‘The American President’ at 25: A Vision of the Politics of the Past
The 1990s were the days of high-concept movies, and what higher concept is there than The American President? The film, which marks its 25th anniversary last week, was based on a very simple idea: It’s a romantic comedy, in which one of the participants is the President of the United States.
The American President was directed by Rob Reiner, the man behind one of the most beloved romantic comedies ever, When Harry Met Sally…, and it was written by Aaron Sorkin, who would revisit the White House a few years later with The West Wing.
The 1990s were the days of high-concept movies
The film starred Michael Douglas as Andrew Shepherd, the president of the United States, who is about three years into his first term. The widowed father of a daughter, Shepherd is enjoying high approval ratings, when he meets Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), an environmental lobbyist.
The two soon begin dating, drawing media attention and controversy, as well as complications when his work as president and hers as a lobbyist begin to conflict.
The Sorkin Formula
The film bears Sorkin’s signature in many ways. The men all speak like Sorkin Men, and the women like Sorkin Women. The film has many of the same general tenets of The West Wing, starting with a Democratic president who’s a much more honorable, upstanding individual than the then real-life POTUS Bill Clinton ever was, and a staff of smart, bright, and committed people.
The film even featured several West Wing actors, with the show’s president (Martin Sheen) playing the movie’s White House chief of staff. And like The West Wing and much of Sorkin’s other work, The American President is of the firm belief that One Great Speech can solve all problems. The film ends not with an election, but rather a speech; we never actually learn whether Shepherd was reelected.
The film has many of the same general tenets of The West Wing
That election, meanwhile, is against Senator Bob Rumson, who Richard Dreyfuss portrayed as a sneering villain. Since he was a Republican Senator from Kansas named Bob who was the Senate Minority Leader and was challenging an incumbent Democratic president in the mid-1990s, the character was pretty clearly based on 1996 Republican presidential nominee Bob Dole. Not all of the characters were based on real people, but Michael J. Fox’s unusually young White House aide was fairly clearly a stand-in for George Stephanopoulos, from his pre-news career as a very young Clinton advisor.
There’s also a scene in which the president has to cut short a date because, as she later tells her sister, “he had to go attack Libya.” President Barack Obama would in fact attack Libya in 2011, although there’s no word on whether he had to interrupt dinner with Michelle to order it.
The American President is a sweet romantic comedy, in which Douglas and Bening are wonderful together, and you can clearly see wheels in motion that would lead to The West Wing. The cast is likable, and to a certain type of liberal audiences, it represents the ideal of what a White House should be.
However, there are quite a few things in the film that don’t quite add up.
For one thing, you’d think that, in real life, the widowed president getting a girlfriend is the sort of thing that would probably help that president’s political fortunes, and even in the 1990s, it’s hard to imagine a majority of Americans (as we learn at one point) questioning a president’s family values after he merely got into a consensual relationship in which both participants were single.
However, it is pretty clear that a president getting involved in a personal relationship with a lobbyist who has crucial business before Congress is something that would cross ethical and conflict-of-interest lines, as it would potentially put the president in a position to choose between his political fortunes and his relationship (which, of course, is exactly what happens in the third act).
And beyond that, if the movie’s scenario happened in real life, it’s particularly mind-boggling that a president, seeking to date a woman, would ask her to a state dinner — in front of the press from multiple countries — as their first date. Subjecting her to that sort of attention, and making it public immediately, is kind of an asshole move on the president’s part. Which is to say nothing of the multiple times Sydney tries to dump him, and he nearly instantly charms her into changing her mind.
Set in a world in the which the environmental lobby is so tough, powerful and well-funded that they scare the Democratic White House
The American President is also set in a world in the which the environmental lobby is so tough, powerful and well-funded that they scare the Democratic White House, which is not something that typically happens in real life. Also, Bening’s character is introduced as something of a shark and a pitbull in her lobbying work, but we hardly ever see that side of her at any point in the film.
As for the Shepherd administration’s legislative agenda, his main priority seems to be “The Crime Bill” which, if the real-life Clinton/Biden crime bill from 1994 is any guide, would likely haunt everyone associated with it once the political winds changed a quarter century later. However, the fictional President Shepherd ends up pulling the bill in the end, not because of its potential to escalate the drug war or entrench mass incarceration, but because it didn’t go far enough with gun control.
Despite all that, The American President remains a well-acted and enjoyable film, about a president who’s almost certainly too good to be true.