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Film / The American President

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Sydney Ellen Wade: Two hundred pairs of eyes are focused on you with two questions on their minds: Who's this girl, and why is the President dancing with her?
President Andrew Shepherd: Well, first of all, the two hundred pairs of eyes aren't focused on me. They're focused on you. And the answers are Sydney Ellen Wade, and because she said yes.

The American President is a 1995 romantic drama movie 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."

The film also stars David Paymer as Deputy Chief of Staff Leon Kodak and Samantha Mathis as Personal Aide Janie Basdin.

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

Tropes featured include:

  • Ain't Too Proud to Beg: When Shepherd announces his plan to go to Sydney's house and do whatever it takes to win her back:
    A.J.: How are you going to do that, sir?
    Shepherd: Well, I haven't worked that out yet, but I'm sure groveling will be involved.
  • All Women Love Shoes: Lucy seems to think so; before the State Dinner, she tells her father that complimenting a woman's shoes is a good date move.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: This comes up when the President's press secretary is trying to strategize the President's new relationship.
    Robin: How do you want me to handle the Sydney issue?
    Shepherd: "The Sydney issue"?
    Lewis: We should have a consensus on how the White House is going to handle it.
    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—
  • American Title: The American President
  • And Starring: The opening cast roll ends with "and Michael J. Fox as Lewis Rothschild".
  • Borrowed Catchphrase: In an unscripted (in-universe) speech savaging Bob Rumson for using Sydney to smear him, Andy turns Rumson's catchphrase around.
    Shepherd: My name is Andrew Shepherd, and I am the President!
  • Brick Joke: Sydney shows up late for a holiday gathering and complains about getting stuck on DuPont Circle again. Towards the end of the movie, Shepherd wants to drive to Sydney's house and try to win her back after their huge argument, but A.J. doesn't like the idea:
    Shepherd: I'm the Commander-In-Chief of the most powerful army in the world, you don't think I can drive ten blocks?
    Sydney: [unexpectedly entering the room] Just stay away from DuPont Circle, I hear it's murder this time of day.
  • 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.
  • Can't Believe I Said That: When Janie tells Shepherd his cousin can't make it to the State Dinner, Robin asks if he's going alone.
    Robin: We've never had a problem parading you around as the lonely widower.
    [both Janie and Shepherd look up at this]
    Robin: I can't believe I said that. I would never dream of disrespecting the memory of your late wife.
  • Captain Obvious: Presidential rival Bob Rumson ends all of his campaign speeches with the same cheesy line.
    Rumson: 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!
  • The Chains of Commanding: Shepherd orders a missile strike on Libya's State Sec in retaliation for their involvement in an attack that leaves 22 American soldiers dead. When his advisors suggest playing this up to paint him as a strong leader who can make hard decisions in a time of crisis, Shepherd chastises them for making the suggestion, reminding them of the human cost of his decision.
    Leon: What you did tonight was very Presidential.
    Shepherd: Leon, somewhere in Libya right now, a janitor's working the night shift at Libyan Intelligence Headquarters. He's going about doing his job... because he has no idea, in about an hour he's going to die in a massive explosion. He's just going about his job, because he has no idea that about an hour ago I gave an order to have him killed. You've just seen me do the least Presidential thing I do.
  • Code Name: Shepherd's Secret Service alias is Liberty, which is also the first word spoken in the entire film.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Shepherd is a fan of doing this in an attempt to make a joke.
    Shepherd: You want a drink? Lemme take your coat.
    Sydney: Mr. President, this isn't gonna work.
    Shepherd: Sure it will. You button the top button, and it doesn't fall off the hanger.
  • 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.
  • The Creon: A.J. implies he is one when Andrew angrily demands to know why throughout his political career, A.J. has never sought office and has always been one step behind him, content to work as a loyal advisor.
    A.J.: Because if I wasn't, you'd be the most popular history teacher at the University of Wisconsin.
  • Dance of Romance: Shepherd and Sydney dancing at the State Dinner provides the poster image.
  • Deadpan Snarker: It's a film written by Aaron Sorkin, so needless to say, EVERYONE is this.
  • Dramatic Thunder: When Shepard's approval rating is dropping and he briefly loses faith:
    Lewis: Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they'll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership. They're so thirsty for it they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.
    Shepard: (coldly) Lewis, we've had presidents who were beloved, who couldn't find a coherent sentence with two hands and a flashlight. People don't drink the sand because they're thirsty. They drink the sand because they don't know the difference. (thunderclap) Make the call.
  • 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.
  • Everybody Calls Him "Barkeep":
    • Much to his chagrin, everyone calls Shepherd "Mr. President", including close friends playing pool in private. This plays into the theme of whether or not the position of being President and being a man can be separated.
    • Shepherd himself plays with this.
      Shepherd: How much do you make?
      Sydney: More than you do, Mr. President.
      Shepherd: The name is Andy. How much money do you make?
      Sydney: What the hell does it matter how much money I make!?
      Shepherd: You raise your voice to the president?
  • 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
  • Faint in Shock: The florist when Andrew drops by in person.
  • 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 is red-headed and a fiery top-level lobbyist that gets White House access.
  • 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, A.J. 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.
  • Instantly Proven Wrong: Sydney attempts to console her boss Solomon about her date with Shepherd by claiming it was a one time thing with zero attachment. Of course in that very same instant a staffer walks into the office with a gift basket and a note that Shepherd wrote personally. This is also right after her boss tells her that the time it takes to go from a major power player to a cocktail-party joke can be clocked on an egg timer.
    Staffer: Dig it, Ms. Wade. You're the President's girlfriend!
    Solomon: There's never an egg timer around when you need one.
  • 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.
  • Jerkass: The Hate Sink is given to Senator Rumson, but Sydney’s boss Leo is actually the worst person by far. First he asks Sydney if she’s sleeping with the President. He says he’s just doing it to prepare her for the Media Circus which will be coming (and he is correct), but it’s still incredibly inappropriate, and likely illegal, for him to even ask her. Then to top it off he fires her after the President shelves the Environmental Bill she’s busted her ass to secure the votes for even though she 100% did exactly what she was paid to do!
  • The Klutz: In Leon Kodak's first scene, he has an Offscreen Crash involving a big ficus plant. Then he walks into the Oval Office and almost knocks over a lamp.
  • Meet Cute: Sydney and the President meet for the first time while Sydney is viciously laying into the President at a lobby meeting. Unbeknownst to her, the President had just walked into that meeting from behind her to hear the whole thing.
  • Mistaken for Prank Call:
    • Shepherd'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 Shepherd impression.
      Sydney: Hello?
      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 a 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:
    • Shepard is clearly based on then-current President Bill Clinton; a young, charismatic, and moderate Democrat who previously served as Governor of a Midwest state (Arkansas for Clinton, Wisconsin for Shepard), while Rumson is based on Senator Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican Senator who was Clinton's 1996 opponent.
    • Lewis Rothschild is based on George Stephanopoulos, who was, at the time, too young for the responsibilities given to him in the Clinton administration but, nevertheless, took everything on with passion.
  • Oh, Crap!: Shepherd's second attempt to call Sydney after the first try was Mistaken for Prank Call results in this for Sydney.
    Sydney: Hello?
    Shepherd: Sydney...
    Sydney: Are you learning-impaired?
    Shepherd: Listen, do me a favor. Hang up the phone.
    Sydney: What?
    Shepherd: Hang up the phone and dial 456-1414. When you get the White House operator, give her your name and tell her you want to speak to the President. [hangs up]
  • Once Done, Never Forgotten: Sydney nearly walks through the wrong door into the President's private office after their first meeting. Her sister finds this endlessly amusing.
    Sydney: I stood in the middle of the Oval Office and I made it very clear that from now on, he who doesn't take the GDC seriously does so at his peril!
    Beth: And then you walked out the wrong door.
    Sydney: Are you gonna be throwing that back at me the rest of my life?
    Beth: That's my current plan, yes.
  • 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. He also mercilessly lays into Rumson about trying to turn his ACLU membership into a liability (and ripostes it into Rumson's lack of membership being a liability), and into Rumson being a demagogue in general.
  • Ridiculously High Relationship Standards: Syndey has a touch of this when she balks at her budding relationship with the President. Her sister responds: "Sydney, the man is the leader of the free world. He's brilliant, funny, handsome. He's an above-average dancer. Isn't it possible our standards are just a tad high?"
  • 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 ("Let's take him out back and beat the shit out of him!"). 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 at a press conference. 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: Janie, we need to schedule more events where someone gives me a really big fish!
    [Janie starts writing this down]
    Shepherd: Janie, I'm kidding.
    Janie: ...Of course, Mr. President.
  • Sarcastic Confession: Not done on purpose, but when Shepherd 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. Shepherd 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: A.J. teases the President with some Dr. Seuss while playing pool.
    A.J.: Nice shot, Mr. President.
    Shepherd: "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.
    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.
  • Strawman Political: Bob Rumson, GOP candidate, is only seen gleefully taking money from wealthy donors, joking callously with political higher-ups and smearing the President while he campaigns.
  • "Success Through Sex" Accusation: In the third act of the film, President Andrew Shepard's prospective reelection challenger Senator Bob Rumson suggests in a TV interview (without evidence) that Andy's current girlfriend, lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade, might have traded sexual favors to elected officials to get them to vote her way. They're both understandably infuriated by the accusation.
  • 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.
  • Verbal Backspace: Shepherd does this while trying to find a way to rein Lewis in.
    Shepherd: Lewis, however much coffee you drink in the morning, I want you to reduce it by half.
    Lewis: I don't drink coffee, sir.
    Shepherd: Then hit yourself over the head with a baseball bat!
  • Villain Ball: Senator Rumson chooses to focus entirely on the moral implications of Shepherd dating Sydney while serving term as the President, hoping that the ensuing mudfight will allow him to swing the next election in his favor. This is despite the fact that drawing attention to the very clear ethical problems with a relationship between the President and a lobbyist would not only have stuck better, but would have allowed him to keep the high ground in his campaign.
  • Wham Line: Shepherd temporarily loses his faith when the chips are down and he makes a deal which will screw over Sydney and her environmental lobby pursuits. This is after months of being harassed about his relationship by his political opponent. He finally snaps when he is confronted by Lewis.
    Lewis: They want leadership, Mr. President. They're so thirsty for it, they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.
    Shepherd: ... People don't drink the sand 'cause they're thirsty, Lewis. They drink it 'cause they don't know the difference.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: Lewis gives one to Shepherd, but he has a good response to it.
  • Xanatos Gambit: How Shepherd rationalizes his deal with Sydney to A.J. If Sydney fails (as Shepherd initially expected her to), they move in with their softer bill and look like heroes. If Sydney succeeds, they pass a harder bill without having to most of the heavy lifting.
  • 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.