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Site created 12/15/97.

review added: 8/27/99

The American President
1995 (1999) - Castle Rock/Universal/Columbia (Warner Bros.)

review by Bill Hunt, editor of The Digital Bits

The American President Film Ratings: A

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): C-/B-/C-

Specs and Features

115 mins, PG-13, letterboxed widescreen (2.35:1), single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at 1:04:06, at start of chapter 19), Snapper case packaging, theatrical trailer, cast & crew bios, production notes, film-themed menu screens with music, scene access (33 chapters), languages: English (DD 5.1), subtitles: English & French, Close Captioned

All right... I'm gonna save the massive sigh of disgust. I always get way too excited when I hear that one of my favorite films is coming out on DVD, and while most of the time, I've thrilled with the result, every now and again, I'm really disappointed. After seeing this disc, I had to just turn off the player for a while, and go outside for a walk (probably a good idea anyway). Let me at least talk highly about the film, because I think it's one of director Rob Reiner's best works (along with A Few Good Men, both of which were written by Aaron Sorkin).

The American President tells the story of Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas), who as the title suggests, is the Chief Executive of the United States. President Shepherd is the father of a teenage daughter, and does the best he can to raise her alone (his wife died a few years ago, prior to his being elected). He cares deeply about his country, takes his oath to protect the Constitution very seriously, and feels a personal burden of guilt when he must order his military into action. In other words, he's a pretty good guy, and his public approval is at an all-time high. Enter one Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), a hired gun for the environmental lobby who, while at her first meeting in the White House, lets Shepherd have it for his lackluster environmental policy. Shepherd isn't supposed to be in the meeting, but he overhears Sydney's comments (much to her embarrassment). Shepherd falls for her pretty quickly, and after yet another awkward and funny encounter (on the phone this time), he manages to invite her to accompany him to a state dinner. Feelings between the two quickly become mutual, but as the President soon learns (ironic considering recent real life events), even his private life is up for public inspection. The news networks immediately go on "Sydney Watch", Shepard's approval ratings plummet, and just about everyone tries to use Shepard's relationship with "the First Mistress" to their advantage, including a power-hungry Senator from the opposite party (played by Richard Dreyfuss), who has his eyes on the Oval Office.

The American President has an almost Capra-esque feel to it. Shepard, despite the fact that he's President, is painted as an underdog. He's a widower, who privately knows that he may have gotten elected on a sympathy vote, and he's struggling to raise a daughter while trying to manage the duties of one of the toughest jobs in the world. You grow to sympathize with him as the story unfolds. You want this guy to get the girl in the end. And the girl is charming as can be. I'm not usually a big fan of Annette Bening, but I'll admit she's very good here. Douglas and Bening have great chemistry, so the romance definitely works. And the film boasts a terrific supporting cast, with great performances by Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, David Paymer and Anna Deavre Smith, as over-worked and under-paid White House aids, who support their President because they believe in him. They provide much of the humor along the way, as they react to Shepard's attempts to woo Sydney from the Oval Office, and just cope with the day to day demands of their jobs (at one point Fox turns to Paymer and asks, "It's Christmas?" The reply: "Yeah, didn't you get the memo?"). This is a story that could easily get corny, but it's exceptionally well written and directed. The American President is an old-fashioned, feel-good romantic comedy, and they don't make many as good as this anymore.

Sadly, this DVD is a major disappointment. The video looks simply terrible. First of all, this 2.35:1 widescreen film is presented here NON-anamorphic - I mean, what's up with that? The Kubrick Collection aside, Warner has been generally very good about releasing its better films in anamorphic widescreen. Alas, this is an off-the-shelf transfer done for laserdisc, and it looks like crap. Right from the start, the picture has a digital, muddy-looking quality to it. The text of the film's opening credits just shimmers with digital noise and unnecessary edge enhancement, and it doesn't ease up all the way through. Take a look at the way the pattern on Michael Douglas' tie shimmers for the first 20 minutes of the film. Ouch. The color and contrast also suffer somewhat, from the fact that this is just an old analog master.

The audio, at least, fares somewhat better, although you won't hear much in the way of surround sound, despite the remastered 5.1 soundtrack. Most of the rear channel use is just acoustic fill with music, and its light on that. The soundfield has a strong bias to the front hemisphere. Still, the dialogue is clear, and as it's dialogue that's important here, the sound you do get is sufficient. But the extras again disappoint. You get a really poor quality theatrical trailer, a few brief cast & crew bios, and three short sections of production notes. And that's it.

What can I say? I really love The American President, but I don't care at all for this disc. I waited like two years for this movie to come out on DVD, and all I can think right now is, "I waited two years for THIS?!" Yuck.

Bill Hunt
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