Looking Back Twenty Years – The American President (1995)

This is 2015 and it is time for an addition to my blog. – I am inaugurating a new feature. I’m calling it Looking Back Twenty Years. What I will do with this feature is that I will review a film from 20 years ago, on a monthly basis. So, for the rest of this year, you can look forward to a once-a-month review, of a 1995 film. I won’t be paying the strictest attention to the exact release dates – for now we will call it films from 1995, and leave it at that.

I thought of this film a few days ago, when Barack Obama gave his State of the Union Address to the nation. Then today, I was out to the post office and for some food shopping when I tuned in the On Point news show on NPR. The topic was about how Anti-Austerity Gains Steam in Europe and the just sworn in new Prime Minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras. Mr. Tsipras garnered only about 36% of the vote, which said another way – the election resulted in a man winning the office despite that 64% of the country did not vote for him. As Frank Underwood told us last year on House of Cards – democracy is over-rated.

But I am neither a global economist nor a political commentator. I mentioned those recent events merely to show how I arrived at the decision to watch the 1995 film, The American President which starred Michael Douglas and Annette Bening as the leads, with Michael J. Fox, David Paymer, Richard Dreyfuss, Anna Deavere Smith, Samantha Mathis, and Martin Sheen as the main support characters.

Let’s set it up for you – Michael Douglas plays an incumbent President of the United States called Andrew Shepherd. He’s a single parent as his beloved wife had died before his Presidential election. It is late in his second year, and his 3rd State of the Union Address is a little more than two months away.

He’s facing stern competition from the Republican Senator Robert (Bob) Rumson, played by a marvelous Richard Dreyfuss, who looms as his party’s candidate when Shepherd comes up for re-election. Bob is not about playing fair, and he’s always ready to call into focus what he feels are Andrew Shepherd’s character issues. Bob is also one to never miss an opportunity to talk to the press and end each and every instance that he speaks publicly with: My name is Bob Rumson, and I’m running for President.

So with two guys at the top of their political parties ready to contest the election – one would expect debates. And if one has paid any attention at all to the political process we could expect some mud-slinging.

Straight out, I will tell you – there are no debates, and no Barbara Walters or 60 minutes styled interviews. This is mano v mano. Of course, in Hollywood ‘s film world – that’s never enough. So a third main person has to be introduced. Actually in the film, this ‘third person’ is actually the co-lead – and that would be Annette Bening as Sydney Ellen Wade – and she’s soon to become President Andrew Shepherd’s love interest.

Directed by Rob Reiner with a terrific script by Aaron Sorkin, this is a fabulous and entertaining movie. As I said up top, I don’t do political commentary – so the main issues in the film, which put Rumson and Shepherd in opposing corners, and are what the voting public will have to decide on – issues like reducing fossil fuel emissions, and gun control will only be mentioned – but not discussed by me.

So the President and Ms Wade meet. She’s a tough, smart, and reliable environmental lobbyist, She’s also a hired gun or in more polite terms she’s a high-priced player in the world of politics. She in fact, earns a higher salary than the does the President. On her first day on the job – in a meeting with Shepherd’s Chief of Staff, A.J. MacInerney (Martin Sheen), Wade will call the President – the chief executive of fantasy land. When she says that she’s unaware that Shepherd has just entered the room and is standing just behind her.

So they meet cute, and in the time-worn concept of all love stories – their first meeting isn’t the smoothest. But Sorkin handles the love story aspect beautifully. He aims to take the Presidency out of the equation, at least as it relates to Shepherd and Wade, and he does this by humanizing Douglas’s Shepherd. The point being that although Shepherd is the ‘most powerful man‘ on the planet he’s also lonely, and he will stumble a bit when asking Wade for a date, just like we did when we were new at it.

The fact that their first date is a State Dinner with the President and Wade sitting at the table with the guest of honor – the President of France and his wife might be problematic for most people. No worries – while Shepherd can’t speak French, Wade can.

How do I get an outside line?

How do I get an outside line?

So it went beautifully. Then comes some problems – the President isn’t just any man – in fact, so much is done for him, that when he first tried to call Sydney Ellen Wade from the oval office, he didn’t even know how to get an outside line. He can’t just call up a florist and order flowers like you or I can.

Andrew Shepherd: Hi, I’d like to order some flowers.
Then there’s a discussion about what flowers to send – since dogwood wasn’t available he settles on two dozen roses. Shepherd then finds out that his personal credit cards are back in Wisconsin in storage. So he asks to be billed.
Andrew Shepherd – Andrew Shepherd – short pause – I’m the President
longer pause
… of the United States

And so it goes. While there’s not a laugh every moment, once Sydney Ellen Wade enters the film, the laughs come quite often. Of course there’s some tensions to follow between Shepherd and his senior domestic advisor, Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox), the president and his pollster Leon Kodak (David Paymer), and between Shepherd and his Chief of Staff MacInerney.

And the path to bliss between Shepherd and Wade has its own built in speed bumps.

And as usual with a Sorkin script you can expect at least one over-the-top, super speech. Rather than type it out, I’ll let you watch it, so you can enjoy it once more. Just ignore the 10 seconds ad at the beginning….and the less than stellar resolution.

While you may not agree or even like the politics in this film, there’s really no denying that it was a supremely entertaining movie.

The President has asked Sydney to come over for an informal family dinner. It's meatloaf night.

The President has asked Sydney to come over for an informal family dinner. It’s meat loaf night.

While it only garnered one Oscar nomination, after all,Hollywood is nothing if not political, this film did get 5 Golden Globe nominations – Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay.

My name is JustMeMike, and I am recommending this film.

2 thoughts on “Looking Back Twenty Years – The American President (1995)

  1. Having watched The West Wing, this film plays like an alternate reality version. I like it and the people in it, but given all the links to the TV show, it was strange watch. Good review.

  2. Well, in my view, The American President, the film, was the stepping stone to The West Wing, or said another way – the father of the West Wing. I guess watching this film now is all about perspective and starting points. I saw TAP when it first came out in 1995, and then didn’t invest too heavily in The West Wing when it launched in 1999.

    I later got into the West Wing and can still see the characters in my mind’s eye – Sheen as the President, Alison Janey, Richard Schiff, Bradley Whitford, Stockard Channing etc –

    I can certainly understand the alternate reality version concept.

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