What The American President (1995) Taught Me
This past weekend, I indulged in an Aaron Sorkin written gem that embodies what I would call a “Capra-esque” quality. In fact, I’m going to bet that’s what Sorkin was thinking while he was writing the screenplay. Here’s a bit of dialogue from when we are introduced to Annette Bening as Sydney White. A political strategist who just made “the show.”
Sydney beaming with joy – “Forgive me, this is my first time at The White House. I’m trying to savor the Capra-esque quality.”
Susan aggrevated and impatient – “He doesn’t know what Capra-esque means.”
Security Guard beaming with the same joy – “Yeah, I do. Frank Capra. Great American Director. It’s a Wonderful Life. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Sydney Ellen Wade of Virginia, knock ’em dead!”
The Susan character embodies everything that Sydney is not. A cynical, better than everybody character who looks down at Sydney Ellen Wade of Virginia. Of course, the Security Guard reveling in a moment he’ll likely be talking about around the dinner table that night. It’s a small win and that’s what this film is full of. Hopeful small wins. In fact, the film ends without even letting you know how the election will end up for our American President, Michael Douglas. But it ends on a hopeful, strong small win.
Aaron Sorkin & Rob Reiner created a film that is both full of hope and equally filled naivety. And it got me thinking, are these two things one in the same? Do you have to be a little bit naive to even believe in a better tomorrow? I think the answer to this question is simple. Yeah, you do. I also don’t think this is a bad thing.
In every Frank Capra film I’ve ever seen, there’s always a naive character, someone who hasn yet to be brutishly beaten down by the world – the idealist who believes in that better tomorrow. And that person inspires hope in all the people around them.
Claudette Colbert in It Happened One Night played a naively rich girl who knew nothing of life – but hoped for the best by running out on her wedding. This utter naive approach is the very thing that tugged on Clark Gable’s heart strings – the most cynical newspaper reporter in all of cinema. Perhaps this gave us the notion that opposites really do attract!
Or, look at the Angel who inspires Jimmy Stewart’s George Bailey to run through the streets filled with exuberance in It’s A Wonderful Life, literally giving him a second chance. It’s an iconic scene but remember, George Bailey was going to kill himself!
We’ve had those kind of days too. All of us. The ones where we don’t want to move forward. Hope isn’t on the radar because you’ve lost something, maybe you’re lost somebody, and in turn, that means you’ve lost yourself. I think this is where the naivety comes in. It’s more than just believing there will be better days – it’s knowing there will be, even if that sounds naive. It’s putting on a smile, standing up and walking through the door. You may fall, in fact, you will fall. Everyone does. But it’s what you do afterward that makes you who you are.
Lesson 8: Hope doesn’t come to us in the light. It’s found in the dark.
And never forget, these naive characters aren’t push-overs. They’re strong and believe in what’s right and take action to try and find a solution. The American President’s Andrew Shepherd is constantly trying to find his balance as a President and as someone who wants a companion in his life. I don’t see anything wrong with that and neither does he.
To have the “Capra-esque” quality you need to have both naivety & hope – and I guess having a cynic around to inspire doesn’t hurt you either. After The American President, I went down the rabbit-hole and popped on Dave. The most “Capra-esque” film in a post-Capra world if you will allow me to squeeze a little more juice out of the phrase. The same things would apply in this film – an idealist who looks like The President gets to take over as Commander-in-Chief for a while. It’s a fantasy, but it’s filled with just the right amount of hope that makes it a classic.
So, what The American President taught me is that living your life with both these qualities builds not only a great leader – it also makes you a worthwhile human being. It’s not hard to think of days that were beyond awful. The ones that made you slip into darkness. We know what days those are to us. But, those days are not the point of living in the “Capra-esque” moment. It’s about recognizing that those days are a part of who you are and stepping back into the world, looking up and smiling because today is a new day, and anything can happen.