The American President (1995)
July 3, 2023 10:17 PM - Subscribe

A widowed U.S. President running for reelection and an environmental lobbyist fall in love. It's all above-board, but "politics is perception," and sparks fly anyway.

With the end of his first term in sight, widowed U.S. President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) knows that overwhelming public support will guarantee his re-election. But when he falls in love with lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), Shepherd's supporters question the relationship, and his approval ratings drop. As a rival presidential candidate goes on the attack, Shepherd must choose between his political career and his love for Sydney.

Mary Nemeth: But the post-feminist gender roles are undercut with irony. Bening—a radiant middle-aged beauty with unlifted smile lines—lets an intelligence shine through her character’s romantic confusion. Douglas, meanwhile, wears the presidential role surprisingly well. Delivering his strongest performance since Wall Street (1987), he exudes power with a patronizing charm.

Despite lapses into sentimental corn—notably in scenes with the president’s 12-year-old daughter—director Rob Reiner has crafted a whimsical fable that packs a deceptive punch. Douglas’s climactic speech is one of the most moving addresses by any U.S. leader—real or fake—in ages. Under siege by the moral majority for allegedly desecrating family values, Hollywood finally strikes back with The American President, which attacks the right wing while serving as just the kind of wholesome, old-fashioned romance it has been clamoring for. With The American President, Hollywood liberalism dies and goes to heaven.

Rita Kempley: Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who teamed up with Reiner on 1992's "A Few Good Men," throws obstacles in the way of true love—so many that the story sometimes has all the sex appeal of a Phil Gramm fund-raiser. He also equips the hero with a stirring speech that is more politically naive than it is Capraesque. When Rumson insults Sydney's honor, the president is driven toward a cathartic tirade in defense of Sydney, himself, clean air, gun control, ACLU cards, populism, the flag and all the rest.

Like Shepherd's speech, "The American President" touches on all manner of issues but illumines none of them. And while there are some engaging glimpses of the president's staff in action—Michael J. Fox (riffing on George Stephanopoulos), Martin Sheen (Mack McLarty) and David Paymer (Stanley Greenberg)—the film's principal pleasures lie in the president's pursuit of a first lady.

Roger Ebert: In a standard Hollywood production, the political aspects would be papered over with vague generic terms, and indeed the president probably would not be identified by ideology. What's admirable about "The American President" is that real issues - gun control, the environment - are handled realistically, in a series of subplots leading up to a presidential press conference that has a certain resonance even in the current political climate. (The liberal Shepherd learns that he must be decisive and take unpopular stands.) The movie's center is of course the love story, and Douglas and Bening have remarkable chemistry; their scenes are written and played in a way that develops the comedy without sacrificing the notion that two such people might very likely find themselves in similar situations. The inevitable strategic questions (like whether the power of "the most powerful man in the free world" extends to his bedside prowess) are part of the general embarrassment that both feel because the presidency, in a sense, comes between them.

posted by Carillon (7 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Really great, I hadn't seen it in years, but caught up with again recently. While certainly expressing a mid-90s, end of history politics, the central romance is really strong, and I think Reiner does a great job with his direction, showing both how someone can be a strong person, but still overawed by the symbols that are meant to overawe. Also doesn't really do that thing I hate, where the male romantic lead leverages his power inappropriately to wow or impress the female lead. No, oh he used the secret service to go through my credit card bills to find out I love chunky monkey or whatever.
posted by Carillon at 10:30 PM on July 3, 2023 [2 favorites]

The Wikipedia article has some jaw-dropping trivia: that it was originally written for Robert Redford, that Sorkin was literally on crack when he wrote it, and that the Oval Office set was reused for both Nixon and Independence Day, which is a hell of a combo. It didn't make a big impression on me, but I liked it well enough.
posted by Halloween Jack at 1:18 PM on July 4, 2023 [1 favorite]

I watched The American President often back in the day. And while I have issues with some of its politics, I remember enjoying it as a decent enough movie. But I mostly remember it for being the inspiration for The West Wing.
posted by Stuka at 2:03 PM on July 4, 2023 [1 favorite]

the inspiration for The West Wing
I remember little about this one, other than
1) Annette Bening's look in this is behind the rumor that she was the model for the redesigned Columbia in the C. Pictures logo
2) that there is some kind of filter? separator? that one can use on West Wing; one side comes out The American President, the other side comes out Dave.
posted by bartleby at 4:02 PM on July 4, 2023 [4 favorites]

I watched this movie many times for the chemistry between the leads mostly, I guess. Big fan of Annette Bening. Never did watch any West Wing.
posted by Glinn at 8:30 PM on July 4, 2023 [1 favorite]

I love watching the Sorkin monologues in movies like this, but then I get angry and wish a real politician would shut down the idiots in the other party like this. Looking at you, Obama and Biden. At least we have Luther.
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:48 AM on July 5, 2023

I've always wanted to see if it's possible to edit Martin Sheen talking to himself about proportional responses, as one of the scenes here is repeated not-quite-verbatim in Season 1 of West Wing with Sheen as POTUS instead of Chief of Staff
posted by DebetEsse at 6:24 PM on July 5, 2023

« Older Movie: Taylor Mac's 24-Decade ...   |  Muscles & Mayhem: An Unauthori... Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments