There doesn't seem to be much contention or wiggle-room when arguing about Michael Douglas' best role. 'Wall Street's' Gordon Gekko was greedier than Scarface and did more cocaine than, um, Scarface, and the character remains so enmeshed in the fabric of our culture that this weekend's sequel feels relevant despite the 23 years that have passed since Oliver Stone's original was first released (the recent financial meltdown also helps).
Sure, Douglas has been reliably memorable in almost everything he's ever done (this is the part where you list your favorite Douglas performances and then make a lame but essential Catherine Zeta-Jones sex joke), and even his dreck tends to be kind of remarkable in its own right ('Don't Say A Word'), but to most people he'll always be considered Gordon Gekko. Which is a bit of a bummer -- because his best role was actually President Andrew Shepherd in 'The American President' (but to spare lots of people yelling at me, let's just pretend I meant that comment subjectively).
'The American President' is what Rob Reiner does with an Aaron Sorkin script, so you can imagine my excitement to see what David Fincher did with one of those things in 'The Social Network.' It's up there with 'Jerry Maguire' as one of the very finest romantic comedies of the 1990s (a decade in which the genre received an overdue resurgence of wit and imagination), it's the prototype for the blissful television series 'The West Wing,' and it features Michael Douglas as the most impossibly charming fictional President in the history of American cinema (take that, Gene Hackman in 'Welcome to Mooseport').
'The American President' is the simple love story of a widowed commander-in-chief who falls in love with a whip-smart lobbyist (Annette Bening, never more winning than she is here as Sydney Ellen Wade) during an election year. The man's got a young daughter and a boatload of anxiously amusing staffers -- including Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox, who delivers a wonderful performance despite clearly suffering from symptoms of his then-announced Parkinson's -- but Sorkin's script wisely avoids turning Shepherd into a Disney Dad, and instead mines the presidency for its sweetly comic situations and the strains it can put on a good man who simply wants to love someone without all the world's bullshit getting in the way. The role called for Douglas to channel the natural gravitas inherent to his (father's) voice into a character who is sweet, debonair, and vulnerable despite being the most powerful man on the planet. Andrew Shepherd (Andy, to me) didn't require Douglas to do anything he hadn't done before, it simply required him to do it all at once, and make it sing. And Douglas just nails it.
Take this scene, for example, which is as addictive and quotable as any bit of banter west of Casablanca. It's a scene that requires Douglas to be simultaneously earnest, confident, and endlessly nervous -0 here's a guy who has the full force of the world's most powerful military at his command, a force we've witnessed him reluctantly deploy, and he's totally disarmed by a pretty lady in a button-down shirt. It's the kind of movie moment that could (and possibly did) bring a smile to the face of Billy Wilder, and required the entire heft of Douglas' considerable charisma to make Sorkin's words believably seem as if they were coming from a guy who -- at the end of the day -- was still a politician. And it's that sense of verisimilitude that elevates this performance into the highest strata of Douglas' work, as he's able to carve a complete and magnetic character from a brilliant but ultimately formulaic script that's directed with all the subtlety of a Zack Snyder film (Richard Dreyfuss saddles the film with a villain so evil and slimy that he could only be found in a movie. Or politics).
So remember up top where I was all "President Shepherd is objectively Douglas' best role?" I was kidding of course, but there's a point in 'The American President' where I can see people of certain political persuasions being too put off by Shepherd's liberal bent to appreciate the film. And while I may be a bit to the left (to massively understate the case), I think that the aplomb with which Douglas resolves Shepherd's political situation into a portrait of a man who just wants to be in love without compromising his integrity is universally touching stuff, and the kind of thing that I hope viewers are able to appreciate regardless of their convictions (at the very least, Douglas' bravery to openly give voice to such a strong opinion is commendable).
In the clip below, Shepherd celebrates the ACLU and blasts our country's crippling gun problem, but Douglas lets his emotions drive the scene, and his veiled commitment to do right by Sydney Ellen Wade completely supersedes his brazen commitment to do right by his country. It's a tricky balancing act and one the entire climax and legacy of the film depend upon, and when Douglas signs off by stating "I am Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President," you'll probably wish it were true no matter who you voted for in the last election.
(SPOILER ALERT, AHOY!)