The American President [Retro Review]

“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?”

The Scoop: 1995 PG-13, directed by Rob Reiner and starring Michael Douglas, Annette Bening, and Martin Sheen

Tagline: Why can’t the most powerful man in the world have the one thing he wants most?

Summary Capsule: A president far more attractive than any we’ve ever elected is looking for love.

Lissa’s Rating: Why can’t Hollywood presidents really exist?

Lissa’s Review: Once upon a time, I considered myself a Democrat. Then I dated one.

Actually, that is sort of serious, and sort of not. I was up at Bates, one of those small, liberal arts colleges where students play guitar in the stairwells and sit around thinking they’re deep as they ponder the meaning of life while smoking great amounts of pot. Anyway, I was dating my Rocky Horror Picture Show going, vegetarian, exceedingly liberal, death-to-all Republicans, monogamy-is-unnatural boyfriend. (Needless to say, I didn’t marry the guy.) Anyway, there was this big protest about increasing the minority population at Bates.

I normally don’t discuss politics much, unless it’s about energy (and even then I’m much more into the science than the regulations). But I like common sense, even if I’m often lacking in it. Did Bates have a small minority population? Yes. But was picketing the admissions office and calling them racist and demanding a 30% quota the right way to go about it, as opposed to proposing different recruiting practices and looking into increasing financial aid? Obviously, I don’t think so. And so, mainly to completely piss off my boyfriend at the time, I joined the Republican party.

You know you need a life when your big act of rebellion is registering Republican.

I don’t actually align with Republican ideals either, although I’ve maintained a party membership for the sole purpose of being able to vote in primaries. But anyway, I guess my point is that I am far more conservative than Aaron Sorkin, who gave us President Bartlet, President Santos, and President Shepherd. And yet, by the time I’m done watching The West Wing and The American President, I’d vote for two out of the three in a heartbeat. (Sorry – Vinnick would have gotten my vote over Santos.)

The American President is basically Aaron Sorkin’s jumping ground for The West Wing, a series I thought would bore me out of my mind and I ended up loving so much we used it as inspiration for one of our children’s names. Amusingly, Sorkin wrote Sports Night between the two, but still. The seeds are all sown. The politics. The best friend relationship between Chief of Staff and President. The humanizing of high-ranking politicians. Martin Sheen and Joshua Malina. Witty dialogue and a convenient place to pontificate on his own beliefs. It’s all there.

The American President is, at its core, a love story, because that’s one of the things Sorkin does best – he explores the humanity behind the positions. The widowed President Andrew Shepherd (played very appealingly by Michael Douglas) meets a woman he actually likes, political lobbyist Sydney Ellen Wade. Naturally, her being a lobbyist creates all sorts of issues, despite the obvious fact that the two of them are incredibly well-suited for each other. It’s not a very complicated plot, and sure, the ending is totally predictable, but it’s extremely well done.

Part of what makes The American President such a fun movie is the general appeal of the characters. It’s very hard not to like Andrew Shepherd. He’s funny, he’s articulate, he’s respectful of life in general, and he’s a single father, which is pretty guaranteed to make women feel all protective. It’s hard not to like Sydney (Annette Bening), who is elegant, funny, and down-to-earth, and manages to be an aggressive, effective negotiator without being characterized as a witch. The supporting cast is just as strong, from Michael J. Fox’s neurotic Communications Director to David Paymer’s laid-back Leon (whose position I haven’t figured out, but he has one of the best lines in the movie). You want the happy ending for these people, because you feel like they’re genuinely good people who care about what they’re doing, even if they don’t all see the same picture.

The politics are also quite neutral, for as liberal as they are. Sorkin chose two main issues to focus on: the reduction of fossil fuels emissions and hand gun legislation. While I’m not naïve enough to think that these issues don’t have any contention (could we ratify the Kyoto Protocol already, please?), they’re not as emotionally charged as other issues like abortion, immigration, and the like. They’re prominent enough to be semi-glamorous and widespread enough to be easily understood. But anyway, I think Sorkin did a good job incorporating politics in a way that would avoid alienating any but the most extreme members of an audience.

I also really liked the romantic aspect of the movie. For once, there are no bizarre coincidences, no wacky set-ups or extreme and unbelievable attention getters. Guy meets girl, guy likes girl, guy asks girl out. They address the issues and work to a mature and healthy romance, and the obstacles that do stand in their way are not manufactured for comedic value, but obstacles that actually would stand in their way if they were a real couple. Additionally, when they get mad at each other, they get mad for the right reasons, not because of some simple misunderstanding. And when they forgive each other, it’s the same. This is NOT your standard romantic comedy, and it’s a good thing.

The American President is one of those movies that’s great to pop in when you have a diverse crowd and actually want to watch something good. It’s funny, comfortable, romantic, mostly believable, and intelligent. If you’re one of the few people that hasn’t watched it, I highly recommend it, and if you have seen it, it’s probably time to watch it again.

With TVs, the American public might not elect a man in a wheelchair, but they will elect a man who’s been in Basic Instinct AND Fatal Attraction.


  • Same sets as Dave and The West Wing?
  • Michael J. Fox went from super-conservative Republican in Family Ties to very liberal Democrat in The American President. Hey, I was amused.
  • Michael J. Fox also smacks a product-placement can of Diet Coke across the room (while uttering two of the three of the f-words that this movie actually has). I guess he once used to be a spokesman for Pepsi.
  • Syndey’s dress is absolutely stunning.
  • It takes a long time to get to that flower shop – or the President has really good eyes.
  • If Sydney is lobbying for the environment, why is she driving from Capitol Hill to the White House?
  • The number given for the White House really is the number.
  • Like Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin likes using certain actors over and over. Martin Sheen appears in The American President (as Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney), The West Wing (President Jed Bartlet), and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip (Radio Host). Anna Deveare Smith appears in The American President (Press Secretary Robin McCall) and The West Wing (Secretary of Defense Nancy McNally). Nina Siemaszko shows up in The American President (Beth Wade) and The West Wing (Ellie Bartlet). And Joshua Malina is in The American President (Syndey’s assistant David), Sports Night (Jeremy Goodwin), The West Wing (Will Bailey), Malice, and A Few Good Men.
  • Aside from using the same actors, Aaron Sorkin has a thing for certain names. Examples:Leo (American President, West Wing)
    Danny/Dan (A Few Good Men, Sports Night, West Wing, Studio 60)
    Lucy (American President, Studio 60)
    Andrew (American President, West Wing (Andrea), Studio 60, Malice)
    Sam (West Wing, A Few Good Men, Sports Night)
    Jed (Malice, West Wing)

Groovy Quotes

Sydney Ellen Wade: Oh, Andy, a C minus in Women’s Studies.
President Andrew Shepherd: Yeah, well, that class wasn’t about what I thought it was about.

Sydney Ellen Wade: Mr. President, you’ve got bigger problems than losing me. You just lost my vote.

A. J. MacInerney: Excuse me, sir, where are you going?
President Andrew Shepherd: I’m going over to her house. I’m going to stand outside her door until she let’s me in, and I’m not leaving ’til I get her back.
A. J. MacInerney: How are you going to do that, sir?
President Andrew Shepherd: Well, I haven’t worked that out yet, but I’m sure groveling will be involved.

Lewis Rothschild: Mood swings? Nineteen post-graduate degrees in mathematics, and your best explanation for going from a 63 to a 46 percent approval rating in five weeks is mood swings?
Leon Kodak: Well, I could explain it better, but I’d need charts, and graphs, and an easel.

President Andrew Shepherd: You know, I studied under a Nobel Prize-winning economist, and you know what he taught me?
A.J.: Never have an airline strike at Christmas?

Lewis Rothschild: I tell any girl I’m going out with to assume that all plans are soft until she receives confirmation from me thirty minutes beforehand.
Robin McCall: And they find this romantic?
Lewis Rothschild: Well, I say it with a great deal of charm.

President Andrew Shepherd: Let me see if I got this. The third story on the news tonight was that someone I didn’t know thirteen years ago when I wasn’t president participated in a demonstration where no laws were being broken in protest of something that so many people were against, it doesn’t exist anymore. Just out of curiosity, what was the fourth story?

Lewis Rothschild: We lost Jarret.
Leon Kodak: Well I hope so, because if that was an undecided we need to work on our people skills.

A. J. MacInerney: I bet no one accused Louis of being soft on crime.
Sydney Ellen Wade: There’s a lesson there, Mr. President.
President Andrew Shepherd: More beheadings at the White House!

Sydney Ellen Wade: Yeah… I gotta nip this in the bud. This has catastrophe written all over it.
Beth Wade: In what language? 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?

If you liked this movie, try these:

  • Charlie Wilson’s War
  • Dave
  • Wag the Dog


  1. It’s hard to make a film about the presidency completely unbiased in regards to politics, since it’s politics at the highest degree. Yes, they make it very clear that the President is liberal (we can’t have Hollywood glorifying a conservative president, hell might freeze over) but this film wisely chooses to stay off the soapbox and focus on “light” issues like fossil fuels. I think that has helped the film stand the test of time.
    In high school we watched several clips from movie presidents and had to guess what political party they belonged to. Out often films, we guessed that nine of the presidents were Democrats. (We were on the fence about the president in Independance Day, but since he was a war hero we just put him as a Republican).

      • I’ll have to see those. I also think My Fellow Americans is an underrated comedy that pulls it off beautifully. It features two ex-presidents who initially hate each other who are forced to go into hiding together. Both the Republican and the Democrat are likable, and constantly trade barbs back and forth between each other. It’s not exactly high-brow, but it’s certainly good for a lazy weekend night.

      • They’re well worth viewing. A major reason I enjoy them is that they dispense with the tired trope that the reform-minded lead effortlessly enacts his proposals because his cause is honorable and just. In the first season or so, Hacker more often than not finds himself befuddled by the smooth-talking Appleby. Even when he later becomes more capable (the way he played two fellow party members off each other so that he could become Prime Minister was flat-out ruthless), he rarely enacts what he wants without offering some sort of compromise.

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