The President Doesn’t Answer to You, Monday Movies!
The American President is a D.C. sex scandal movie before Monica Lewinsky, which makes it obsolete; and it is a D.C. Aaron Sorkin movie before The West Wing, which makes it fascinating.
The cast of characters is mostly the same. Martin Sheen plays the Leo McGarry/chief of staff character, Anna Deveare Smith the C.J. Cregg/press secretary character, Michael J. Fox is Josh Lyman/political deputy (though reportedly based on George Stephanopolous, he has a Rahm-worthy outburst), David Paymer, Toby Ziegler/Jew. There’s even an old lady executive assistant; Mrs. Landingham coulda broke her in two. Notably missing is an Abby Bartlett figure; the president’s wife is dead, and Michael Douglas’s President Andrew Shepherd must romance Annette Bening’s top-dog lobbyist (part the hated Moira Kelly character, part the beloved Mary-Louise Parker).
Here is why Martin Sheen makes a better Aaron Sorkin president than Michael Douglas: because, in everything he does, Martin Sheen is secretly a little bit smarter than you, and in everything he does, Michael Douglas is secretly an asshole. In Aaron Sorkin’s redemptive vision of America, the smart people will be freed to lead from their hearts. (The Social Network may be the only thing Aaron Sorkin ever wrote in which smart people were not also wise.) Jonathan Chait says most of what needs to be said about the politics of this view here. I would like to see a movie in which Michael Douglas’s secret-asshole property were exploited to be the special power of the President of the United States. Jeff Bridges was a winning President in The Contender; because Jeff Bridges is always secretly stoned, there was a great scene revolving around late-night calls to the White House kitchen.
The American President was directed by Rob Reiner. Interestingly, Reiner also directed Sorkin’s script of A Few Good Men, which I remember as a lot crisper than the former movie. The West Wing was directed by Thomas Schlamme, although in television, unlike in features, the buck stops with the head writer, also known as the showrunner, so we can consider The West Wing Sorkin’s direct execution of his vision. The low, golden lighting, the high-speed deadpanning; both are missing from The American President.
After we watched The American President, we turned on the pilot of Sports Night, which is a terrific half-hour of television. I had no qualms about it whatsoever, because I know shit about sports.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes: a moving tragedy. Andy Serkis is a genius — are we all agreed that his gift to physical acting on film is comparable to that of Buster Keaton? The movie decisively shifts from the story of James Franco’s scientist character to the story of Serkis’s intellectually-enhanced chimpanzee. This shift leaves the end feeling a little unbalanced, when Franco’s story has come to a bittersweet resolution but Serkis’s — and that of ape-kind — seems to have only reached a midpoint. Then the credits roll, and with them the rest of the story.
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