The American President

Original Release Date:  1996

Written By:  Aaron Sorkin

Directed By:  Rob Reiner

Starring:  Michael Douglas, Annette Benning, Martin Sheen, Michael J. Fox, and Richard Dreyfuss

Runtime:  114 minutes

Spoiler-Free Summary

Andrew Shepherd (Douglas), a widower and father of a twelve-year-old daughter, is currently in his first term as President of the United States. His tenure as Commander-in-Chief has been going relatively well, thanks to his idealism, inherent likability, and the dedication of his White House Staff: Lewis Rothschild (Fox), Leon Kodak (David Paymer), & Robin McCall (Anna Deavere Smith), led by Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerney (Sheen).

Not everyone is satisfied with the President's performance:  the Director of the (fictional) Global Defense Council (GDC), Leo Solomon (John Mahoney), is unhappy about the administrations record on environmental issues, and brings in a closer to help make their case. Sydney Ellen Wade (Benning), a top-tier professional political operative, is the GDC's new white knight. Her passion, enthusiasm, and eloquence attract the attentions of President Shepherd. The two attempt to pursue a romantic relationship against the backdrop of election season; Senator Robert Rumson (Dreyfuss) campaigns against the President by launching personal attacks on his character.

The film delivers a compelling emotional storyline despite its tenuous grasp of the American legislative process


The Breakdown

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

The American President, which we might call the final volume of the "Castle Rock Trilogy" of Aaron Sorkin films, opens with a montage of items evocative of American history, accompanied by Marc Shaiman's melodious orchestral score. Shaiman's soaring composition is quite similar to, and retrospectively evocative of, W.G. Snuffy Walden's famous instrumental theme for The West Wing.

As the music ends, we join Andrew Shepherd and his personal aide midway through reviewing the President's schedule for the day. The camera follows them through the Residence, down to the West Wing offices, and into the Oval. Douglas has his charm turned all the way up, good naturally kidding around with his more literal-minded assistant, Janie, who is young, but very professional and reserved. Samantha Mathis portrayal of Janie very quietly steals a lot of moments in their scenes together throughout the film; for what could have been merely a background character, indistinguishable from the wallpaper, she helps the fabric of the story universe feel more vibrant.

In this introductory sequence, we meet the White House Senior staff.

Sheen's MacInerney leads his merry band of Lewis, Leon & Robin (as well as other, non-speaking staffers) as they hash out their legislative agenda and talk about reelection. The Shepherd Administration is currently at a record-high 63% job approval, and there are differing views over how best to spend that political capital.

Still and all, the team is a well-oiled machine: they get along well with each other and with Shepherd–despite the discussion of serious issues, the atmosphere in the oval is far from somber.

These people take their duty seriously, but don't take themselves too seriously.

Towards the end of the meeting, the President makes a pragmatic, if seemingly uncharacteristic statement, for a man who is supposed to be a leader with high-minded principles. Fox's Lewis Rothschild is trying to convince the President that they should be more aggressive in pursuing their agenda, but Andy answers, "we gotta fight the fights we can win." This doesn't sit well with Lewis. We'll just let that seed germinate for now, and get back to its full meaning later...

Before we wade too much deeper into the film, it bears noting how effective The American President is at portraying the interdisciplinary complexity of being the leader of the free world. Throughout the story, President Shepherd deals with both foreign and domestic policy issues, including gun control & violent crime, global climate change & reducing fossil fuel dependency, maintaining relationships with U.S. allies, managing military actions against a threat to an allied power, discussion of school vouchers programs, the everyday business as usual of party politics, the prospect of running for reelection, and, after all that, an attempt to deal with personal and family issues. That's a lot to juggle, simply as an audience member.

The meeting breaks up with the staff giving us the score: they need to get 18 votes promised in the next 72 days to pass their crime bill before the State of the Union Address.

Next, we change gears and focus ion a group outside of the government: the Global Defense Council. Director Leo Solomon (Mahoney) is reading selections from the riot act to one of his deputies, Susan Sloan (Wendy Malick), who had sent a letter to the White House brashly reasserting the group's agenda. Due to the President's newfound popularity, Solomon is bringing in Sydney Ellen Wade, a hired gun who will know how to deal with the administration on its own terms–unlike the environmental experts at the GDC. Sloan isn't thrilled about having someone brought in over her at the organization, and takes it out on Sydney throughout the rest of film. Malick puts in some really great character work in this film, despite her limited screen time.

Back at the White House, Shepherd is taking a break to spend a few minutes with his daughter Lucy. These two have excellent familial chemistry and it's interesting to get a different view of the man from another angle: Andy is a devoted father, unable to spend as much time with his child as he would like due to the pressures of his job, but trying to make the most of the spare time he does have.

The one criticism that might be dealt against Andy is that, in this context, he's too idealistic–he talks at Lucy rather than with her when it comes to why she is performing poorly (read:  probably getting a B, perish the thought) in Social Studies. The President lets his passion for the subject override his fatherly instincts, merely lobbing a couple of platitudes at her.  Then he's gone in a flash: father-daughter time just flies by when you're discussing the Constitution. Lucy plays him out on her trombone with Hail to the Chief.

Later on that night, we get to see a security briefing on the CSTAD (Capricorn Surface-to-Air Defense) system the military has built in Israel–but only the end of the meeting.  The American President is constantly on the move when we see the President and the White House staff at work.  Andy & A.J. get their first "best pals" moment as the Chief of Staff walks his boss out of the office and along the portico to the Residence.  MacInerney tells him about Sydney Ellen Wade being brought in by the GDC–the second time we hear about her without having yet met her.  She's getting quite the buildup.  "She's a lawyer from Virginia," A.J. tells the President, "I know her pretty well.  She's had a lot of success getting congressmen elected."  Then they have a nice little moment together:

ANDY:  A.J.

AJ:  Yes, sir?

ANDY:  When we're out of the office, and alone, you can call my 'Andy.'

AJ:  I beg your pardon?

ANDY:  You were the Best Man at my wedding for crying out loud–call me 'Andy!'

AJ:  Whatever you say, Mr. President.

The observance of, and commitment to, offices, institutions, and duty, are themes that are fully realized in The American President, as in much of the rest of Sorkin's work.  Andy is experiencing a bit of inevitable isolation at the top of the political food chain:  literally no one can be his peer, can know him as just a person.  He interacts with everyone within a prescribed social role.  He's always the boss, either as POTUS or as father.  This is part of what he sees in his in-person introduction to Sydney:  the potential for her to experience him as an equal, as a real person.

Sydney gets a series of introductory scenes the following day.  She and Susan arrive at the White House for their meeting with MacInerney, and Sydney attempts to "savor the Capra-esque quality."  Wide-eyed and optimistic and maybe a little bit naive, our first glimpse of Sydney Ellen Wade doesn't quite fit with the her description as a closer.  The next, however, does. In their meeting with A.J. and some other anonymous staff, Sydney dominates her GDC colleague and fills the room to bursting with laser-focused erudition.  This is the woman that earned her extraordinary reputation as a political advocate.  

In an unprecedented four minutes of empty time in his schedule, the President makes his planned drop-in on the meeting, catching Sydney at the culmination of her verbal broadside. His response is far too funny and affable to maintain verisimilitude, but we'll let it slide. Andy asks Janie to lead Sydney to the "Rec Room," which is their code for the instant intimidation of being momentarily left alone in the Oval having just insulted the president.

Sydney is only momentarily fazed. Quickly regaining her composure, she apologizes of insulting him without losing any ground, politically or rhetorically. She and the President strike a bargain:  if the GDC can garner 24 of the 34 votes necessary for the more radical version of the administration's environmental proposal, then the President will deliver the remaining ten votes. Now it's a horserace:  the White House and Sydney both set to whip votes for their respective bills.

Sydney promises the President–still in the oval–that he had better live up to his end of the deal.  She is strong, she is firm, she walks out the wrong door. This is a common characteristic of Sorkin characters:  brilliant in professional settings, and then something-less-than-brilliant when it comes to simpler tasks.

In the next scene, we get another Andy & A.J. moment, as they play pool in the Residence in the evening. In between talking about work, they continue their conversation from the previous night...

AJ:  Nice shot, Mr. President.

ANDY:  'Nice shot, Mr. President'?  You won't even call me by my name when we're playing pool?

AJ:  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...

ANDY:  At ease, A.J., at ease.

They go on to talk about the deal that Shepherd made with the GDC & the political chess they are playing. After that, the conversation turns to Sydney Wade. Shepherd asks MacInerney what he thinks about the idea of the President bringing a date to the impeding State Dinner. (Earlier we learn that President was going to take his cousin Judith, who had to cancel due to illness.) The question sends A.J.'s political instincts into overdrive, as he attempts to handle his boss–but Andy appeals to him on a more human level: "I like her, A.J. Stop being my Chief of Staff for one minute." A.J. relents. It's nice to see Martin Sheen stretch his comedic legs in this scene, and throughout the film. ("...I could pass her a note before study hall.")

Across town, Sydney is at her sister Beth's apartment, telling "Richard" on the phone about what happened that day. (Though it's never explicitly stated, we may infer that this is the Congressman Richard Reyolds (D-Connecticut) mentioned in the third act.) Richard apparently does an Andrew Shepherd impression that he is attempting inflict on Sydney, so when the actual President calls, she blows him off, not thinking it's the real Andrew Shepherd.

Andy is flummoxed ("this used to be easier") and calls her back after she sasses him and then hangs up the phone. The gambit that he employs to prove to Sydney that he actually is President Shepherd is kind of an awesome move, as he halts her momentum with the whole "Richard" thing. (Plus Douglas gives the actual phone number for the White House.) Despite their initial awkwardness, Sydney & Andy hit it off pretty well; even over the phone, they have an easy rapport.

Next, we get a brief pair of scenes depicting the White House and GDC efforts to whip votes, and then we're pulled right into the State Dinner–a tableau of unadulterated civic opulence. On the way in we finally meet Senate Minority Leader Robert Rumson (Dreyfuss) on the press line. He is asked whether he is planning to run for President; the election is only a year away. Rumson simply deflects the question.  It's a relatively toothless first impression for the man who will morph into the film's sole villain.  

In preparation for the event, the First Daughter is helping her father out with his bow tie, and they share a poignant moment. Andy just comes right out and asks Lucy if it's alright with her if he goes out on a date; it's a reassuring move, considering his lukewarm performance earlier with the social studies textbook. (What would he have done if she'd said she wasn't okay with it?  Send Sydney away? That would be a hilariously awkward scene.)

Fortunately, Lucy is on board, and soon the President is able to receive Sydney upstairs in the Mansion with the MacInerneys. She is riding high on adrenaline and letting herself be swept up in the moment, especially when she is introduced to the guests of honor, the President of France and his wife. Before she can fully process that moment, Janie is there to lead them to the receiving line, and, still side-eyed, she takes the President's arm. 

At dinner, Sydney is able to exercise some of her linguistic skills to engage with the D'Astiers. Andy is impressed, and asks Sydney to dance with him. It's a nice respite for both of them; despite being the center of attention, they are in the calm eye of the storm.

None of the political intrigue and strategic maneuvering matters so long as the music plays...

The next day, Andy wants to send flowers to Sydney, but encounters a series of complications. The first is Janie, perplexed that he wants to do something himself?

Mathis's hurt/quizzical reaction is amazing: Aide-Bot is malfunctioning.

Next is Lewis, who (probably simply in an attempt to be helpful) sticks his nose in a little too far.  The President has to rock him back a step:  "I'm calling the Organization of the United Brotherhood of It's None of Your Damn Business Lewis I'll Be With You in a Second."  (The OUBNYDBLIBWYS must be a very powerful Washington lobby group, on the strength of their acronym alone–go ahead, try pronouncing that.)  Appropriately cowed, the two staffers step out of the oval to wait with Janie & Mrs. Chapil.  Andy's next hurdle is the employee at Carmen's House of Flowers, on the other end of the phone.  Thoughtfully enough, he wants to get Sydney whatever the State Flower of Virginia is–which the florist doesn't know.  After a brief round-robin between the President, Janie, Mrs. Chapil, Leon Kodak and the florist, Andy eventually is forced to admit defeat on the quest for flowers.  Since he doesn't have access to his credit cards, Andy tries to get the florist to simply bill the White House for them, and she promptly hangs up on him–assuming, as anyone would, that he is just a prankster.  Stymied, the President ends up sending Sydney a Virginia Ham instead, much to her amusement.

The gift arrives at the GDC offices in the midst of an argument between Sydney and Leo Solomon.  Director Solomon calls Sydney into his office to admonish her for taking the President up on his offer to attend the state dinner.  He's concerned about her reputation (as his operative, mostly) and talks about the innate hypocrisy of politics & perception versus substance.  Leo thinks that if she has a relationship with the President, "the amount of time it will take you to go from being a hired gun to a cocktail party joke can be clocked with an egg timer."   Solomon is fully aware of the unfairness of his criticism, but the fact stands:  the people will decide what the relationship means, not the participants.  

This sentiment is underlined in the next scene, as the President's Press Secretary and Senior Domestic Policy Advisor try to get some guidance from Shepherd about how to handle his relationship with Sydney with respect to the press.  Robin & Lewis are concerned about protecting the boss and the administration from any possible (and in their view, likely) damage that POTUS dating might cause.  Andy is in no way interested in having the conversation–he shuts them down immediately, "there is no 'Sydney Issue.'"  

There is, of course, a "Sydney Issue," and we should note, retrospectively, that Robin and Lewis were completely right to want to put a good face on the situation from the very beginning–if they had, they might've headed off the whole Rumson character assassination deluge at the pass.

Sydney herself then drops by the Oval, and Andy asks her to come by the next night for dinner with him and Lucy (it's meatloaf night!)  Sydney agrees, sort of in spite of what she feels should be her own better judgement.  Benning plays her self-imposed ambivalence superbly, as the President exits the West Wing and boards Marine One.

Fade to black, and we're at the aforementioned meatloaf night.  Benning and Shawna Waldron are great together in their character's introductory scene: at once they're comfortable together, and Sydney has no trouble interacting with Lucy as an equal.  (Is it possible that Sorkin's intention here was, 'hey look how good a stepmom Sydney is going to be to this girl?')

LUCY: Hi, are you Ms. Wade?

SYDNEY: 'Sydney.'

LUCY: Hi, Lucy Shepherd, nice to meet you.

SYDNEY: You too.

LUCY: Um, my dad told me to tell you that he's on the phone with his dentist, and that I should behave myself and entertain you until he gets back,

SYDNEY: Your father's on the phone with his dentist?

LUCY: No–he told me to tell you he's on the phone with his dentist.  He wants you to think he's a regular guy.

SYDNEY: Well who's he on the phone with?

LUCY: The Prime Minister of Israel.

SYDNEY: Oh. They're probably not discussing his teeth.

LUCY: I hope not.

One of the best parts of this interaction, other than their humor & rapport, is Lucy's obviously practiced poise and formality.  How many statesmen, ambassadors, dignitaries, &c, has this child undoubtedly been presented to over the past few years.  She's clearly living just as public a life as her father, despite her youth, and has grown somewhat accustomed to it.

As the evening at the Residence is getting underway, across town another is already in progress. Senator Bob Rumson (R-Kansas) and his political allies are discussing the President and the electoral landscape. Dreyfuss immediately makes Rumson familiar without being too much of a caricature:  smart and ruthless and unsympathetic. The assemblage (literally the old boy's club, judging by the wood paneling, brown liquor and cigars) are extolling the value of a character-based campaign, rather than issue-based, lamenting their inability to have used such tactics against Andrew Shepherd in the previous cycle. "Our polling told us that attacking his character less than a year after he'd lost his wife was gonna be a turn off, was gonna make people feel sorry for him. We couldn't run the kind of campaign we wanted because the opponent was a widower." The press coverage of the State Dinner, however, makes it Christmas Morning at the RNC.

Back at the White House, the President is giving Sydney a tour of the mansion. Stopping in the "Dish Room," as Andy calls it (actually the China Room), Sydney and Andy share one of the first real, intense moments of their relationship. "Do you think they'll ever be a time when you can stand in a room with me, and not think of me as the President?" Similar to his interactions with A.J., Andy is seeking to be known, as a person, as separate from his office. Why can't he just be a guy with a day job, who turns it off when he gets home? Sydney is far more pragmatic, "when I'm in a room with you, oval or any other shape... you're always going to be the President." She still has Solomon's words, and her own professionalism, swirling around her head, trying to convince the rest of her that this is a bad idea.

Their moment is, of course, because it's a movie, interrupted: "the Libyans have bombed CSTAD," killing 22 Americans. The President has to go.

President Shepherd is joined by his commanders and advisors in the Situation Room. There, we learn what has happened, and what the military is going to do about it. In exchange for the destruction of the weapons system and killing of its personnel, U.S. forces will bomb the Libyan Intelligence Headquarters building in Tripoli a "Proportional response" to the act perpetrated in Israel. The idea doesn't sit very well with Andy, "someday, somebody's gonna have to explain to me the virtue of a proportional response." He does, however, authorize the attack.

This idea is explored in the episode of The West Wing of that name, in which President Jed Bartlet (played by Martin Sheen, moving over a seat from his position as COS in this meeting) actually asks the question outright to his Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the issue is debated more thoroughly.

President Shepherd then briefs his civilian senior staff upstairs in the Oval, and Andy takes the opportunity to share more of his governing philosophy. McCall and Kodak want to take advantage of the situation to get the President some free media exposure, "sir, what you did tonight was very Presidential." What Leon means by this, of course, is that the optics are undeniable: POTUS is the only one who can authorize a military strike, look how well Shepherd is handling his job; hey, everybody, go pull the lever next to his name come November.

Andrew Shepherd, however, won't let his actions be exploited for political gain.

"Leon, somewhere in Libya right now, a janitor's working the night shift at the Libyan Intelligence Headquarters.  He's going about doing his job, because he has no idea that in about an hour he's gonna die in a massive explosion. He's just goin' about his job 'cause 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."

Andy is haunted by what he feels he had to do, and it's in moments like this that we see why it's so necessary to him that he think of himself in two parts: as the man, and as the office. Andy would never kill a janitor just going about doing his job, but President Shepherd has to.

This is one of Douglas's best scenes: the way his eyes lose focus, the way his voice breaks just a title on the word "killed," it's an extraordinary performance.

Later at the press conference, the reports try to turn the questioning from the bombings to Sydney Wade, but as before, when Lewis and Robin confronted to the President in his office, Andy shuts them down. "Folks, a lot of people were killed last night.  Let's try to keep our eye on the ball, alright?"

Keeping an eye on the ball is something that Sydney is having trouble with as well. She and her sister are unpacking her things at her new apartment, and trying to talk herself out of her fledgeling relationship with Andy. Nina Siemaszko was a great choose to play Benning's younger sister. Beth is the right combination of caring & annoying, and holds up a mirror to Sydney. She sees through the other woman's insecurity and anxiety, "the man is the leader of the free world, he's brilliant, he's funny, he's handsome, he's an above-average dancer. Isn't it possible our standards are just a tad high?" When Andy calls to ask her to come over to the White House, Sydney knows it's him and doesn't want to pick up–but Beth insists.

Sydney does indeed end up going over to the White House, where she repeats her rationalization: "this has catastrophe written all over it." She has a laundry list of reasons why she doesn't think their relationship is a good idea, including the fact that Shepherd is leaving himself open to character attacks during the election, "Bob Rumson's gotta be drooling over this."

Andy, hyper-cerebral, breaks down the future that he envisions for their relationship. Andy wants to accommodate her comfort level with the perceived inequity of their relationship, what with him being the leader of the free world and all, "so we're gonna slow way down..."

Sydney has other ideas, having apparently changed her mind about committing to the relationship, and as she moves in for their embrace, gives the President what he's been seeking for the entirety of the film up to this point: she calls him "Andy."

Meanwhile, election season is heating up as Bob Rumson is indeed using the President's relationship as a character attack, just as everyone knew he would. His campaign slogan, judging from the ample signage, "the pride is back," complements the shallow rhetoric about "traditional American values" in his talking points.

This is about as deep as we get with the Senator's political platform:  as an antagonist, Rumson is rather thin on particulars. The campaign is rather prescient in this way, seeing as how the whole "red team/blue team" dynamic of American politics didn't really start until the 2000 election cycle, and this was written over five years before that.

Early the next morning, the President is awakened by a phone call, and is surprised to see that Sydney is already up and dressed at 0-dawn-30. She had been hoping to escape before the press corps arrives (Andy's response is awesome, and probably represents what every politician feels: "I have those same thoughts every day of my life"), but the reporters clocked her vehicle and know she's there.  They're "camped out at every exit," Lewis reports.  In another moment, most of the rest of the senior staff is in the President's bedroom. Fortunately, A.J. has the solution to their problem, his wife, Esther "has the station wagon standing by." (The coolest-sounding sentence ever said about a station wagon in recorded history.)

Lewis and Robin, once again, want to develop a press strategy for the "Sydney Issue," but once again, Andy isn't interested in entertaining the notion. He tells his now-girlfriend, "when you leave here, you're gonna run into reporters and photographers, they're gonna take your picture every day, they're gonna ask you questions every day–answer them, don't answer them, it's entirely up to you. The White House, has no official position, except to say 'no comment' ...the White House does not comment on the President's personal life." Andy is still devoted to maintaining the illusion that the man and the office are truly separate.

Robin and Lewis try to object, but their Chief of Staff ends the conversation.

Next we get a montage of how the press and the country are reacting to what little information they have about the Presidential romance. In the absence of substantial data, the media, political groups, and ordinary citizens are compelled to infer whatever they are inclined to, and see the couple in their own way. (Maybe Andy & Sydney should've just gone on Oprah and put it all out there in their own words from the very beginning?)

The administration's approval numbers slip, and Rumson nips at the their heels, literally making money off of the President's relationship. One day he strikes pay dirt: an old picture of (college-aged?) Sydney Ellen Wade, protesting apartheid at the Department of Commerce. The kicker is: her group is burning a flag, and that's a powerful image for an ambitious and unscrupulous political operator like Rumson. Richard Dreyfuss, always incredible onscreen, has an outstanding moment of villainy in his sing-sing reaction to this discovery.

Later, at the GDC, we see that Sydney is only ten votes away from her goal.  Here we should stop and acknowledge the contribution of Sorkin regular Joshua Malina, in perhaps his most memorable scene of this film.  

DAVID: We should do some prep work, you wanna order in?

SYDNEY: I can't, I'm having dinner at the White House.  So let's start early tomorrow morning–say seven-thirty?

DAVID: O.K.  I'm having lunch at the Kremlin, so we'll have to–ya'know–start even earlier than that...

SYDNEY: G'night, David.

DAVID: ...in order for me to catch the morning plane to Moscow...

SYDNEY: Goodnight, David!

This is a great comedic moment–perhaps Sorkin & Reiner reminding us not to take the film too seriously. Yes we're dealing with serious issues, but this is supposed to be–at least nominally–a Romantic-Dramedy.  

Things do take a serious turn however though, as Robin & Lewis–the relationship killjoy twins–have to tell POTUS about flag photo being on news. Rumson's people have of course released it, and are using the perception of anti-patriotism to smear the administration.

Douglas's reaction is perfect, and perfectly Sorkinesque: "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 in which 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 and Robin remain insistent that they should counter Rumson and control their own media, but Shepherd still wants to stay 'above the fray' as it were, and continue to not engage in the fracas.

At this point we get a bit of a callback, as the motorcade drives by Carmen's House of Flowers. The President, having broken his date with Sydney, wants to hop out and get her a consolation bouquet. Rothschild is alarmed, "no hopping, sir," but once again, Shepherd is more than ready to refute his concerns. "You think there's a florist in there plotting an assassination on the off chance I might be stopping by?" The Secret Service does allow the President to go into the shop (seriously?) but Andy is once again unsuccessful. We get another light moment like David's Russia riff from before–the florist faints when she recognizes him.

Elsewhere, Bob Rumson is still on the stump, making Sydney the centerpiece of his campaign against President Shepherd, and calling her, "a woman in a position to exert enormous influence over a huge range of issues." Even though he's supposed to be The Enemy, he does make kind of a good point, especially from our position here in the 21st century. In the age of social media and instant everything, how long could a President (or any high-level public official) keep up this kind of willful avoidance before overwhelming political and social pressure was applied? Maybe a week. Maybe.

The President finishes defusing a possible airline strike, and then he and Sydney abscond for Camp David. There the pair attempt to enjoy a snowed-in retreat from the pressures of politics. Andy flips channels on the TV while Sydney entertains herself with a series of Andrew Shepherd Biographies ("you were like a stepford student!") when a news piece interrupts their fun.

Senator Rumson was on one of the Sunday morning shows making wild accusations about Sydney trading in sexual favors in Virginia on behalf of her lobbying efforts.  

In response to this, we get to watch as Sorkin takes his idealism out for a walk. Sydney confronts Andy about his almost-apathetic reaction to Rumson's assaults on them.  "How do you have patience for people who claim they love America but clearly can't stand Americans?" But Andy has an answer for that too; he continues to stay rooted on the high road.

Sydney, however, is not easily mollified.  She makes a bold gesture of her affection and devotion "I am in love with you, I'm certain of it, and I want to be with you more than anything, but maybe things would be better for you if I just disappeared for a while." Andy is reassuring, but still basically avoids the issue.

Cut to: the White House Christmas party, and a story complication. Sydney reveals a piece of strategic information to Andy & A.J. that will doom her efforts to pass her fossil fuel package in favor of the administration's crime bill. This marks a downward slide for our noble protagonists, as support for the President, his legislative efforts, and his relationship, all continue to plummet.

All the White House staff's maneuverings aren't enough to stop the bleeding, and A.J. authorizes Lewis and Leon to conduct a new public opinion poll, which will include information about the President's relationship with Sydney Wade.

This poll becomes a major source of contention between Shepherd and his staff: "this poll isn't talking about my Presidency. This poll is talking about my life," he shouts at them. 

In the moment that follows, we get an absolutely amazing interchange between Douglas and Michael J. Fox. Fox, who had a prolific and successful career starring in movies of his own for the previous decade (since Back to the Future) has been almost wasted in some of the earlier sequences of the film. A talent of his magnitude hasn't really been necessary to portray Lewis Rothschild until the speech that he gives here. Sorkin once again invokes the pseudo-neo-classical values of patriotism and citizenship in the United States, as Fox absolutely hijacks (in a good way) the movie. "I'm a citizen, this is my President, and in this country it is not only permissible to question our leaders, it's our responsibility. But you already know that, don't you, Mr. President, because you have a deeper love of this country than any man I've ever known. And I wanna know what it says to you that fifty-nine percent of Americans have begun to question your patriotism?"

All of Lewis's frustration that has been building over the past three months comes pouring righteously out, and we see Andrew Shepherd as if through new eyes:  the eyes of a once-idealistic–and now somewhat jaded–man who wants nothing more than to serve his country and believes he has found the commander to follow into the breach.

But in that moment, Andy still doesn't yet have the fire in him.  Again, he shuts them down–he lets them down. He makes the deal to shelve the fossil fuel package in favor of the ineffectual crime bill.

It's instructive to pause here a moment and observe what Sorkin is pointing out, though Andy Shepherd's reaction to the polling data: "this poll isn't talking about my Presidency, this pole is talking about my life."  In the past twenty years, this is a conflation that has only accelerated–the way the media shapes the perception of public figures as being inexorably tied to their position.

Rarely are we presented with the opportunity to parse the person from the office, as Shepherd attempts to do accomplish until the final moments of the film.

Upstairs in the residence that evening, Andy and Sydney have a blowout. Leo Solomon has fired Sydney for "total failure to achieve any of the objectives for which I was hired," as she says.  She's leaving town, having "lost all credibility in politics."  Benning is, of course, fantastic, conveying all of Sydney's pain and betrayal and embarrassment–and then, finally, her reciprocity: "Mr. President, you've got bigger problems than losing me. You just lost my vote."

After Sydney leaves, A.J. joins the President in the billiards room. He takes advantage of the opportunity to speak with the President alone and tell him what he really thinks, "Lewis is right, go after this guy... you fight the fights that need fighting!" Despite his efforts to shake his friend out of his inaction, MacInerney can't get through to Shepherd–he still won't break from his kamikaze course.  

It takes a long and presumable sleepless night for Andrew Shepherd to reflect on the day, the sequence of three that he had with important people in his life.

Only then is he finally able to change his mind and assert himself, to fight for himself and his future in office.

Finally finding it in himself to do what must be done, the President bursts into the morning press briefing to deliver one of the best speeches ever by a fictional President.

Similar to A Few Good MenThe American President is about a man running away from himself, who has to struggle against multiple disparate antagonists (including his own past) to find his way to solid ground.  For Daniel Kaffee, it was mostly a question of getting out from under his father's shadow, but for Andrew Shepherd, it's a question of integrating his personal life with his professional life. He realizes that he can't just be a man who gets up and goes to work, runs the government, and then goes home and is a private citizen again. That's why the button on the speech he gives in the press briefing room is so singularly important: "I am the President."  Being POTUS isn't a day job, but it's a role that Andy hasn't been fully committing himself to. This theme will be echoed back in the episode of The West Wing, "Let Bartlet be Bartlet."  Andy has to give himself permission to let Shepherd be Shepherd.

In the aftermath of the speech, we get our blue skies ending. The Shepherd administration is on the way into its second term, with newly reinvigorated leadership and a proper legislative agenda. "We gotta rewrite the State of the Union. / It's a whole new ball game."

And the hero gets the girl, as it were: Sydney heard the President's speech on the radio and arrived at the White House purely by muscle memory, just as he is on his way out of the building to go to her. They have a satisfyingly tearful reunion as the music swells, and the staff floods in to help the President prepare for his address to Congress.

In the final moments of the film, Sydney Ellen Wade, looking quite First Lady-like, finally gets her flowers, courtesy of the White House Rose Garden. The President excuses himself from her, and enters the House chamber to thunderous applause.

Before we move on to our features, a quick note on a glaring errors in this movie's storytelling...

It is absolutely galling that no one involved in the production of this film–from Sorkin & Reiner themselves, to the cast & crew, down to that assistant grip that only worked that one Thursday–had anything to say about its portrayal of the American legislative process.

In the words of Sorkin's next POTUS, Jed Bartlet, "go back to your high school and insist that you be better prepared to go out into the world."

Or alternatively, please enjoy this classic video, "How a Bill Becomes a Law."

 

The role of the Executive is to enforce laws, not create them.

The Constitution, much lauded but seldom fully understood, is actually fairly clear on where bills must originate.  

End of digression mini-rant; on to the fun parts!


Sorkinisms

More so than its predecessors, The American President has the trademark clever, snappy, overly-polished Sorkin dialogue. Not all of it falls into the "Sorkinisms" category of singularly familiar phrases, but there is a distinctive pattern throughout, such as when Sydney berates the President for creating "...crime prevention legislation that has no hope of preventing crime." Additionally, sometimes Andy Shepherd's speaking pattern is reminiscent of Casey McCall on Sports Night, a character who was once referred to as 'conversationally anal-retentive.'

This film does originate a key Sorkinism (emphasis added) "For reasons passing understanding, people do not relate guns to gun-related crime." This phrase is used repeatedly throughout Sorkin's projects, so it will become quite familiar.  

The other classic line is used by President Shepherd, and will be by the next POTUS: "What's next?" This phrase has such a great sense of purpose to it, simultaneously looking towards the future and rolling up sleeves to get things done.  

The MIGHTY Sorkin PLAYERS

The American President has a significant amount of overlap in cast and character names compared with the previous two installments in this series.  First and foremost, of course:  Martin Sheen.  

Future portrayer of President Josiah Bartlett is joined in this picture by the many other actors who will be The West Wing co-stars, including Anna Deavere Smith, appearing here as Press Secretary Robin McCall, will have a persistent recurring role in The West Wing as National Security Advisor Nancy McNally.  

Sydney Wade's sister is played by Nina Siemaszko, who will later appear in an episode of Sports Night as Holly, Charlie McCall's nanny.  Additionally, she will also be the middle Bartlett daughter, Eleanor, on The West Wing.

Beau Billingslea plays Secret Service Special Agent Cooper in this film, and also appears twice as two different characters on The West Wing.  

We must point out Joshua Malina, who, as we discussed earlier, is maintaining a 100% participation rate in Aaron Sorkin projects thus far.

Rob Reiner returns to direct again, the second of two films he helmed, after A Few Good Men.  

And lastly, we have the Aaron Sorkin Cameo:  "Aide in Bar" in a throwaway scene during the third act sequence showing how support for the President's crime bill is crumbling.

Our running tally of character names gains a few more entries as well:

  • Andy––II
  • Dana––I
  • Daniel––I
  • Jed––I
  • Leo--I
  • Lillianfield––I
  • Matthew––II
  • McCall--I
  • Pennybaker--I
  • Samuel––I
  • Stackhouse--I
  • Whitaker––I
  • William––I

This movie has a few 'background/supporting' character monikers that will show up in similar forms in The West Wing.  "Lillianfield," "Pennybaker," and "Stackhouse" are all names that will be reused later in various forms.

Dynamic Duo

Andrew Shepherd and AJ MacInerney go way back. For decades, AJ has been Andy's biggest supporter as they've climbed the ranks of the American political system. They have a brotherly camaraderie that withstands all of the trials they undergo in the course of this story, and presumably whatever may follow.

Even when Andy is furious at his Chief of Staff, he still values his counsel, as evidenced by their brief explosive argument over a pool table towards the end of the film. It only lasts a moment–but is key to the progress of the story. They are a mirror image of The West Wing's Jed Bartlett and Leo McGarry, played by the late, great John Spencer.  

Like Father Like Son

This film is entirely free of the kind of parental issues that other Sorkin works exhibit. The only parental relationship portrayed is between Shepherd and his daughter–and despite the fact that Andy is a widower, and rightly concerned about taking care of his daughter alone (while running the country), their relationship is depicted as healthy and fairly normal.

I Go Home When You Go Home

There is an archetype here that will be resurrected for The West Wing: Mrs. Chapil (Anne Haney) Secretary to the President of the United States, who is endlessly knowledgable and dedicated. She knows everything that goes on in and around the Oval Office, she's a kind person but thoroughly professional, she apparently knows the official flower of every state.  Haney's Mrs. Chapil is the template that Sorkin used to create one of the most beloved characters on The West Wing: Delores Landingham, played by Kathryn Joosten. She was simultaneously the big sister Jed Bartlett never actually had, and perhaps the one who believed in him the most faithfully. 

The other assistant-type originating here is Jane Basdin (Samantha Mathis) Personal Aide to the President. The personal aides and assistants are often portrayed as the most hardworking members of the team in Sorkin's White Houses, and Mathis's performance lends Janie a sort of naive brilliance. Equally as dedicated and professional as Mrs. Chapil, an incredibly capable assistant, as vital to the process as her boss is.


The Aaron Sorkin Rewatch Project will continue with Sports Night...