Romantic comedies are a dime a dozen, or rather, they enjoyed a resurgence in popularity in the 1990s and the early 2000. It almost seemed like the market was saturated with films about boys meeting girls, falling in love with hilarious twists and turns thrown in for good measure. Some of the films were okay. Some were horrible. One was The American President.
Written by Aaron Sorkin, The American President stars Michael Douglas as President Andrew Shepherd, Annette Bening as Sydney Ellen Wade, Michael J. Fox as Lewis Rothschild, and Martin Sheen as Andrew’s Chief of Staff A.J. MacInerny. Andrew is a widower with a teenage daughter who happens to be the President of the United States. This doesn’t stop him from being immediately smitten with Sydney, a lobbyist from Virginia who has come to Washington to help the Global Defence Group pass an environmental bill. Sydney insults Andrew twice, each time to Andrew’s amusement. The two begin a relationship that threatens Andrew’s security as president coming into the election.
The premise is simple, but Sorkin infuses it with such wit and rapid-fire dialogue. It’s easy to see why the film was successful with audiences and critics alike when it was released in 1995. Of course, not only was the writing spot on, the acting was so adorable, it was almost like watching a high school romance set in the Oval Office. Surprisingly, it doesn’t diminish the story at all.
At the heart of The American President is drama. There is drama between Sydney and Andrew when Andrew is a coward and chooses a weak crime bill over the environmental bill Sydney was hired to get passed through the Senate. There is drama between Lewis and Andrew from the get-go because Andrew doesn’t want to spark the gun debate so close to reelection year. There is drama, later, between A.J. and Andrew that explodes over a pool game after Sydney leaves Andrew. So, there’s no doubt that this is a romantic dramedy as opposed to strict romcom. Somehow, Sorkin makes it work. The way he infuses politics with the romantic angle of the story is seamless. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the perfect predecessor to Sorkin’s critically acclaimed TV drama The West Wing.
The reason I say this is because this is the perfect audition tape for Sheen who later went on to portray President Josiah “Jed” Bartlet in the NBC series. Sorkin also used a lot of the material he cut from The American President in scripts for The West Wing.
Similarities aside, Sheen and the cast do a marvelous job of portraying their characters. Fox as Rothschild is a firecracker. If you don’t watch TV anymore, like myself, and miss his guest performances in TV shows. This film reminds you how brilliant an actor Fox is. It’s also a showcase for the talents of Douglas as well. Douglas, of course, is making a name for himself to the younger generations in the Marvel Universe right now as Hank Pym. Ket’s be honest, Andrew Shepherd is nothing like Hank Pym. Andrew is charming and a bit of a good ol’ boy who believes in courting women properly. He’s smart just in a completely different way than Hank.
Bening and Douglas’ chemistry is off the charts adorable. They really do act like high schoolers in the White House which simply endears the audience to their characters. Though, when she’s not being love-struck by Andrew, Sydney is a firecracker. She holds her own against the various other veteran actors in the cast. She stands toe-to-toe with them in many scenes that had me cheering.
Honestly, The American President is a romantic dramedy the world didn’t know it needed. The film is still poignant today. So, shelve those other romcoms and watch this film for a truly unique film that balances politics, wit, and romance in a way most movies wouldn’t dream of doing.