Years before he won over the electorate, the future president won the heart and mind of an ambitious attorney

By Tom Gliatto
Updated August 26, 2016 01:00 PM
Credit: Pat Scola/Courtesy of Miramax and Roadside Attractions

Barack Obama is known for playing the long game. This appealing, deceptively low-key movie shows the future president making one of his most inspired and, ultimately, foresighted moves on a summer’s day in Chicago in 1989.

That’s when he goes on a date with fellow lawyer Michelle Robinson. They spend a talkative, quietly flirtatious afternoon-into-evening made up of small moments that will pivot (as politicians now say) into something historic. They start at the Art Institute, continue on to a community meeting at a housing project (where Obama addresses the crowd and impresses Michelle without ever quite resorting to showboating), and end by going to see Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing. (The movie compresses events without ever sacrificing an easy, relaxed pace.)

Michelle (Tika Sumpter), who’s supervising Barack (Parker Sawyers) during his internship at her firm, treads very carefully with this smart, charismatic Harvard student. She doesn’t want to give off any sign of being unprofessional. She can see, too, that he has a quick command of people – of everything – and that puts this very ambitious young woman on the defensive. Yet their thoughts, emotions and hopes dovetail, connect and fuse.

The rest you know.

Sawyers is uncannily good as Obama while avoiding plain mimicry. He’s the proverbial young man in a hurry, only too cool to let you see him sprint.

Sumpter has the trickier, tougher role (the first lady probably knows the feeling). We’re not only watching Michelle as she watches Barack, but also as she tries to imagine them together – tries to imagine how they’ll be watched by everyone else. Sumpter gives us observational intelligence and a hint of strategic resolve, along with a yearning for romance. That’s a lot to deliver. She pulls it off with understated poise.

In a sense, Michelle emerges at the end as the more intriguing of the two. This summer and fall, as Obama winds down his presidency, he’s surely already planning his second and third acts. But they’ll be of a piece with what’s come before. What about Michelle, though–what’s her long game?

In theaters, PG-13