FILM The critics: Yes, yes, yes, Mr President

"LIBERTY is moving," are the first words of Rob Reiner's The American President (15). Never mind that this "Liberty" is, in fact, just the secret service code-name for the President (Michael Douglas), who is embarking on his morning schedule. It is a line that rings resonantly in the Land of the Free right now, at a time when government has been standing still. The American President presents a bustling new world, where the chief executive moves as swiftly and purposefully as his secret service men. The movie flies on wings of fantasy as strong and sturdy as those of the proud American eagle, which features in the opening montage of presidential portraits and revered national icons.

Both romance and romanticisation are the movie's business. Douglas plays Andrew Shepherd, a US President entering the fourth year of his first term with surging approval ratings. The good Shepherd is a liberal dream President: humane yet decisive, he closes meetings with a brisk, "OK, gentlemen, let's move on it," which plays like a reproach to the current real-life incumbent's prevarication. As if in answer to stereotypical associations of worthiness with woolliness, this liberal has a first-class mind, rebutting opponents with orderly five-point answers. He never loses his cool, except in righteous anger. He even finds time to break from his schedule to tell his daughter: "It's OK - because, if there's anything you want to talk about ... "

Shepherd is a widower, and it is suggested that his wife's death from cancer may have been a shield from character attacks during the election campaign. As another election approaches, he makes his first political mistake: he falls in love. The press latches on to his liaison with environmental lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening). Political opponents crow: "What are we supposed to call her? The First Mistress?"

The early scenes are stiff with exposition and presidential protocol. Then the icy staidness of the White House feels the warm blast of Annette Bening's personality. She lambasts the lily-livered environmental bill, before shrinking in mortification when she discovers that the President himself has been listening at the door. This volatile mixture of strength and fragility is at the heart of Bening's performance. A strong yet vulnerable older woman of the sort we see all too rarely in the movies, she shows both poise and awe in her palatial new surroundings. Her look of childish pleasure at the pomp of a state reception is all the more remarkable, considering that, as the wife of Warren Beatty, she is practically American royalty herself. Nor does her good-natured, slightly ditsy intelligence seem a movie concoction. She lights up the film with the hard flame of reality.

Much of the comedy comes from playing off the presidential persona against the man behind it. Douglas is an ideal vehicle for such gags (although the producers' first choice, Robert Redford, would also have had an iconic suitability). We are so used to seeing Michael Douglas in salacious or sensationalist roles that it is funny to see him tackling domesticity, rubbing his hands in anticipation of "meatloaf night". Douglas has shed his sullenness and seediness but kept the pout of (now politically justified) defiance.

The sharp script is by Aaron Sorkin, whose last screenplay was A Few Good Men (also directed by Reiner). The films are a powerful one-two - a riveting courtroom drama and a deft comedy. Reiner's liberal intentions in A Few Good Men got blasted away by Jack Nicholson's crazily convincing performance as the military martinet who insisted on national security over human rights. There is no danger of missing The American President's agenda. If anything, the purity of Shepherd's politics detracts from their impact, giving them an easily dismissible utopianism. Elsewhere, though, Sorkin is both funny and pointed: as in his suggestion that the President is more anxious to preserve power than exercise it; and in the wonderfully witty scene when Shepherd expresses his anxiety, before making love to Sydney for the first time, that his power may lead to misleading expectations of his potency. Never has presidential machismo been more gracefully satirised.

Like all good Presidents, Douglas has a strong supporting team. Martin Sheen is his chief of staff, the home-town friend whose wry courtliness speaks of long suffering; Michael J Fox's thrusting domestic policy adviser is a ringer for Clinton's whizzkid aide George Stephanopoulos; and David Paymer wilily wisecracks as an unprincipled pollster. Best of all is Douglas's Republican goad, Richard Dreyfuss, who casts aside his bonhomie to appear as sleek and stately as a hovering battleship.

The week's two best other releases are both about brothers. In Diane Keaton's assured directing debut, Unstrung Heroes (PG), newcomer Nathan Watt plays 12-year-old Steven Lidz, whose father Sid (John Turturro) is a hare-brained inventor in 1960s Los Angeles. If you find Sid flaky, you should meet his brothers, Danny (Michael Richards) and Arthur (Maury Chaykin). They are the really flipped Lidz. Paranoid about a universal conspiracy and anti-Semitism, they talk of ominous "repercussions", barricading themselves in a room with stacks of old newspapers to keep out a world that, they're convinced, contains only eight trustworthy people. Young Steven is soon seduced by his uncles' battiness, which offers an escape from home where his mother (another lovely, warm performance from Andie MacDowell) is dying of cancer. What at first seems mere zaniness turns into a poignant commentary on the strategies immigrants use to survive - the way eccentricity becomes an assertion of identity.

The Brothers McMullen (15) is a shoestring comedy (the winner at last year's Sundance Festival) about the impossibility of a healthy sex life if you're a Catholic. The eponymous McMullens comprise mild-mannered cynic Barry (played by the film's writer-director, Ed Burns), who scorns commitment; older brother Jack (Jack Mulcahy), a devotedly married new man - ripe for an affair, we soon learn; and recent grad Patrick (Mike McGlone), balancing the demands of his faith with the benefits of his Jewish princess girlfriend (including a job and apartment, courtesy of her father). With a wistful, ironic tone, the film plays with romantic cliches. Burns is by far its most compelling presence, and the movie can sag when he is off-screen. But it presents glancing insights into repression, the terror of modern relationships, and, in a memorable metaphor involving an unpeeled banana, the male need for a protective shield. Most new Manhattan wits get compared to Woody Allen. Here this is apt, since Burns, like Allen, makes comedy out of the collision between the metaphysical and the mundane.

An entomologist's intimacies are the subject of Philip Haas's Angels and Insects (18), an adaptation of AS Byatt's novella Morpho Eugenia. Mark Rylance plays a mid-Victorian naturalist, a dour, flat-vowelled northerner who returns from the Amazon rainforest to work for a wealthy collector. He ends up marrying the man's daughter (Patsy Kensit), to his surprise and to the snobbish fury of her brother (Douglas Henshall). More shocks await in the bedroom, as his wife alternates between ardour and abstinence. The only sanity on the estate is provided by Kristin Scott Thomas's governess. Soon, of course, parallels appear between insect and human worlds, and the film - somewhat wordily - is delving into ideas of altruism, society, female emancipation, class, genealogy and Darwinism. As in his similarly fascinating but frustrating The Music of Chance, Haas, with the help of a Nymanesque score and vivid if static photography, efficiently transfers a complex text to the screen without ever quite animating it.

The title of Dr Jekyll and Ms Hyde (12) doesn't exactly augur well - but not as badly as the film turns out. A perfume researcher (Tim Daly) finds himself turning into Sean Young (a female actress, lest the name confuse). The best Jekyll adaptations have always transformed a single actor - half the fun is in the metamorphosis - and have had much more logic and rigour than this slipshod affair. The idea could have been riotously funny, but the most obvious themes, such as the Tiresian idea of an individual experiencing sex from both gender perspectives, are muffed - or should one say cocked up?

Cinema details: Review, page 92

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
filmReview: In the face of all-round devastation, even Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson appears a little puny
Arts and Entertainment
Bright lights, big city: Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles by dusk
books
News
i100
Sport
Harry Kane makes Paul Scholes' Premier League team of the season
footballPaul Scholes on the best players, managers and goals of the season - and the biggest disappointments
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

    Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

    £30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

    Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

    £14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

    Day In a Page

    Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

    The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

    How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
    Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

    Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

    'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

    Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

    How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

    Art attack

    Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
    Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

    Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

    Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
    Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

    'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

    Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
    10 best wedding gift ideas

    It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

    Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
    Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

    Paul Scholes column

    With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
    Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

    Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

    Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club that later became synonymous with Hillsborough has dealt with this tragedy
    Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

    Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

    The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
    Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

    For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
    Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

    Fifa corruption arrests

    All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
    Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

    The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

    In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

    How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

    Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
    Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

    How Stephen Mangan got his range

    Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor