided with the dying days of the infamously scandal-afflicted Clinton administration and the War on Terror fuelled controversies of George W. Bush.
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In many respects, The American President feels like an extended pilot of sorts in terms of tone and approach for what Sorkin would do with his television series. Even some scenes and dialogue would get extended to ongoing story arcs in the television series, not least when Michael Douglas’ Commander in Chief questions the use of a proportional response during a military-related crisis, a scenario that would be used to dazzling effect in one of The West Wing‘s best story arcs in the early part of its run.
While The West Wing would have romantic elements, it was essentially a political drama fuelled by wish fulfilment and ‘what if’ scenarios. Part of that drives a lot of The American President, but it is also at heart a brilliantly lush and entertaining romantic comedy, a film more famous now for paving the way for Sorkin’s masterpiece but which deserves to be better remembered as its own entity, not to mention one of the 90s very best romantic films.
It is very easy to give all the credit to Sorkin. After all, they are his words being delivered here by one of the very best casts of any film of the 90s. Michael Douglas and Annette Benning sparkle with the type of chemistry that a few decades before would have been shared by the likes of Rock Hudson and Doris Day, while the supporting cast is dotted with a pre-West Wing Martin Sheen, this time on Chief of Staff duties; Michael J. Fox; Richard Dreyfuss; John Mahoney; Wendie Malick; Samantha Mathis; and frequent Sorkin casting choices Joshua Malina and Anna Deveare Smith, both of whom would go on to appear in The West Wing alongside Sheen.
However, it’s easy to overlook the impact of Rob Reiner on the film. His second time bringing a Sorkin script to life, his previous dip into the world of Sorkin-speak was with the darker and engrossing courtroom drama A Few Good Men, a film that came complete with iconic Jack Nicholson appearance and one of Tom Cruise’s best-ever performances.
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Reiner himself has a career that really ought to be more highly regarded. From the mid-80s to the mid-90s, he had one of the best runs of any director you can name; This is Spinal Tap, Stand by Me, The Princess Bride, The Sure Thing, Misery and A Few Good Men all followed one after each other. He stumbled with North, a misjudged children’s comedy starring Elijah Wood and Bruce Willis, but he rebounded with this and it must surely rank as one of the greatest runs of any director of the period.
Famously part of the Reiner clan that also included his father Carl, Rob had balanced being an actor with directing work, and better yet showed himself to be an amazingly expansive one when it came to genre. Spinal Tap, The Sure Thing and The Princess Bride are amongst the greatest comedy films of the 80s, the latter in particular possibly being the very best comedy film of all time (yep, I’m going there), while Stand by Me and Misery, films with moments of dark comedy, are not only some of the best Stephen King adaptations but also indicative of someone who can do darker material as well as laughs.
While The American President never gets as dark as those movies or A Few Good Men (there is a lot implied nastiness with the death that kickstarts the film’s plot), there are still dramatic stakes to be had here with its central setting of the highest office of the American political land. Even better, if your political leanings are to the left, then here is the best kind of fantasy escapism that would be offered in the realm of political drama until Sorkin made the move to serialised television. The film is lush and glossy, backed with a great Marc Shaiman score and photographed beautifully by John Seale. Everything looks glossy and classy, its portrayal of Washington politics is positive and affirming, although not without some drama, and better yet everyone is incredibly good looking.
The film marked a different track for Michael Douglas, who had come off the back of more controversial material that usually involved him being emotionally or physically attacked by Femme Fatales in noir flavoured erotic thrillers. Always a classy presence, at the peak of his career he had a brilliant ability to subvert that persona in films such as Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct and Disclosure, classy looking thrillers that were propelled by ferocious sexuality, explicit scenes and some intense moments of violence (it especially didn’t help if you were a bunny).
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The film marked Douglas in a role that played to his classy looks but which weren’t subverted by his character being in any way morally dubious. It embraced liberal romanticism in all its glories, fuelled by characters not consumed by their own well-being but by doing the right thing, once again a theme that Sorkin would run with further when he detailed the Bartlet Administration.
The wish fulfilment fantasy over Bening’s character, Sydney Wade, a lobbyist who is initially not the biggest fan of the President and whose meet-cute with him is when she is ranting against his character, gives the film a fairytale-like approach that wouldn’t have been too far removed from the type of film that characterised the genre in the 50s. But where something like Roman Holiday opted for a more grounded and subtle ending where the central pair don’t end up together, The American President keeps up the fairytale-like facade to the end credits where we cheer on our couple to stay together, all the way to The State of the Union Address.
A perfect little movie. Go watch it if you haven’t and then treat yourself to The West Wing right after. You’ll thank yourself for it later.