Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Super Delegates: President Andrew Shepherd in "The American President" (1995)

Michael Douglas in The American President
Welcome to Super Delegates, a bi-monthly column released on Tuesdays and are done in part to recognize politics on film, specifically in regards to Oscar-nominated works. With this being an election year in the United States, it feels like a good time to revisit film history's vast relationship with politicians of any era and determine what makes them interesting while potentially connecting them to the modern era. The series plans to run until the end of this 2016 election cycle, so stay tuned for every installment and feel free to share your thoughts on films worthy of discussion in the comments section.

The American President
Release Date: November 17, 1995
Directed By: Rob Reiner
Written By: Aaron Sorkin
Starring: Michael Douglas, Annette Benning, Martin Sheen
Oscar Nominations: 1
-Best Original Score (Comedy or Musical)
Delegates in Question:
-President Andrew Shepherd

In the Super Delegates column on Frost/Nixon, I spoke at length about how loneliness inevitably corrupted Richard M. Nixon by turning him into a man filled with paranoia and some pretty strong defense walls. It was intriguing to see how he dealt with the shame of Watergate that made him the most notorious president of the latter 20th century. Of course, there's another side to the coin, and one that makes sense when considering Nixon's desire not to have his personal affairs draped before the public. This is most evident in director Rob Reiner's The American President, which features President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), who is also a widow with a bright young daughter and falls in love with Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Benning): a woman who just so happens to work for the opposition. The film started as an idea by actor Robert Redford (whose departure is up for speculation as to why, but has been conveniently described as "creative differences") before culminating in the final product. With Reiner once again teaming up with writer Aaron Sorkin, the two delivered a romantic comedy with a political bent that may seem familiar if you were watching TV a few years later.

While not an exact duplicate, Sorkin's visit to The White House would prove to be fruitful and bring 96 Emmy nominations (26 of which won). Starting in 1999, The West Wing was an indirect spin-off of the film that would focus on fictional president Jed Bartlett (with returning actor Martin Sheen) and his staff. It was candid, lively and often touched on important issues that were relevant to the contemporary times. It's a series that had the benefit of being able to flesh out over 150 episodes and tell intricate stories. It is generally regarded as one of the finest and best written dramas in TV history. This is all pretty hard to overlook if you have seen the series when going into The West Wing, which is an adequate film, but nevertheless suffers from having the restrictions of film. It has to tell one story that frankly isn't as impressive as anything even from the first season of the hit show. It could be that Sorkin has time to flesh out his ideas. It could also be that the show by strange luck got to tackle a far more personal, if broader themed, story about the complicated mix of love and politics.

In most cinematic portrayals of presidents, the love life is at best a secondary aspect to a grander narrative. It has largely been about the men who run the country and the tough decisions that they have to make. While Reiner claimed that he wanted the film to be more about politics, there's a deeper subtext about how love plays into it. When we're first introduced to Shepherd, he's getting press for his widow status and the question as to how he will be able to function as president. By midway, it becomes about how him metaphorically "sleeping with the enemy" will cloud his judgment, possibly even causing a bias that will impact his job. By the end, he gives a rousing speech that shows Sorkin at his best - being able to provide a hefty monologue that not only manages to convey Shepherd's love, but at how politics are a separate entity entirely. He doesn't give up the girl of his dreams because of the pressure. He keeps her because they bring out something invigorating in each other.

Along with the romance is the mundane moments of Shepherd's time in office. With his Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney (Sheen), he contemplates tough decisions over a game of pool. He watches his daughter practice music while forcing her to play "Hail to the Chief." There's a playful side to Shepherd that is only underdone by how well Sheen takes to Sorkin's dialogue (an attribute he improves upon in The West Wing). There's an intelligence and vulnerability along with the confidence. There's even a scene where Shepherd buys his girlfriend flowers, only to be comically rejected over the phone by someone who doesn't believe he's the president. While Douglas isn't nearly as lively a presence as Sheen, his slow progression from conservative and impersonal to openly happy is the stuff of good drama. Comparatively, Wade's story is the simple tale of a woman who enters a life of luxury and is awed by every kind gesture she receives. Still, its balance is impeccable.

The backlash comes from opposing candidates as Shepherd begins to run for reelection. While the status of widow could be seen as sympathetic, he inevitably risks his popularity by befriending Wade publicly. He listens to conferences on TV where he is the butt of ridicule. Nothing seems to be right for him. As much as Wade has opened up a happier and more engaging side of him, the media that surrounds this decision seems to think that it's the end of the world. Of course, The American President is a romantic comedy, and thus it ends on a happy note. However, it still raises a lot of questions as to how the president is represented in the media not for their politics, but for who their friends are. While it may seem silly in Reiner's film, it oddly enough is fitting to the general consuming of media that has only gotten worse in the past few decades.

The following are a few examples of how the media influences politics. Nixon notoriously lost a debate to John F. Kennedy largely because of his sweaty presence on TV. George H.W. Bush was seen being marveled by grocery store technology - which earned him accusation of being out of touch with the common man. Bill Clinton was occasionally noted to have eaten fast food, causing him to be seen as a bad influence and eventually lead his staff to change his image to something more health conscious. In Fahrenheit 9/11, George W. Bush was seen contemplating the events of September 11, 2001 for an inconceivable amount of time - making him look dimwitted and unqualified. Comparatively, Jimmy Carter's brother Billy Carter making Billy Beer seems kind of tame (and to his credit, Jimmy Carter once adorably said "I have committed adultery many times in my heart."). Either way, the evidence of more than 50 years of the media representation of presidents is perfectly summarized here. Considering that this is even worse in gossip columns and especially rampant with 2016's presidential nominees, The American President seems especially packed with far more merit than it gets credit for.

While most of the aforementioned examples may be more about image as it relates to personal life choices, what are some examples of how the media paints politicians due to associates? There are some obvious examples. Hillary Clinton has been accused of being a "Wall Street democrat" due to her questionable support groups. However, the best example in recent years actually came from the last major election in 2008 when John McCain competed against Obama. On the surface, both seemed like adequate decisions. However, the press notoriously lampooned McCain's running mate Sarah Palin, of whom has been accused of having low intelligence and some questionable life choices. It's because of this that some feel like McCain inevitably lost the race by a considerable margin. While Obama definitely appealed to the youth vote, it does seem likely that those who supported McCain refused to vote for him on the grounds of his perceptively incompetent running mate. Comparatively, there hasn't been a situation quite as glaring in terms of political partners dragging the other down in the few elections since, though there's still six months and no running mate accounted for for any of the major parties as of this publication.

Of course, Sorkin would remain rather vocal on his politics on his next big show The Newsroom, which opened infamously with a speech summarized as "Worst generation ever." The show never managed to withstand the reputation of The West Wing, but mostly showed a political voice growing weary in what he's admitted as his final time on TV. However, the thing that is likely most unexpected about The American President's relevancy in 2016 is that former candidate Ted Cruz once quoted the film verbatim. True, he also had some bad The Simpsons impersonations, but his quote in the above clip either shows how implicit the impact of the film has had on his politics, or that he has been using pop culture references without us knowing it. Either way, the fact that the quote was quickly identified online does suggest that even if the film has been surpassed by The West Wing, there's still a fervent admiration for it.

The American President may not be one of the best fake president movies in history. However, it does help to explore the complicated relationship that love and politics has and how the media can spin its own narrative. Speaking as the film allows us to see Shepherd's personal life where the nightly news doesn't get to see his candid conversations while playing pool, there's a certain desire from Sorkin and Reiner to ask the viewers to sympathize with what we don't see. Yes, everyone has their own personal beliefs and it's sometimes irreparable to how we see politicians, but the film asks us to not entirely judge one's credibility on who their friends are. Simply judge on the work that they produce. It may sound like dumb advice from an intellectual romantic comedy, but it's got more going for it than the familiar "boy meets girl" routine that we've seen a million times before.

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