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‘The American President’ (PG-13)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1995

"THE AMERICAN President," in which Michael Douglas plays Chief Executive and Annette Bening his First Lover, will entertain most of the people most of the time. Wittily scripted, engagingly sappy, completely implausible and unabashedly Capraesque, it's a rather wonderful crock.

President Andrew Shepherd (Douglas), a widower, is on the eve of his second election bid when he sets eyes on environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Bening). At the time, she's in a contentious White House meeting with chief of staff A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), declaiming the president as the "Chief Executive of Fantasy Land."

Mortified when the president enters the room in mid-insult, Wade is further stunned when he later asks her to be his date at a state dinner. Apart from that embarrassing faux pas, her agenda to push the White House to advocate tough, anti-pollution legislation puts them both in a compromising position.

As the romance takes off (Wade can't resist that presidential bedroom), White House handlers (including Michael J. Fox and David Paymer) try desperately to keep the frenzied media at bay. Sen. Robert Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), Shepherd's chief election rival, chortles at the plummeting presidential approval ratings. And the president, a single father of a 12-year-old daughter, finds himself faced with the character issue. He's also potentially in trouble with Wade for making political promises he may have to renege on.

The concept of pursuing a private affair in spite of Oval Office business as usual (from bombing raids on Libya to the ceremonial presentation of a large halibut) is undeniably intriguing. "The American President," directed by Rob Reiner, isn't reality, of course. It's an enjoyable pajama romp in the seat of power, thanks to Aaron Sorkin's bright, funny script.

The casting is crucial. In this behind-the-scenes fantasy, set in nooks you don't see on the White House tour, the two principals carry on like the Hollywood royalty they are. Bening (as Warren Beatty's wife, she's the Jackie Kennedy of Beverly Hills) is effortlessly charming, a cheery pleasure.

Douglas is not a particularly lovable actor. There's a cold, calculating quality behind all his performances, as if he's directing himself rather than acting. But he's warmed considerably by his character's pronouncements and such humanizing ploys as intimate banter with his preteen daughter (Shawna Waldron). When he's with Bening, she seems to soften him too.

Unfortunately, if you're not planning to vote for President Clinton next November, you might feel like an unwanted guest during most of "The American President." Move back toward the left, Mr. President, says this movie. Get the girl, save the planet and keep the conservative Klingons out of the White House. In the later stages, when President Andy (who sure rings of President Bill) finally downs his moral spinach and swings mightily at the opposition, the movie's liberal heart gushes so profusely you'd do well to wear rubber boots. As for Fox's tremendous portrayal as a whippersnapper aide-de-camp, it's about as close to George Stephanopoulos as you can get.

But if you watch "The American President" in the mood it's meant to be watched (check left brain at door upon entering), it's a well-modulated charmer. In terms of holiday movies, it smells like the break-away front-runner. And for those who can't take Hollywood agitprop unless there's good humor involved, they won't hate themselves in the morning for watching this. At one point, when Shepherd and Wade are sharing a private tete-a-tete in the Oval Office, a helicopter swoops into view on the White House lawn with a sudden rush of noise.

"What's that?" asks Wade, startled.

"That's my ride," says the president.

THE AMERICAN PRESIDENT (PG-13) — Contains sexual situations and profanity.

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