Film / The American President

The American President is a 1995 romantic drama directed by Rob Reiner (in his first film after the infamous North) and written by Aaron Sorkin, starring Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, Michael J. Fox, and Martin Sheen. These days it is most noted for being basically a dress rehearsal for Sorkin's later TV series The West Wing, which included a number of the same actors, albeit in different parts.

US President Andrew Shepherd (Douglas), previously the governor of Wisconsin and a widower/single father, is on top of the world as the movie starts. His poll numbers are excellent, and together with his staff, which includes Chief of Staff A. J. MacInerney (Sheen) and Lewis Rothschild (Fox), he is planning to pass a major new crime bill. However, things change when he meets Sydney Ellen Wade (Bening), an environmental lobbyist who has been hired to push for new legislation. After the typical Meet Cute, Shepherd asks her out, and they begin dating, which of course draws major media interest.

This also grabs the attention of Senator Bob Rumson (Richard Dreyfuss), who has an eye to challenging Shepherd in the next election, and wants to use his relationship with Sydney to drag the President through the mud. This calls into question Shepard's previous "family man" reputation and his professional judgment as the "most powerful man on Earth."

Features typically strong dialogue from Aaron Sorkin and good performances all around, particularly from veteran leading actors Douglas, Bening, and Sheen.

Tropes featured include:

  • Adorkable: Pres. Shephard may be the most powerful man in the world but he is also just a guy who wants to win the heart of the girl he likes and basically can't stop smiling the first time he meets her. (And he gets in a great line concerning the tag of "the most powerful man in the world" while professing he's nervous about the sex they're about to have)
    • Sydney herself can be pretty adorkable. She flip-flops back and forth from badass lobbyist who doesn't take crap from anyone to giggly schoolgirl.
  • American Title
  • Ambiguous Syntax: In an example of Comically Missing the Point:
    Robin McCall: How do you want me to handle the Sydney issue?
    President Andrew Shepherd: "The Sydney issue"?
    Lewis Rothschild: We should have a consensus on how the White House is going to handle it.
    President Andrew Shepherd: Well I sure hope the Sydney issue refers in some way to a problem we're having with Australia, because if it's anything else—
  • Borrowed Catchphrase/Ironic Echo: In an unscripted (in-universe) speech savaging Bob Rumson for using Sydney to smear him, Andy turns Rumson's catchphrase around: "My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President!"
  • Burning the Flag: Bob Rumson attempts to smear Shepherd with a picture of Sydney burning an American flag during a late-'80s anti-apartheid demonstration. (Presumably they were demonstrating against US inaction or something to that effect.)
  • Captain Obvious: "My name is Bob Rumson, and I'm running for President!"
    President Shepherd: It's a good thing he said that, because those people were about ready to buy some Amway products!
  • Contractual Purity: An In-Universe version where Shepard and Wade try to experience a relatively normal, adult relationship but the massive media attention skews it to where Wade is a "whore" and Shepard is taking her as his mistress. Shepard explains the trope as such in his final speech.
  • Deadpan Snarker: It's a film written by Aaron Sorkin, so needless to say, EVERYONE is this.
  • Emotional Regression: Shepard has been out of the dating loop for a long time, so his attempts at learning about Sydney come across as high school-ish. Lampshaded by A.J.: "I could pass her a note before study hall."
  • Everybody Calls Him Barkeep: Much to his chagrin, everyone calls Shepherd "Mr. President", including close friends playing pool in private.
    • This is actually the central theme of the movie: are Andrew Shepherd and the President of the United States two separate entities, or are they one and the same? And being the President, does Andrew have any right or expectation of a private life?
  • Expy: Most of the major characters are embryonic versions of the cast of Sorkin's The West Wing, which makes watching it an interesting experience for fans of the show. For instance:
    • Andrew Shepherd = Jed Bartlet
    • A. J. = Leo
    • Robin = C. J.
    • Lewis = Josh
    • Leon = Toby
    • Mrs. Chapil = Mrs. Landingham
  • Fashion Hurts: Lucy is helping her father put on a bow tie for the state dinner and he complains that it's too tight:
    Lucy: It's supposed to be tight. It's supposed to make you look regal.
    Shepherd: Is it supposed to cut off the blood flow to my face?
  • Fiery Redhead: Sydney.
  • 555: Averted when President Shepherd gives Sydney the White House's phone number as 456-1414. Dialing that number after the 202 area code belonging to Washington D.C. actually does connect you with the White House's receptionist.
  • Friendly Address Privileges: Defied: A.J. consistently calls Andrew "Mr. President" even when they're alone, despite them having been the best of friends for years. (When Andrew calls him out on this once, he delivers his reply in the form of a Shout-Out to Dr. Seuss.)
    A.J.: Nice shot, Mr. President.
    Andrew: "Nice shot, Mr. President"?! You won't even call me by my name when we're playing pool?
    A.J.: I will not do it playing pool. I will not do it in a school. I do not like green eggs and ham. I do not like them, Sam I am.
    Andrew: At ease, AJ. At ease!
  • Gilligan Cut: When the amount of coverage starts to heat up, Sydney goes to the White House, telling her sister that she plans to end their relationship. She ends up consummating it instead.
    • There's also a point in the montage where someone expresses concern about what impact the relationship is having on Lucy—while we see her playing an instrument and her father and Sydney applauding her.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: President Shepherd regarding his relationship with Sydney.
  • It's Not You, It's My Enemies: An inversion as it's Sydney who proposes they stay away from each other until after the election is over so as to not hurt his re-election chances.
  • Life Imitates Art: Shepherd tries to call Sydney Ellen Wade, and gets mistaken for a prank caller. In real 2008, after Barack Obama was elected, he made a phone call to Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen. She cut the President-Elect off, saying "I'm sorry but I think this is a joke from one of the South Florida radio stations known for these pranks," and then hung up. Within minutes, Obama's then Chief-of-Staff Rahm Emanuel called her to say that President-Elect Obama wanted to speak with her...and she hung up on him too. Obama had to ask a friend and fellow Congressman of Ros-Lehtinen's to call and convince her that she was not being pranked, and the President-Elect was really trying to call her.
  • Meet Cute: See Right Behind Me.
  • Mistaken for Prank Call/Mistaken For Impostor: Shepard's first attempt to talk on the phone to Sydney Ellen Wade goes badly, with her thinking he is a colleague trying to give his best Andrew Shepard impression.
    Sydney Ellen Wade: Hello?
    President Andrew Shepherd: Yeah, hi, is this Sydney?
    Sydney: Leo?
    Shepherd: No, this is Andrew Shepherd.
    Sydney: Oh! It's Andrew Shepherd! Yeah, you're hilarious, Richard, you're just a regular riot!
    Shepherd: No, this isn't Richard, this is Andrew Shepherd.
    Sydney: Oh! Well, I'm so glad you called, because I forgot to tell you today what a nice ass you have. I'm also impressed that you were able to get my phone number given the fact that I don't have a phone. Good night, Richard.
    Shepherd: Uh, this isn't Richard- [Sydney hangs up] This used to be easier.
    • It also happened to him when he tried to get flowers for Sydney. He tried calling the florist, only for said florist to hang up after he stated he was the President of the United States. Then, on his way to fundraiser, he happens upon the shop of the florist he called, and gets out of the car to buy flowers as an apology to Sydney for canceling their date that night. Said florist is on the phone, and when he tries to get her attention, she blows him off, then does a Double Take. He asks her if she was the same florist he called earlier, and she faints at the realization that she hung up on the President of the United States.
    Shepherd (amused): Yeah, I think she remembers me.
  • Mood Whiplash: After Andrew and Sydney consummate their relationship, a montage follows of the media pouncing all over the pair, as their dating starts dropping his approval numbers and Rumson begins to gain momentum by dragging their relationship through the mud.
  • No Celebrities Were Harmed: Senator Rumson is pretty obviously based on Bob Dole. Shepherd and his staff are likewise heavily based on various people in the Clinton Administration.
  • Parent with New Paramour: Andrew is a widower with a 12 year-old daughter.
  • Precision F-Strike: A rare PG-13 film with three of them.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: A quite literal example. Andy interrupts a press conference at the end of the film to improvise a speech directly calling out Rumson and his cadre for attacking Sydney to smear him. See also "World of Cardboard" Speech, below.
  • Right Behind Me: During her initial meeting with A.J. MacInerny, Sydney Wade verbally tears into President Shepherd for his refusal to give her environmental group's cause as much support as they want. Midway through her rant, Shepherd quietly enters the room and stands behind her, introducing himself only when she finishes. Later, though, when she apologizes to him, he takes it all in stride, reminding her that being viciously criticized like that is all a part of his job as President.
  • Rousing Speech: The climax is Shepherd delivering one of these. And an awesome one at that.
  • Running Gag: Andrew has a very difficult time being President and personally buying flowers for Sydney. He finally manages it by having the roses picked from the White House garden.
  • Sarcasm-Blind: Shepherd's aide Janie is going over his daily schedule with him. She mentions a meeting with American Fisheries and that they'll be giving him a 200-pound halibut. Shepherd tells her to make a note that they need to schedule more events where someone gives him a really big fish. Janie actually starts writing this down, then Shepherd says, "Janie, I'm kidding."
  • Sarcastic Confession: Not done on purpose, but when Shepard introduces himself over the phone to Wade she doesn't believe him. She then proceeds to mock him, figuring he was a friend pulling a prank. Shepard then gives her the White House number (where the operator is ready to connect her call) in order to convince her.
  • Sex for Services: Bob Rumson implies during a talk show appearance that Sydney may have traded sexual favors for votes.
  • Sexy Shirt Switch: An unusual example is Wade dressed in one in a manner evoking Ready for Lovemaking, rather than after the fact.
  • Shout-Out:
    (President Shepherd and A.J. are playing pool):
    A.J.: Nice shot, Mr. President.
    President Shepherd: 'Nice shot, Mr. President?' You won't even call me by my name when we're playing pool?
    President Shepherd: At ease, A.J., at ease.
  • Shown Their Work: You'd be hard-pressed to find a more accurate portrayal of the day-to-day workings of the White House. The sets would be re-used for The West Wing.
  • "Shut Up" Kiss: Sydney gives one to Andy when he won't stop nervously talking as she's Ready for Lovemaking.
  • Spiritual Successor: The West Wing
  • Strawman Political: Bob Rumson, GOP candidate.
  • Think of the Children!: Of course some pundit tries to paint Andrew's daughter as a victim, when really she likes Sydney and has encouraged her dad to pursue a relationship with her all along.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Lewis gives one to Shepherd, but he has a good response to it.
  • Wham Line: "...because they don't know the difference."
  • "World of Cardboard" Speech: Shepherd's final speech where he addresses the whole controversy and admits his own faults both in his relationship with Sydney and with the stance he needed to make with policies and bills as the President.
  • You Can Always Tell a Liar: Sydney says Shepherd has a look when he's holding something back. And of course, he's doing it while not telling her he's failing on his end of the agreement with the GDC.
    Sydney: Andy, you're doing that thing with your face.