Bask in the Nostalgia of Dave and The American President

By Mandi Bierly

These '90s favorites remind us how much has changed — and what remains the same — in comedies set in the Oval Office.

It may be difficult to imagine, but there was a time, (1993, to be exact) when a movie about America’s commander-in-chief could have a plot that’s more outlandish than any real-world event unfolding today.

Screenwriter Gary Ross scored an Oscar nomination with his script for Dave, the story of Dave Kovic (Kevin Kline), a man whose striking resemblance to the president (also Kline) earns him a one-time gig serving as a body double for the leader of the free world. The role gets extended after the philandering president suffers a massive stroke — excuse us, “a slight circulatory problem of the head” — mid-coitus and his conniving chief of staff (Frank Langella) and slightly-less-soulless communications director (a pre-Veep Kevin Dunn) hatch a plan to puppet Dave until they can discredit the virtuous vice president (Ben Kingsley), who Dave has been told is unhinged and a danger to the nation.

What the politicos don’t anticipate is Dave, who runs a temp agency in D.C. to find others work, actually wants to help people — a quality shared by the scorned and increasingly suspicious First Lady (Sigourney Weaver, who gets the chance to warm up here in a way her Working Girl ice queen never did). The result is a twist-filled power struggle that, in the end, reminds us civil servants can in fact be civil, and political satires Capraesque.

One of the morals of 1995’s The American President, on the other hand, is that even the most levelheaded leader sometimes needs to put on the gloves and step into the ring. Written by Aaron Sorkin (future creator of The West Wing), the movie begins with the be-all and end-all of meet-cutes: President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) is charmed by an environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening’s Sydney Ellen Wade), who doesn’t realize he’s walked into the room right as she’s berating him to his chief of staff (Martin Sheen). The fledgling romance is complicated not only by the fact that it’s surprisingly difficult for the president to personally buy a woman flowers, but also because he’s a widower and single father who’s now opening himself up to a character debate in an election year.

The film’s light touch — which earned Golden Globe nominations for Douglas, Bening, Sorkin, and director Rob Reiner in the comedy categories — makes room for thought-provoking debates that continue today: How much of one’s agenda should a president be willing to table to secure re-election? Why do people support politicians who, to borrow Sydney's words, claim they love America but clearly can’t stand Americans? And how can anyone steal focus from Michael J. Fox, who stars as Lewis Rothschild, the president’s domestic policy advisor and conscience?

Again, this is a Sorkin script so it’s not really a spoiler to tell you President Shepherd has a stirring 5-minute monologue extolling. “We have serious problems to solve and we need serious people to solve them…”

Watch these movies back-to-back, and you just might be moved to do more than laugh.