- YEAR: 1995
- DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner
- KEY ACTORS: Michael Douglas, Annette Bening
- CERTIFICATE: 15
- IMDB SCORE: 6.8
- ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 91%
SEX SCORE: 2/5
✔️ This does pass the Bechdel Test, but it’s one of those passes where the exact conversations that qualify can be listed so it’s not a strong pass!
❌ But I don’t think it’s rewatchable. I don’t mean that it’s not good – I enjoyed it a lot – but I don’t think you could pick it up halfway through and watch from there, and I don’t know that I’d go out of my way to see it again
❌ And I don’t want to fuck the cast. Sorry Michael Douglas, you’re still not for me, although this is much closer than any other movie you’ve done!
✔️ It is sex positive! The plot essentially revolves around whether it is appropriate for the President to have a girlfriend, but any opposition to the relationship is appropriately judged!
❌ It didn’t inspire fantasies so is only getting 2/5, which feels low for a movie I enjoyed. But I simply don’t want to fuck the American President – either in real life (MY EYES!), in the movie or in fantasy.
As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…
STREAMING: Netflix, Amazon Prime (rent £2.49, buy £7.99), YouTube (from £2.49). For a full list of streaming options, check out JustWatch.com
It feels like I’m writing this in a different world the one we lived in when I watched The American President way back on 16th October. Even though it was only a month ago, the eventual results of the 2020 US Presidential election and the beginning of the transition period to the Biden-Harris administration mean that I am looking at the role of the President of the United States very differently indeed.
Because The American President is emphatically not about a president like Trump. Andrew Shepherd could almost literally be an anti-Trump – moral, decisive, with principles, honest, inspiring, great hair…
To steal a line from the West Wing Weekly team – Trump, ai ai ai!
That’s not the only reason why The American President is a pretty remarkable film. As Roger Ebert wrote in 1995, ‘it is hard to make a good love story, harder to make a good comedy and harder still to make an intelligent film about politics.’ And yet The American President manages to do all that!
It tells the story of widowed president, Andrew Shepherd (Douglas), who is popular and in a position to make real change, and who falls in love with a lobbyist, Sydney Ellen Wade (Bening). While their relationship blossoms, Shepherd’s opponents use this as an opportunity to attack his character – what kind of president has a girlfriend? Surely he’s distracted and not focussing on running the country if he’s all loved up? Clearly he’s giving her special attention and it’s going to change his policies! And all the talk works. Shepherd’s popularity falls; his planned and previously unbeatable crime bill isn’t going to pass. Alongside this, Wade has been whipping up support for an environmental bill – in a cute bit of flirting (and, to be fair, exactly what his Republican enemies had feared!), Shepherd had promised to support her bill if she could get the rest of the votes, but he ends up betraying her so he can use the votes for his crime bill. It all ends with Shepherd making an impassioned and powerful speech about being the President and being a good man, and he melts everyone’s hearts and gets the girl and it’s a perfect romcom ending!
It’s lovely. It’s heart-warming and romantic and makes me feel so happy for them both, which is exactly how you should feel at the end of a romcom – compare it to The Holiday, where much of my dislike is based in the fact that the film ended with legitimate questions about the future of both couples and their unrealistic expectations for their relationships!
But I do have questions. I admit that my questions are likely influenced by living through Trump and all trauma that his presidency entailed. And they’re also influenced by Monica Lewinski’s experience and the phone hacking scandal and all of the trolls on social media and everything that came after 1995. Basically, in 2020, I have a lot of questions.
Namely, can anyone consent to sex with The President of the United States?
That may sound flippant, and certainly undermines the entire concept of this film, but it is a serious question. Unless there is a pre-existing relationship, is informed consent possible? He’s the most powerful man in the world! How do you say no to him? The power dynamics are all screwed up, and that is particularly true if the object of his affection works in politics. Wade has an agenda of her own and, while I believe in their romance by the end of the movie, she would have had no idea if saying no to Shepherd’s original approach would have affected her chance of successfully working with him again. Of course, she would say yes! He’s the President!!
The team on the Rewatchable’s podcast also pointed out that this could very easily have descended into a stalker horror movie. Shepherd already uses the FBI to find Wade’s number, which is creepy as fuck and not a romantic gesture as movies would have us believe, but imagine if he had gone further. Imagine if Wade had said no and Shepherd hadn’t accepted it. How do you hide from the President if he chooses to misuse the power of the White House to track you down? And in a world where the balance of belief in all he-said-she-said disagreements already favours the man, who on earth would believe her over the President?! I hate to make comparisons but Trump has already shown us what happens in that circumstance. Like he said so disgustingly eloquently, ‘when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.’
Interestingly, I didn’t have any of these power dynamic concerns when watching Love Actually and the Grant-PM/McCutchen-tea lady relationship. I mean, there were plenty of other things to rant about, but I still fear that it says a lot about how powerful I think our Prime Minister is compared to the President…
As much as I like Shepherd, my 2020 perspective meant that I did spend much of the film screaming at him for the way that he was just leaving Wade to cope with the press nightmare without any support. He takes her to a formal White House event as a first date! He invites her to stay over at the White House but doesn’t advise her where to park her car or how to discretely leave in the morning so instead aaaalll the press know she’s there!! And until the end of the movie, he doesn’t make a statement about her and about their relationship; doesn’t explain or defend her, doesn’t say anything!!!
This is where the power dynamics come back into play. Wade is a lobbyist who has worked in politics for a long time so she can certainly handle herself. And I realise that it’s very unfeminist to suggest that she needs her man to protect her, but she kind of does. He’s the President! This isn’t a normal relationship and I feel that Shepherd is oddly flippant about how she will manage.
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.
It’s simply not normal to have 200 people watching you when you’re on a first date! And not only watching, asking legitimate questions – by having Wade as his date at a state event, Shepherd was announcing her as his girlfriend to the international world, which is pretty intense for a first date. Watching, I kept imagining how the press would absolutely destroy Wade now and how she would be torn to pieces on social media. I kept waiting for someone from the press office to check in and make sure she was OK, at least giving her the option to ask for help. Yes, lobbyists know how to survive within Washington but is that the same as what she would have to deal with as the President’s girlfriend? I was reminded of Meghan Markle and how horrifically she has been treated by the press.
I also thought it was pretty naive of Shepherd to imagine that he could have a new relationship and it not descend into a question of character. And I know it’s supposed to suggest humility and add to the sense of Shepherd as a good person, but it does make it look like he underestimates the importance of his role. It’s a life-changing position – his best friend now calls him ‘Mr President’ when they’re playing pool. Why didn’t he appreciate additional complications when dating?
It becomes the crux of the battle between Shepherd and Rumson – Shepherd feels that his policies should speak for themselves and Rumson knows full well that he can turn a not insignificant portion of the American public away from a good man by insinuating sexual impropriety. Because Rumson doesn’t actually tell lies – he just frames the facts in a way that he knows will encourage conservative voters to think badly of him: ‘Am I not an unmarried father who shared a bed with a liberal lobbyist down the hall from his twelve-year-old daughter?’
It is interesting how The American President does expose a lot of attitudes about sexual politics and sex positivity. Because, honestly, what is more troubling? The President having a committed monogamous relationship or being celibate for years and years? For me, that would be more of an issue! While this isn’t true for everyone, for many of us, sex and intimacy are important to our wellbeing and it really isn’t that unreasonable for someone with that much power and responsibility to need it too. At one point his friend and Chief of Staff AJ (Martin Sheen) offered to provide a sex worker and Shepherd is shocked, which is a disappointing response as, honestly, it could have been good solution if Shepherd had only wanted sex. Rather than public dating, why not take control and pay someone with a confidentiality policy?
Because Shepherd is lucky that Wade liked him back and the frankly terrifying speed at which he ramped up their relationship didn’t put her off. Their first date was a state event in front of the international press but their second almost feels like a bigger deal – an intimate dinner with Shepherd’s daughter. What would he have done if their relationship hadn’t worked out, as so many early dates don’t? Would he take every girl to a state event? Introduce them all to his daughter so quickly? While I have no problem with the President having as much (CONSENSUAL!) sex as he wants, I don’t know if I am as happy with the idea of him as a very public serial dater. If it became a habit, dazzling his dates with glitzy events in order to charm the pants off them starts to look a little fuckboy-esque…
And although Aaron Sorkin doesn’t go into it as, sadly, he is not famed for his portrayal of women, Wade’s character does present an interesting case study of how the Patriarchy and misogynistic attitudes towards sex are more complicated for people socialised as women. I mentioned earlier that she couldn’t have said no to the President’s request for a date, but she was actually risking a lot by saying yes! Her credibility, her dating prospects, her career. Everything she does in the future will be tainted by her association with the President – both if their relationship succeeds or not. He will get implied credit for everything she achieves, just as she will be blamed for everything that goes wrong after they get together. It sucks!
I’m also sad that Sorkin chose to fall back on such old cliches to explain why Wade is single. It really is truly wonderful to have protagonists in their age bracket – and frankly revolutionary that Wade was allowed to be a contemporary age to her lover. Douglas was 51 when The American President was released and Bening was 37 so it was still a 14 year age gap but so much better than usual! But why did she have to be married to her career? Why the subtle implication that professional women are undateable? As the Rewatchables suggested, she just moved to Washington and is living with her sister – it would have taken just one line of exposition to give her an ex-boyfriend or ex-husband in her previous city, and it would have felt more realistic.
But despite these concerns, the final result is very sweet and very believable because Douglas and Bening are perfect. Absolutely perfect! To directly quote from The Rewatchables, they manage to ‘very delicately thread a needle…beautiful, sexy, confident looking people but also with that little hint of human frailty that you need in order to pull off the clumsiness with which their relationship starts.’ And I do love all the comic goofiness that is a core part of all romcoms, despite the fact that they usually annoy me. I definitely believe this mistaken identity over the phone because why would she suspect the President would call her? And I love the difficulties Shepherd has with everyday activities, like buying flowers, because why would he need to be able to do that?! It’s cute and it’s believable.
AND this is a movie where I do actually like Douglas as a love interest. Unlike my vague disgust in Basic Interest and a franker dislike in Fatal Attraction, I like Shepherd and, while I don’t fancy him, I can see why Wade does. And I would certainly vote for him!
Which, of course, is the most important aspect of The American President and why I particularly wanted to write about it in this of all weeks.
Because, through this movie and through Shepherd’s portrayal of the President, we are able to fall back in love with the idea of The President of the United States as aspiration, as a good man, as a leader and moral guide.
I live in the UK so I am not as invested in the presidency as my American friends, but he is the leader of the free world. He is a figurehead for democracy and who the President is does have implications for the rest of the world.
But I found researching The American President fascinating because, even back in 1995, Andrew Shepherd’s President was considered to be almost too good to be true; too aspirational to be really president at a time when so much faith had been lost in the role. 1995!! Before Lewinski, before 9/11, before white supremacy and fake news, before social media and deranged Twitter rants, the President was already a disappointment. Roger Ebert wrote in his contemporary review that when he ‘was growing up, “thepresidentoftheUnitedStates” was one word, said reverently, and embodied great power and virtue. Now the title is like the butt of a joke.’ I say again – Trump, ai ai ai! If only they knew what was to come…
And so maybe this is a romcom for us now, for our age. A romcom that allows us to fall back in love with the idea that the ‘connections that tie the government and the governed are primarily emotional’ and that those emotions needn’t be abusive. That this relationship can be kind of wonderful when the President is a Good Man. This movie has many strengths, but the most wholesome is that it reawakens is ‘simple affection for the presidency.’
Now, I don’t know if Biden is that good man and I doubt that anyone will ever meet the high standards of moral and liberal excellence than Aaron Sorkin creates in his Presidents (Barlet for America forever), but we are certainly a hell of a lot closer than we were. And that is abso-fucking-lutely fabulous!!
The film makes clear to its audience that President Shepherd is better than his Republican presidential opponent, Bob Rumson, not because of anything we’re told about Rumson’s policies or vision for the country, but because Shepherd is charming and well-educated and appreciative of America in a nerdy, tell-stories-about-the-Founders-at-cocktail parties kind of way.
meant to understand that the obvious better-ness exists not just on a political level, but a moral one.
The other thing The American President insists on, just like The West Wing, is the moral goodness of big government itself. The film, too, has faith in the convening power of politics. It, too, is progress porn.
NEXT WEEK… On the Basis of Sex