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‘The American President’ (PG-13)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 17, 1995

In "The American President," a frothy White House comedy from director Rob Reiner, affairs of state prevent two smitten public servants from attending to more pressing domestic issues. Reiner probably sees the film as a liberal wake-up call, but it is essentially an enjoyably starry-eyed romance about a widowed president (Michael Douglas) who is bowled over by a gorgeous lobbyist (Annette Bening).

President Andrew Shepherd, a vaguely Clintonesque boomer, seems to have won the voters' pity rather than their confidence when he was swept into office three years ago. He has a high approval rating, but this is an election year, and for fear of alienating the voters, Shepherd has taken to sitting on the fence.

Once a proponent of the Great Society, Shepherd has become increasingly conservative under the attacks of his Republican opponent, Sen. Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss). And after he guts an environmental control bill, the Global Defense Council responds by hiring feisty super-lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Bening). Blessed with Southern charm and a toothpaste pitchwoman's smile, Sydney soon wins the president's support and his lonely widower's heart.

Much to the horror of his fiercely devoted, overprotective staff, he asks Sydney to join him for a state dinner with the president of France. The next day, the papers are plastered with a photograph of the dazzling duo dancing together, and the wicked Rumson uses the romance as an excuse to attack the president's character.

Where's Mr. Smith when you need him?

Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who teamed up with Reiner on 1992's "A Few Good Men," throws obstacles in the way of true love—so many that the story sometimes has all the sex appeal of a Phil Gramm fund-raiser. He also equips the hero with a stirring speech that is more politically naive than it is Capraesque. When Rumson insults Sydney's honor, the president is driven toward a cathartic tirade in defense of Sydney, himself, clean air, gun control, ACLU cards, populism, the flag and all the rest.

Like Shepherd's speech, "The American President" touches on all manner of issues but illumines none of them. And while there are some engaging glimpses of the president's staff in action—Michael J. Fox (riffing on George Stephanopoulos), Martin Sheen (Mack McLarty) and David Paymer (Stanley Greenberg)—the film's principal pleasures lie in the president's pursuit of a first lady. After all, somebody's got to pick out the china.

The American President is rated PG-13.

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