Before Aaron Sorkin emerged as a creative presence within the dramatic television field, before The West Wing, there was The American President, an idea of Sorkin's as a screenwriter, some of which would later beget Wing. And while the latter seems to have surpassed the former in terms of legacy, on its own merits the former has some sort of value to it, right?
Rob Reiner (This is Spinal Tap) directed from Sorkin's screenplay, which features Michael Douglas (Wall Street) in the role of the above-mentioned Chief Executive named Andrew Shepherd. Shepherd, while being a popular president, unfortunately lost his wife during his campaign, and has been raising his daughter on his own. He has since been left wanting personally, despite his professional and popular success. On a chance encounter, he meets Sydney Wade (Annette Bening, The Kids Are All Right) during a meeting Sydney has with Shepherd's Chief of Staff (and best friend) A.J. MacInerny (Martin Sheen, Apocalypse Now). Shepherd and Wade start to see each other quietly, but the relationship begins to effect both of their personal and professional lives (with Shepherd facing a possible threat to his re-election), and that is where things get shaky.
While the film serves as a precursor of sorts to The West Wing, the dialogue most decidedly remains Sorkin's, minus the 'walk and talk' nature of many of the scenes in the show. Additionally, the cast in President is a mix of people from various backgrounds, all of whom turn in surprising performances utilizing Sorkin's dialogue. Bening continued a string of solid performances with an exquisite one as Wade. She enters the White House starry-eyed, full of optimism, and romantic with the notion of the White House and the power of politics. While being an environmental lobbyist unfamiliar with the ways of Washington politics may seem to be in direct conflict these days (and perhaps to an extent in 1995), Bening's innocence charms. And as for Douglas, who at the time was portraying a series of characters whose seemingly only purpose in life was to 'get some' whether he liked it or not, his role as Shepherd communicated a pleasant mix of conviction, humor and gravitas. At the time, I remember changing my tune on Douglas' character choices and remain impressed by the different side of his range that I had not experienced to that point. Similar to The West Wing the supporting cast included a mix of familiar faces and a couple of performers who would later comprise a Sorkin stock company, notably Sheen in the latter. Michael J. Fox (Back to the Future) as the President's chief speechwriter and resident idealist Lewis is another pleasant surprise, while others such as Samantha Mathis (Broken Arrow) are unexpected bonuses as well.
Despite the enjoyment of the performances of the cast, the story is not without a little bit of flimsiness. Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) plays Senator Bob Rumson, the presumptive Republican nominee for President. He does fine with the scenes he has, but really, the stereotypical old white men gather in a room to 'decide' how to bring the president down and while Shepherd bends, his breaking remains to be determined. However, for large stretches of the film, politics and the polls make a bigger impact on what Shepherd does, how he does it, and when he does it with Sydney, who encounters her own issues when the media starts vetting her past. It is almost as if when Andy finally regains his political swagger, he is doing it against a cinematic straw man.
While The American President is prone to an occasional ham-handed moment or two, the fact remains that the Sorkin dialogue and execution of such by a varied range of characters remains one of the better treats almost two decades after appearing in movie theaters. While Sorkin's first screenplay (an adaptation of his play) A Few Good Men was an announcement of his presence in cinema, The American President told us he wasn't going away anytime soon.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Warner presents The American President in an AVC-encoded 2.40:1 high-definition transfer that looks generally adequate. Black levels do suffer from a minor crush or two but generally hold up fine, and image detail in the foreground and background appearing abundant. Film grain is present during viewing and while there appear to be some moments of DNR applied to an image, these instances are not dominating the viewing experience. An upgrade over the standard definition discs out there, for sure.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround lossless track is somewhat wasted on this dialogue-heavy feature, but at least Marc Shaiman's score gets the justice that it may not have received otherwise. Channel panning is somewhat scant and subwoofer activity is dormant, though there are a few directional effects in the rear channels from time to time, albeit with subtle and sporadic placement. Dialogue is consistent though the film and is without concern. It is about as good sounding as it is going to be.
Nada. With the film turning 20 soon, a Special Edition would be nice.
The American President is remembered as setting up the background for the show that became adored by many, but on its own merits, its story is sweet and its performances nice to watch even after lo these many years. Technically, it is a nice disc though not exactly breathtaking, and from a bonus material perspective could definitely use some work. If you want to double-dip, it is only for the transfer, and if you have not seen the film yet, you need to rectify this promptly.