[Writer: Aaron Sorkin | Director: Marc Buckland | Aired: 10/06/1999]
Although these West Wing reviews are intended to focus chiefly on the TV series, I may take the occasional opportunity to talk about Aaron Sorkin’s 1995 film The American President. This highly entertaining technical marvel was the precedent and inspiration for the later series, and its influence can be seen beyond the shared Fifth Avenue setting. Both film and show portray a highly idealized government, filled with likable politicians who coexist in an energetic environment. Both contain vast amounts of sharp, humorous dialogue. And both feature a President who at first feels conceived as a pure liberal fantasy, but is later revealed to be all-too-human.
In fact, the early West Wing episodes feel very much in tone with the movie which inspired it. On rare occasions, in fact, the series directly draws material from the film. And one of the most notable of these occasions occurs in “A Proportional Response”.
In both the film and the episode, the President is faced with the decision of ordering a military response against an overseas attack by a foreign military base. Both seem primed to give an order, but they also question the value of a “proportional response”. Here, the show diverges from the film’s setup: Whereas Andrew Shepherd quickly agrees to comparative retaliation, Jed Bartlet wants to fight back with extra power, to show the attackers that America means business.
It’s this breakaway from the earlier form that establishes Jed as a more personable and potentially interesting character. His decision, spurred on by the fact that Morris Tolliver, an associate of his, was a victim of the unprovoked attack, is one made of bitterness and frustration. But it’s also made on the notion that he is the most powerful man in the country, and he can do something to avenge Morris’ death.
This trait defines more than any other who Jed Bartlet is, and we’ll see him fight for and against it many times throughout the show. (Compare his desire to dole out punishment in this episode to his later actions in “Twenty Five”.) It’s a battle of Bartlet the man vs. Bartlet the President, made extra-intimidating b the fact that the victor can affect the entire shape of the country. This early installment cools the flames pretty rapidly, but it lets us know that the door may be open to a different outcome.
In this episode, the task of setting Jed straight falls to Leo, in a scene that gives us our first in-depth look into the relationship between the President and his Chief of Staff. The climactic scene between Jed and Leo reveals some tension between them, while also clearly establishing them as the closest of friends. Jed is a go-getter, fueled by an idealism that drives him to his (sometimes over-the-top) goals. But should he ever get carried away, Leo is there to rein him in and ground his idealistic views into a hard reality.
When Jed begins comparing present-day America to centuries-old Rome, projecting his hopes that Americans will someday walk the world unharmed, Leo is quick to remind him that no single country – not even the world’s greatest superpower – has that luxury anymore. Leo minces no words in setting Jed straight, either. “You can conquer the world,” he says, “but you better be prepared to kill everyone. And you better start with me.”
We know from “Bartlet for America” just how deep the friendship between Jed and Leo is, and that knowledge intensifies the drama of this scene even more. When the tension between the two melts away and they turn to more lighthearted conversation, we see that despite the seriousness with which the two will enforce and defend their own beliefs, their relationship is ultimately built on mutually friendly ground.
Now, Jed isn’t the only character in the episode to have his personal feelings conflict with the state of the White House. Sam has issues of his own, trying to regain his footing as a respectable staffer while hoping the story of his night with Laurie the call girl will simply disappear. CJ, however, knows the media better than this, and reprimands Sam for not informing her of his actions.
It won’t become fully apparent until “Lord John Marbury”, but CJ is not quite as “in the loop” as some of her fellow staffers. Her job is to put a face on the White house for the reporters, and in turn, the public, which paints her as the link between the inside and outside world. She will slowly grow out of this role as the series progresses, becoming more ingrained in the inner affairs of the Bartlet Administration. But at this early stage, her job is to make the White House look good – and as such, she’s understandably upset by what Sam has done.
Sam, for his part, thinks that CJ is overreacting, though his feelings are partially influenced by a need to ease his own conscience. He tries to justify his actions, skating around the fact that, as CJ puts it, “none of that matters on hard copy!” His comment that she doesn’t have the courage to stand up for the White House strikes a raw nerve, however, which suggests that CJ occasionally feels powerless at her job, simply delivering the news without editorializing it. (Still and all, it should be stressed that straightforward briefings are the most preferable kind – CJ’s personal public rant in “Enemies Foreign and Domestic” will cause more harm than it’s worth.)
Yet despite the fierce stance she takes against Sam’s position, CJ actually uses his very argument when approached by Danny. She’s caught smack-dab between a reporter and a story, and her only hope is to quell the flames with whatever she can muster up. (To Danny’s credit, he allows the story to sit for a while in order to cut CJ a break – an early sign that he has feelings for her.) In time, she will begin to shed her ultra-safe skin, becoming the more headstrong character we’ll see in later seasons.
Which indirectly brings me to the episode’s quiet yet significant introduction of Charlie. Though he was quickly written into the series due to a complaint from the NAACP, Charlie manages to fit into this episode without feeling too shoehorned. The character himself is not instantly engrossing (Dulé Hill takes a few episodes to grow into his role) but his effect on the show as a whole clicks instantly.
Josh’s worry that the public will react negatively to a black man working as the President’s personal aide is the least interesting point of the episode, as the issue isn’t especially developed and the outcome is easily predictable. Better is Sam’s reaction to Josh’s scrutinizing of Charlie. Sam is pretty sore over the idea of the press delving into the personal life of White House staffers, and he projects his frustrations onto the interview process, before Josh manages to set him straight.
But it’s during the chaotic climax that Charlie himself begins to find a footing. Amidst the rough day that the President is having, Charlie offers a suggestion as to where he can find his missing glasses. Although Bartlet’s initial reaction is frustrated (“I don’t have time for new people!”) he is soon calm enough to greet the young man in his signature friendly manner. The Bartlet/Charlie relationship – tangential to that of a father and the son he’s never had – is ignited here.
Charlie’s line at the end of the episode – “I’ve never felt this way before” – is that of an unassuming everyman who’s just entered a palace of grandeur. And it’s a welcome perspective for a series generally built around characters that are used to working within the cavernous halls of the White House. After all, despite the characters’ well-formed sensibilities, it’s sometimes a bit difficult to relate to people who chat daily with the leader of the country.
Equally as integral is Josh’s follow-up line, on which the episode draws to a close: “It doesn’t go away.” In a similar vein to The American President, these early West Wing episodes are marked by a sense of wonder and awe. The first season actually feels a bit lightweight when compared to the others, which, as we’ll see in my coming reviews, usually works in its favor. But despite the relative buoyancy of these early outings, episodes like “A Proportional Response” are sure signs that the show is capable of bold dramatic weight.
Minor Pros/Cons (+/-)
+ Josh and Donna’s banter just keeps getting funnier.
+ CJ waiting in Josh’s office. “Wow, are you stupid!”
+ Sam is prompted to apologize to CJ after he and Toby write a speech which features three words that all mean the same thing. It’s these little touches which give the show its greatest texture.
* Toby’s outrage toward Congressman Coles’ position (“He was a Democrat!”) is a sign of his staunchly adherent belief in the dividing line between the two major political parties. This becomes more of a point in “Mr. Willis of Ohio”.
* Jed to Leo: “When I think of all you did to get me elected, I could pummel your ass with a baseball bat.” This amusing line becomes even funnier – and just a tiny bit moving – when you factor in the events of “Bartlet for America”.