This is an oldie, written by Aaron Sorkin before he did Sports Night or The West Wing, and, as legend goes, it was the unused material from this film that got recycled into the early scripts for The West Wing. As a huge fan of the Sorkin-written seasons of The West Wing (Seasons 1-4, for reference), I felt I needed to check out this film eventually and was pleased to see it show up on the online streaming side of Netflix’s website.
The basic premise of this film, for those of you who haven’t seen it, is that the current President of the United States is a widow, and his wife died while he was campaigning. He has one of the highest approval ratings in history but many people on his staff and in the media in general believe it’s due to the sympathy factor of him continuing on to do his job even after losing his wife and having to raise his daughter alone. Thus, when the President becomes enamored with a member of a lobbyist organization and they begin to date, his opponents decide the grieving period is over and it’s time to attack.
The movie’s strength is its dialog, and it’s easy to see the Sorkin influence in this film that would later develop into The West Wing. Everyone in the film comes across as intelligent or at least very competent in their jobs, which is such a delightful contrast to most movies these days. It seems periphery characters have become almost totally one-sided in modern filmmaking, and it’s delightful to watch a film where everyone has goals and personality, and struggles with the conflict of those two motivations.
Actually, it’s hard to avoid saying: “It’s just like The West Wing, but shorter,” because that’s exactly what it is. The President is an idealist intellectual with a background outside of politics, his staff is full of people devoted to him like a very close friend, and much of the conflict revolves around the President’s desire to be truthful and honest with the public while his enemies spread half-truths and ruthlessly attack his personality in order to undermine his perceived integrity. All of this mirrors early seasons of The West Wing. Even characters from this film later show up under different names in the series.
So why watch what is essentially a briefer version of a long-running TV series?
Well, frankly, I’ve seen all of West Wing, Sorkin’s follow-up series Studio 60, and the film Charlie Wilson’s War (which he penned) and I was really desperate to see more of his wit. So, part of my desire to see this film (and enjoyment of this film) derives from my adoration for Aaron Sorkin as a writer (and not as a substance abuser and relentless egoist).
But even more personally than that, this film (and The West Wing in general), exist in a world I wish we lived in but know we don’t. I don’t know if it is possible to be more disappointed in our culture than to realize a basic concept such as honesty has so completely vanished from the world. Nothing in politics is straightforward, and nobody who has ever appeared on a TV set is completely who they seem to be.
And quite possibly, it has always been this way.
In this film, the President makes a choice to act with integrity at the cost of potentially losing his reelection campaign. He is upfront and honest about it to the media and explains why he feels the way he does and why the way he has chosen makes the most sense for the country. The film rewards him for this declaration, and his losing battle against his slanderous opponents takes a turn for the better.
But this is not how things would play out in real life. The media is persistent, and now that our ‘news’ has become polarized, there is no longer any story that isn’t presented as a ‘win’ for one team and a ‘loss’ for another. That bothers me, a great deal.
What bothers me more, however, is that so few people recognize what’s going on. How is it that openly misleading stories can be accepted as truth by so much of the public? I understand that there are shifting loyalties in play here. Once trustworthy people have been revealed to have been duplicitous but some people haven’t gotten the message.
I have always believed that if I had enough information, if I knew enough of the influencing factors, I could craft an argument to make a person see reason or logic. But, increasingly, I’ve been realizing that this is untrue. Some people simply can no longer hear convincing arguments. Some people have decided they’re no longer interested in changing their minds.
Faith trumps all. It is as simple as that. Even I am not immune. My faith that logic and reason rules the world is unshakable. Just as some members of family would reject my claims that their religion is derived from a set of rational and scientifically explainable circumstance, so too would I adamantly reject that their god plays any role in my day to day life.
And yet we must live in this world together, and our government is meant to ensure that we are both afforded all the freedoms of our individual faiths so long as they do not intrude upon one another. Both The American President and The West Wing presents a possible compromise. President Shepherd and President Bartlett both are portrayed as religious men who act with their convictions to protect not only their right to be pious but the right for others not to be. This way, everyone gets the freedom to do what they want.
It’s logical and rational. So why is it I cannot believe this will ever become a reality?