An American president with no previous form? No way.
Screenwriters are very big on subtext these days; most of them have attended a course that tells them what a vital element it is. The result is by and large a rather crude approach to subtlety, but Aaron Sorkin's script for The American President contains at least one lovely moment of subtext-mongering.

It's when the heroine makes her first appearance. She's a tough lobbyist brought in to argue the case for an organisation whose name, the Global Defence Council, would 20 years ago have signified a paranoid cabal of the secret service, but now refers to an environmental pressure group. It's her first visit to the White House, unless you count the times she "took the tour", and she gushes about herself and her mission to the security guard who asks to see her pass. The snooty colleague who is showing her the ropes tells her this guy has no interest in who she is or why she's there. Defensively she rattles on to the guard about how Capraesque this moment seems to her.

Again her superior moves to squelch her, saying this guy has no idea what "Capraesque" means. Except that the guard gives a perfectly adequate definition of the word, and hands back the heroine's credentials with a smile and a friendly comment (along the lines of "Sydney Ellen Wade from Virginia, welcome to the White House"), which shows he has appreciated her self-presentation.

In this way the script not only pays fleeting homage to a relevant director but dramatises in passing the two core propositions of Frank Capra's films about public life, namely: never underestimate ordinary people, and, even in politics, innocence can be an asset.

The film as a whole can't pay too much attention to these notions, can't simply deny what has changed since Capra's day (essentially the presumption of the press and the public). But it does make a fair shot at addressing a real issue in fantasy terms, and making a romantic comedy about the impossibility of being a national figurehead and a private person.

Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is a popular Democratic President in an election year. He's not only a Democrat but a liberal, who would like to make tough stands on gun control and environmental protection. He is also a widower, a personal tragedy with a political pay-off: in the past, any attempt to criticise his character would simply have backfired. When he starts dating Sydney Ellen Wade, this personal immunity passes its sell-by date.

Michael Douglas is adequate in a softer role than is usual for him, but his charm shortfall is noticeable even in a period of Hollywood history that has no use for charm in leading men. Annette Bening, though, is terrific as Sydney Wade, and not because with her hair hidden by a beret, as it is in one scene, she bears a passing resemblance to Hillary Clinton. Bening has the ability to let us see one mood or emotion rising through another. Her animation is captivating, but also intelligently nuanced. Only the character's rare moments of self-sacrifice or self-righteousness defeat her.

The American President would be a braver film if it acknowledged that everyone has some piece of history that can be made to seem sleazy, a blemish that could be turned into an eye-sore under sufficient journalistic magnification. To be free of possible sexual scandal, in particular, means having no sexual history. But, in fact, not only does this president have no previous form, but Sydney too seems to have reached sexual maturity without leaving any witnesses. Even members of the president's entourage are too gentlemanly to enquire about her past, though in the normal course of things they are hyper sensitive to potential damage and its limitation. Rob Reiner directs with the slickness of experience, after an all too presidential title sequence, a generic montage of flags, portraits, historical manuscripts and venerable inkwells. Thereafter he keeps things spinning along, either because he doesn't see the pitfalls of the project or because he does. The basic problem is that the film's political dilemma (our not being able anymore to separate the person and the office) is the same as its basic comic mechanism. Almost all the amusement to be had in the film derives from the double-take of celebrity - from forgetting for a moment that these are special people, and then being reminded. Andy and Sydney have their first kiss in the Dish Room, as he calls it - the China Room of the White House - but before they've got into the swing of the kiss, there's a political crisis. The lips that she can still taste must now order a bombing raid on Libya.

The double-take is subtlest when the couple take time off in Camp David, a sort of rugged modern equivalent of Marie Antoinette's Petit Trianon (where even the cows knew that was no milk maid). The building is unpretentious, even homey; the Secret Service people keep their distance. Then Andy and Sydney have to spoil it all by turning on the TV.

It can't have escaped the notice of Reiner and Sorkin that their president turns the situation around, not by insisting on his privacy, but by going public. He doesn't refuse to play the game of soundbites, or rather, he tries that and it doesn't work. Only when he plays the game to win does his popularity pull out of its nose-dive.

This seems more ironic than a film with a triumphalist conclusion would want to be. But there is a character played by Martin Sheen, who, despite having been Shepherd's best man, always calls him "Sir", even when they're playing pool. That's still the president he's playing pool with. The president isn't a person, in that sense. That may be the film-makers' real feeling.

Perhaps what we enjoy in The American President is our own hypocrisy, the layering of envy and contempt in our feeling for public figures, our strictly vicarious idealism. Sydney Wade may drive around town all day mustering support for an anti-pollution bill, but we're the ones who cheer when a huge helicopter lands on the White House lawn, and the president murmurs to his girlfriend, "There's my ride."

n On release from Friday