By Glenn Kenny
Updated May 17, 1996 at 04:00 AM EDT

Speechifying has become something of an ancient, if not lost, screen art. Think of great movie speeches and you think of a frenzied Jimmy Stewart on the Senate floor in 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or Paul Muni delivering an impassioned courtroom plea in 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola. Most of today’s movies are more ironic than earnest, probably for fear of looking cornball. That would preclude moments of overt grandstanding, such as when Kirk Douglas, in 1960’s Spartacus, proclaims, ”I’d rather be here — a free man among brothers, facing a long march and a hard fight — than be the richest citizen in Rome!”

If there’s a premier film orator today, though, it’s son of Spartacus Michael Douglas, who gets to show off his public speaking skills to great effect in The American President. Though he’s more often squared his familiar jaw against all manner of femmes fatales (Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, Demi Moore in Disclosure), the actor has also had some prominent monologic moments.

Douglas seems to waltz through The American President‘s featherweight scenario. In this determinedly bright romantic comedy, he plays widowed President Andrew Shepherd, who is charming, decent, and brilliant, though a bit of a waffler. When he falls in love with a feisty environmental lobbyist (Annette Bening), he has to face opposition from both his right-wing enemies and his own conscience.

Since they’ve crafted a nearly ideal man who also happens to be President, how could director Rob Reiner and writer Aaron Sorkin (whose previous film together, A Few Good Men, was full of harangues) ignore the opportunity to give him a climactic speech? At the moment of truth, Shepherd storms into a press conference and speaks up for his principles as both a public servant and a man of flesh and blood. Although the closing line of his address — ”My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President!” — isn’t as catchy as ”Greed is good,” the way Douglas is able to sell it suggests he might consider running for office someday. B