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It's getting tougher at the top

With US elections on the horizon, the role of president has never been subject to greater scrutiny. Even by Hollywood. Rob Reiner, maker of Spinal Tap, is taking a positive view.
For all Bill Clinton's assiduous courtship of Hollywood (one joke going the rounds: "On a clear day in Washington, you can see Barbra Streisand forever"), presidential figures have been confined to bit parts or baddies (Dave) in the recent cinema. But now, as the country steels itself for next year's elections, two films about the highest office in the land have just opened in America.

Out of left field, there is Oliver Stone's Nixon, which is said to be unexpectedly sympathetic towards the trickster. And, firmly in midfield, there is Rob Reiner's The American President, a light romantic comedy about the commotion in the White House when the widowed Prez decides he's ready to start dating again and chooses a woman with (shades of Hillary Clinton) strong and outspoken political opinions.

It's a long way from the recent Merchant Ivory film Jefferson in Paris, in which the great statesman tranquilly carried on a long liaison with and fathered several children by his daughter's black maid. These days it seems the president no longer has the right to a love life. "Woodrow Wilson was a widower who met another woman during his presidency and married her," Reiner points out. "But he didn't have to be president on television. If there had been televisions in every home 60 years ago the country would never have elected a man in a wheelchair, that is, Franklin D Roosevelt. That is definitely the crux of this whole film.

"President Kennedy was the last president to be protected because there weren't that many media at that point. It was a very big deal during the Kennedy administration when the CBS evening news was expanded from 15 minutes a night to half an hour. Now you have news 24 hours a day. That, combined with the lack of trust that the American people have had since Richard Nixon, has created an atmosphere that leans towards being both mean-spirited and intrusive. The president is the single most powerful man in the world, and he's ultimately held prisoner in his own home." His film explores the comic possibilities of this in scenes involving the difficulty of making a private phone call from the Oval Office, and the fallout when his new love spends the night in the White House with the press corps waiting in ambush outside.

The American President which now stars Michael Douglas, started life as a vehicle for Robert Redford, who bailed out when the screenplay did not turn out as the screwball comedy he had in mind. "It's the first time in my life I've made a film that expresses some of my political views," says Reiner, a declared Democrat. "I started out doing satire when I was young, which was basically thumbing your nose at things, and I think eventually at a certain point in your life you have to start saying what you're for. I'm very keen on trying to help the environment and strongly in favour of gun control, and those are the two key issues that are brought out in the film."

Reiner grew up with the greats of American comedy. His father, Carl, wrote and performed in the classic television series Sid Caesar's Show of Shows, and visitors to the Reiner household would include the likes of Mel Brooks, Norman Lear, Neil Simon and Woody Allen. Rob Reiner's first film, This Is Spinal Tap, the immortal mockumentary about a no-talent heavy metal band, mined that same vein of irreverent humour. Since then, the director has been all over the map, testing his mettle in gentle comedy (Stand By Me), fantasy (The Princess Bride), romantic comedy (When Harry Met Sally), Gothic horror (Misery), and military drama (A Few Good Men).

All of them had one thing in common: they were straightforward genre movies. And just about all were hits, the biggest being A Few Good Men, which made Hollywood history by opening in 50 countries on the same date. But it was informally known in the business as A Few Big Names, a glossy star vehicle for Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Demi Moore.

The blot on Reiner's copybook has been North, his last film and the only one that didn't slot comfortably into a cookie-cutter pattern. A surreal comedy about a small boy who travels the world searching for the ideal family, it flopped spectacularly. His follow-up bears all the signs of a sure-fire hit. But The American President has been called by Variety "as conservative artistically as it is liberal politically.... Anyone who would consider this ultra mainstream picture the least bit controversial doesn't see many movies". For all Reiner's professions of seriousness, it looks slick, inoffensive and suspiciously like a blatant bid to re- establish the director's bankability.

He is surprisingly willing and even eager to talk about North. "I guess it was just my time to get blasted. But I love all my children. And there are things in it that, to me, are as funny as it gets. There's a scene where Bruce Willis is playing a stand-up comedian addressing NASA: the National Association of Smoke Alarms. And then he tells a joke: I had sex with this woman and she said afterwards, 'do you smoke after you make love?' And I said to her, 'I don't know, I never looked'. Nobody laughs. Then Willis goes, 'but I'll tell you one thing, my smoke alarm never went off'. And everybody screams. The smoke alarm people only laugh at jokes about smoke alarms! That, to me, is hysterical." Reiner is a big man, and when he laughs, as he does when reliving a whole series of comic moments from North, it reverberates all around Cannes, where he is promoting The American President.

"Audiences went to North expecting some kind of heart-warming family comedy. Most people don't get satire. When Spinal Tap was first released we had the same problem. No one could understand why we had made a movie about a band that nobody had heard of and whose music was so bad. They asked us why we didn't make a film about the Rolling Stones. But those people who found their way to it picked up on every little thing."

It may be that the Golden Age of films like the Tap are long gone; certainly American film comedy looks more conventional than ever. "You could be a lot more specific and special in those days because you only had to appeal to a niche audience," Reiner admits. "Now you're trying to appeal to a mass global market and films get watered down." Or it may be that the director is a victim of his own success and he's making the kinds of films whose budgets make blandness inevitable.

But he is nothing if not philosophical, and when I ask what he'd like to have on his gravestone, he comes back, quick as a flash. His answer could be one of Spinal Tap's mock profundities, "Now I'm in this place. That's what it's gonna read. 'Cos I always say that everywhere I go. It's like that line from The Adventures of Buckeroo Banzai: wherever you go, there you are."

n 'The American President' is on general release from 8 Dec