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'American President' Pays Tribute to Capra

Rob Reiner's new comedy, ''The American President,'' comes from a long line of movie romances in political settings. Earnest political men and feisty political women work out complicated issues of love and statesmanship in time for a happy Hollywood ending.

Frank Capra was the master of this formula, with pictures like ''State of the Union'' and ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' and Reiner's movie pays tribute to him in one of the opening scenes - specifically naming ''Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,'' which clearly inspired ''The American President.''

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The new picture may not become a Capraesque hit, if only because it's not cynical enough about power to suit many of today's moviegoers. But it has good performances and snappy dialogue, and in the end it dares to take a stand on real political issues - which makes it a rarity in today's timid movie world.

The aptly named hero is Andrew Shepherd, a well-meaning but somewhat wishy-washy chief executive (sound familiar?) who wants to make America great. He believes that endless dealmaking is the only way to succeed.

Since he's a widower, his personal life is on the lonely side. But this changes when he meets the attractive lobbyist of a powerful environmental group. Their professional acquaintance becomes a love affair, and soon all America knows the president's got a girlfriend. This gives new ammunition to his political enemies and makes him rethink his attitudes toward principle and commitment.

In style, ''The American President'' is an old-fashioned Hollywood entertainment, and not a bad one at that - full of movie stars Michael Douglas and Annette Bening making eyes at each other while velvety music swells in the background. When even the gofers are played by major talents like Martin Sheen and Michael J. Fox, you know the picture wants to give its audience an enjoyable ride.

Also on hand are Anna Deveare Smith as the White House press secretary, David Paymer as a pollster appropriately called Kodak, the up-and-coming Samantha Mathis as a presidential aide, and Richard Dreyfuss as an opposition senator with a mile-wide nasty streak. The quickly paced screenplay is by Aaron Sorkin, who collaborated with Reiner on ''A Few Good Men'' three years ago, and John Seale did the good-looking cinematography.

Looking beyond the big-studio touches, what gives substance to ''The American President'' is its willingness to raise its voice on a few controversies that most commercial filmmakers wouldn't touch with the proverbial 10-foot pole. At one point, the hero actually promotes the American Civil Liberties Union, defends the right of protesters to burn American flags, and calls on his right-wing enemies to debate real issues instead of whining about phony character charges all the time.

Whether or not you agree with these positions, it's refreshing to see a movie that dares to speak their names. ''The American President'' isn't great cinema, but it has a foot in the real world, and that's more than I can say about most of the frivolities now passing for entertainment at the local multiplex.

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* ''The American President'' has a PG-13 rating. It contains vulgar language and some sexual innuendo.

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