The Worst Speech in Political History: the Tragedy of The American President

The Worst Speech in Political History: the Tragedy of The American President

The plot of 2010’s cable news channels eerily echoes the 1995 film The American President.

The President’s popularity soars. His ambitious legislative agenda seems inevitable. His party is united behind him while his opposition is disorganized and ineffectual.

Then things change.

The opposition gets its act together, rallying around issues that have little to do with the legislation in question.  Those attacks and a sense of inaction drive the President’s approval ratings way down. It’s an election year, so members of his own party start pulling away, refusing to support the President’s agenda for fear of riding a sinking ship into election day.

Sound familiar? It’s the plot of both 2010’s cable news channels and of the 1995 film The American President.

Notorious Hollywood liberal types Rob Reiner and Aaron Sorkin made The American President, the romantic story of a widower Democratic President Andrew Shepherd, who falls in love with an environmental lobbyist. Their courtship becomes a major political issue as his reelection campaign heats up, driving down the President’s poll numbers, derailing his legislative agenda, and threatening his chances of reelection. Yesterday, Mr. Perich posted a great piece on the traditional romantic comedy theme of love vs career.  The American President exemplifies that sort of movie, but when the career in question is the Presidency of the United States of America, you’ve got to wonder if love is the answer in this particular case.  Given the consequences for the country and the world, the political suicide of Andrew Shepherd makes this film not only a sort of political pornography for liberals, but a full blown tragedy as well.

The American President was made in the middle of President Bill Clinton’s first term, and the film gets a lot of mileage out of the Clinton presidency. It takes a firm stand on the issue of whether or not the public has a right to know about a politician’s personal life and parodies the hysteria over Hilary Clinton’s influence over the President’s decisions.  In his internal struggle over whether to fight the fights that need fighting or the fights that he can win, Shepherd echoes the liberal criticism of Clinton’s early years, when instead of health care reform, America got NAFTA.

In the 1992 campaign, James Carville famously said “It’s the economy, stupid,” but in the early 90’s, the other hot-button political issue of the day was crime. With the Soviets out of the game, we needed something else to be afraid of, so pundits made their fortunes predicting soaring murder rates as a generation of angry teenagers took to the streets (this was also only a few years after Dukakis got beat by Willie Horton).

As the film opens, President Andrew Shepherd (Michael Douglas) has responded with “the crime bill.” Polling shows that the administration’s high approval rating (63%) will plummet if he can’t get the bill passed. All we know about the bill is that his staff thinks it won’t be effective because it doesn’t do anything to limit handguns or assault weapons. He’s leaving the guns out because he knows that the National Rifle Association (NRA) will crush the bill in Congress if those provisions are included.

As his staff has just discussed:
A. J. MacInerney: Oh, and Leon, don’t be the nice, sweet guy from Brooklyn on this one. Do what the NRA does.
Leon Kodak: What, scare the s#!t out of them?
A. J. MacInerney: Exactly.
Leon Kodak: I can do that.

For those who don’t know, the NRA is probably the most effective lobbying organization in the United States. Founded by the gun industry decades ago, they’re incredibly well funded, have a rabid base of supporters all over the country and can cost a politicians thousands of votes if they decide to take him/her out. In a close race, the NRA can make the difference. They haven’t been in the news too much lately because nobody’s introducing any legislation to even inconvenience people looking to buy guns. In other words, they’ve won.

The other bill in the film is bill #455, which will reduce the emissions from fossil fuels by 20%. 15 years later, it would still be the most significant piece of environmental legislation in history. Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), a hired gun lobbyist for the fictional Global Defense Council, first meets the President while lobbying for this bill. It’s love at first sight.

As their relationship progresses, it becomes the target of media scrutiny, with the whole world wanting to know about the President’s girlfriend. Presumptive Republican nominee, Senator Bob Rumson (played by Richard Dreyfuss – this was before Bob Dole started his acting career), starts activating his base, questioning the influence of this left-wing lobbyist who’s literally in bed with the President. When she’s caught after spending the night in the White House and a picture surfaces of a younger Sydney standing behind a burning flag at an Apartheid protest, even the independents start questioning the morality of having a “First Mistress” and the patriotism of President Shepherd. Within weeks, his approval rating drops from 63% to 41%.

President Shepherd drops from 63% to 41% approval in three months.

Positioning themselves away from Shepherd, moderate Democrats with tough reelection campaigns start bailing on the crime bill. Michael J. Fox channels a future White House Chief of Staff and calls one cowardly Congressman a “chicken s#!t lame-ass.” Fox is clothed at the time. Desperate to pass the bill, the President cuts a deal to shelve the climate bill in return for three votes. Sydney dumps him. Recognizing that he’s made the wrong choice, the President storms into the press room less than an hour before the State of the Union address and delivers this climactic speech:

With 35 minutes to go and the approval of Helen Thomas, they rewrite the State of the Union, Sydney comes back, and Congress stands up to applaud wildly as the President walks in the House chamber to deliver his speech.

Warm, fuzzy feelings abound. With this single speech, we’re led to believe, President Shepherd has saved his relationship, his presidency, his party, and the American dream.

But if history has taught us anything, it’s that soaring rhetoric can start a movement, but it’s only the beginning.  Fiery speeches started the American revolution, but there was still a war to win.  Obama inspired a nation, but we’re still working on health care.  Shepherd’s speech was inspiring, personal and powerful, but it was only the beginning of the end.

Here’s what really happened next:

With major changes to his State of the Union made at the last minute and his attention focused on Sydney, Shepherd has had no time to practice the new draft. With only seconds to load it into the teleprompter and no time for copy-editing, the speech itself is rife with errors, its flow and transitions shot to hell. He’s a professional, so it’s not awful, but there are a couple of fumbles and the speech doesn’t do anything to shift the focus away from his personal life.

Then the fun begins.

The blogosphere wasn't around in 1996, but Matt Drudge had already started doing his thing.

When Shepherd made the deal to get votes for the crime bill by sacrificing the climate bill, it became clear that there was at least some bipartisan support for an anti-crime package – traditionally a Republican favorite. The NRA was ok with it, and presumably Shepherd, because he left guns out of the bill. He’s now thrown the bill out, enraging the NRA in the process by saying he’ll “go door to door” to “get the guns.” He has deprived Democratic Members of Congress a vote that could make them look tough on crime and replaced it with a purely partisan vote on a climate bill that the Republicans will call a “job-killer.” Meanwhile, the big oil companies, which spend millions of dollars a year fighting any sort of climate legislation are now going to be spending that money against vulnerable Democrats who support #455 (FYI: The oil and gas industry spent more $168 million on lobbying in 2009).  States that produce a lot of fossil fuels and lots of gun owners suddenly start moving into Rumson’s column – West Virginia (5 electoral votes), Michigan(18) and Pennsylvania(23).

Meanwhile, Senator Rumson has been attacking Shepherd for putting an unelected left-wing lobbyist in an incredibly sensitive and powerful position. How does Shepherd respond? He makes a major policy decision for the sole purpose of making his girlfriend happy. In private, he tells Sydney that he didn’t do it for her, but that’s not what the public record says.

The next morning countless news stories will recount the public details: Wade dumps Shepherd, Shepherd admits that he’s lost her in that press conference, then announces that her bill is the new priority for his administration, then she shows up with him at the State of the Union. The advance copies of the State of the Union had gone out to the press hours before the revisions were made, so they will be able to compare the two speeches and give specific examples of the power of Sydney Ellen Wade.  Add the premarital sex scandal into that and more culturally conservative states like New Mexico(5) and Arizona(8) start looking bad.

Shepherd has just proven Rumson right beyond a shadow of a doubt, a fact that the right is going to be crowing about for the next 10 months. Older men tend to vote Republican, and even those who do vote Democrat are more likely to suspect a woman in a powerful position.  Then the morning talk shows start parsing the press conference, pointing out that Shepherd went on the attack, publicly criticizing Rumson while standing in front of that big White House symbol. Tradition has always held that a President shouldn’t campaign from the White House and older women voters who traditionally lean Democrat, also tend to be turned off by violations of this kind of tradition and can be turned off by personal attacks, reducing their likelihood of turning out to vote. That hurts Shepherd, but also hurts other Democrats in close races. Even the White House press corps frowns on this sort of thing coming from the Administration.  Older voters abandon the Democrats or stay home – now you’re losing aging states like Ohio(21) and Florida(25).

But he’s not done – he hasn’t patronized middle America yet. In a dismissive, mocking tone, Shepherd describes Rumson’s strategy: “That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you win elections. You gather a group of middle-aged, middle-class, middle-income voters who remember with longing an easier time, and you talk to them about family and American values and character.” Those middle-class, middle-income voters are bound to start wondering what’s wrong with family and American values.

Think the Midwest value voters still like you too much? Why not combine two sensitive topics: flag burning and children. “The symbol of your country can’t just be a flag; the symbol also has to be one of its citizens exercising his right to burn that flag in protest,” Shepherd says. “Show me that, defend that, celebrate that in your classrooms.” The newspapers may be looking at policy shifts in the Shepherd Administration, but Rush Limbaugh spends the next week talking about the President’s plan to teach America’s children to burn flags. There go the veterans and the soccer moms.  Say goodbye to Iowa(7).

So let’s take a look at the score:
It takes 270 electoral votes to win the Presidency.  In 1996, in addition to the usual blue states, Clinton won the swing states of Arizona, Florida, Iowa, Michigan, New Mexico, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia -a total of 112 electoral votes.

Clinton beats Dole 379 to 159 in the Electoral College.

In this single speech, Shepherd alienated voters in every one of those swing states.  Meanwhile, the climate bill stalls when moderate Democrats refuse to sign on and the President’s agenda flounders for an entire year. Rumson, riding a tide of moral outrage and policy failures, spends his massive campaign war chest in the right places.     In November, Shepherd loses them all, earning a total of 267 electoral votes to Rumson’s 271.   He and Sydney retire to Wisconsin, emerging only to film bipartisan pleas for assistance with Dave and the other fictional Presidents whenever there’s a big natural disaster.

Thanks to Shepherd’s love for his girlfriend, Compassionate Conservatism gets a four year head-start.  That’s a tragedy, in my book.

30 Comments on “The Worst Speech in Political History: the Tragedy of The American President”

  1. mlawski OTI Staff #

    I really love this article, but it makes my heart weep. Long ago I lost my optimism re: the real world. Must you take away my Sorkin-penned wish-fulfillment fantasies, too?


  2. Caroline #

    I saw this movie for the first time when I was about twelve. Right at the moment I was getting swept up in the speech at the end, my dad walked into the room, listened to a few lines, and said, “Well, he’s not going to be president much longer.” He didn’t go into the detail that you did in this article, but you’re both right.

    In some ways the most surprising thing about The American President is that someone as politically naive as Andrew Shepherd managed to get elected in the first place. They do say that he made it because his wife’s death protected him from character attacks, but one would think he would have caught on to a few political realities. The film follows a painfully mismanaged scandal that could have been averted if he had listened to his advisors, instead of going off the rails – first by refusing to comment, and then by giving a statement without considering its ramifications.

    However, as fanciful and unrealistic President Shepherd’s very presidency is, his staffers are insightful and savvy (they just get ignored a lot). And the confrontation between Lewis Rothschild and Andrew Shepherd in the oval office has some excellent insights into the modern political game, (“They don’t have a choice! Bob Rumson is the only one doing the talking! People want leadership, Mr. President, and in the absence of genuine leadership, they’ll listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone”)


  3. Matthew Belinkie OTI Staff #

    This is some absolutely tremendous overthinking. The man actually stands up there and says:
    a) I’ve just been dumped.
    b) I am all of a sudden introducing the exact piece of legislation my lobbyist ex-girlfriend has been bugging me about.
    c) I will come to your house and TAKE ALL YOUR GUNS.

    His approval rating goes to 20% overnight. All those people who DEFENDED his relationship with Sydney Ellen Wade now look like idiots. She’s instantly the most hated woman in America.

    It’s a tribute to how good a writer Aaron Sorkin is that he somehow makes the speech seem like a triumph, and not a trainwreck.

    – Matt


  4. Ed #

    This sounds like a really dumb movie, so this is a pretty extreme piece of overthinking.

    “The film follows a painfully mismanaged scandal that could have been averted if he had listened to his advisors, instead of going off the rails – first by refusing to comment, and then by giving a statement without considering its ramifications.”

    This is not a bad description of Clinton’s second term. And given what Clinton accomplished in his second term, I’m not sure even from a liberal point of view whether a Dole victory in 1996 would have changed much. I assume the Dreyfus character is modelled more on Dole than on Dubya.


  5. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Ed: This may be my love of Aaron Sorkin talking, but The American President is actually (in my opinion) a pretty good movie. Josh is right, of course; the end is unrealistic. (I’d also argue that it may seem more unrealistic today in 2010, given America’s current political “discourse,” than it did back when it first premiered.) OK – it’s unrealistic, but that’s like saying that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is a really dumb movie because of its overly-idealistic ending. And I hope we can all agree that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington is totes awesome.

    I guess the question is, Should all movies be realistic all the time? Or are movies allowed to be “unrealistic” in order to inspire their viewers? Or, more generally, should art reflect life, or can it be a better version of life, one that inspires viewers to change their world in order to live up to the artistic fantasy?

    I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts on these issues.


    • Deb Blouin #

      The truth is that the liberal left does want the guns. And they want the ability to go house to house if necessary. That this movie was made in 1995, and the article was written in 2010, demonstrates that the Left has no self awareness, no respect for the constitutional rights of its citizens, and no capacity for introspection.
      But you know, in 2018, I am ok with that.


  6. Caroline #

    I am also a huge fan of Aaron Sorkin, and my knowledge that the conclusion of The American President would not have gone well had it been duplicated in reality doesn’t take away from my enjoyment of it at all. “My name is Andrew Shepherd and I AM the president.” I want to applaud at that moment, even though it comes at the end of the worst speech in political history.

    Whether or not all movies should always be realistic seems like a personal preference thing, but I say no. Unrealistic situations, coincidences, strokes of luck, fantastic situations, broke people in beautiful New York apartments, etc don’t take away from my movie-going experience. Sometimes they enhance it.

    However, for me to enjoy a movie, the characters have to ring true. A story may be off the wall, but I need it to be populated with characters that make sense and that I can accept as real, even in the confines of a fantastic situation. So I really enjoy The American Politics, because the characters are consistent and make sense in the world they populate. I didn’t enjoy Youth in Revolt, because the characters were inconsistent, and didn’t respond authentically with their environment.


  7. Caroline #

    As far as the Dreyfus character goes, I might say that he’s more like Cheney than Dole or W. He’s pretty much as evil, cynical, and manipulative a Republican as a movie character can be.


  8. mcneil OTI Staff #

    I wasn’t trying to put this movie down. In fact, I think it’s much more satisfying if the take away is not that all is well, but that he has sacrificed his career both for love and for the sake of doing the right thing. Sorkin’s writing in The American President and the West Wing was one of the things that inspired me to work in political communications. I wanted to write like that, to work with people like his characters, and to change the world. The fact that I’m starting to look like Toby from WW is thus a bittersweet development.


  9. Dan #

    This was a phenomenal piece – with the exception of the Compassionate Conservatism being ‘tragic’ thing. The film itself was enjoyable on a basic level. However, given my conservative leanings, the older I get the more offensive I find this film to be. It’s no secret that Reiner et al are the preeminent Hollywood liberal elite, which clearly explains the propaganda-as-entertainment tone The American President takes. But this thing beats you over the head almost as violently as M*A*S*H or Avatar. Dreyfuss’ character may as well be wearing a t-shirt saying ‘The Republican Boogey Man – I Roast Babies’. I’m quite certain that had this film been released in 2002, an image of Bin Laden would appear with a (R) next to his name during news breaks and the movie would be rife with conspiracy theories.

    But I digress. The viewer is treated in a manner that unless YOU would vote for Prop 455, you’re somehow morally inferior to the protagonists. If you’re a Republican, you may as well stop watching the movie and go roast a baby somewhere. Cuz that’s the sort of thing Republicans probably do, right?

    Lewis Rothschild (Michael J. Fox) is dead on in his observations and advice, but the president routinely marginalizes him. Of course, at the end he finally stands up and fires his guns right into Bob Rumson’s teeth – all with no apology or even acknowledgment afterward of Rothschild’s attempts to convince him to stand up to Rumson in the first place. Ungrateful bastard. It’s all about his woman.

    I’m a sucker for romance, but if you choose a fling in favor of the presidency of the United States and by progression the potential political stability of the nation (which this article beautifully details), you deserve to lose your job.

    My 2 cents, anyway.


  10. Caroline #

    I’m not sure that it’s fair to say that the film is “propoganda-as-entertainment” just because it is about a Democratic president dating a liberal lobbyist and facing a less-than-savory Republican challenger. The politics of the movie seem secondary. Sidney is an environmental lobbyist, but not because she is an environmentalist. Her passion for the bill cutting fossil fuel emissions doesn’t spring from the save-the-Earth urges in her soul, but because she was hired to pass it. Similarly, the President Shepherd’s decision to “stick it in a drawer” isn’t unsavory because the bill is the “right” thing (though several characters believe it is), but because by doing so he is breaking a promise he made to Sidney/the GDC purely for political gain. His choice is bad because he is compromising his character for a better approval rating.

    And although Rumson is both a Republican and a bad person, I would not expand that fact to mean that the film is saying that all Republicans are bad people. Since the story is more about how character attacks play out in the media and with the public, there’s really no place for nuanced political debate. If you watch The West Wing – which is like if Andrew Shepherd’s wife hadn’t died, he actually was a Nobel winning economist rather than having studied under one, and he was Martin Sheen – you get to see a much more detailed look at process, politics, and a fairly evenhanded view of party politics. Again, the protagonists are Democrats and express Democrat beliefs. But there are good and bad Democrats as well as good and bad Republicans.


  11. Dan #


    I understand your point and would agree with it had it been another film. The depiction of Rumson, in my view, was meant to be a microcosm of the Republican party as viewed by the film makers. This can be seen when he’s in the sitting room with the other Repubs after the White House dinner. ‘They’ are already plotting their attack on Shepherd’s character as they explain to another congressman who’s been out of the loop that ‘…the president’s got a girlfriend’. Cue mocking snickers and derisive laughs. All that’s missing is a white cat in his lap as he twists the ends of his mustache.

    Unless I’m utterly blind or incompetent, I can’t find one instance in this film where any Republican/conservative is depicted in a respectable light.

    And my…distaste…of the film is not an attack on Sorkin per se, but even according to Wikipedia he and Rob Reiner (what a shock) were hired by to create one of their anti-Bush ads during the 2004 election. Not exactly someone I’m going to lend a great deal of credence to in the politically unbiased arena.


  12. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @mcneil: Don’t put yourself down! When I first watched The West Wing as a teenager, my favorite character was Josh. But when I rewatched the show as an adult with my boyfriend, the best character was clearly Toby. So your growing into Toby is clearly a sweet-sweet development, not a bittersweet one. Although I guess that can’t be too good for your psychology… Toby did always seem vaguely depressed, didn’t he?


  13. Jon Eric #

    @Dan & Caroline,

    You’re both right. Of course the film has bias; that’s the problem with political fiction. Most good stories have a “good guy” and a “bad guy.” The former you root for, and the latter is in the former’s way. If you’re going to write fiction about U.S. presidential politics, unfortunately, you have to pick a party. So, in this film (D)=good and (R)=bad. If Sorkin were politically conservative himself, that configuration would likely have been flipped. I don’t think that either configuration is inherently right or wrong, but it’s definitely good if you know what you’re getting into before you start watching the movie.

    Can anyone think of an example of political fiction that is itself neutral/nonpartisan, or at least written from a neutral/nonpartisan standpoint? My gut instinct is that it can’t be done, though maybe someone out there has already proven me wrong.


  14. lee OTI Staff #

    Independence Day?

    Only half joking…


  15. Matthew #

    If a big gun ban passed, the President probably wouldn’t have to worry about plummeting polls or reelection as the main problem trying to seize guns from NRA members is that they have guns.


  16. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @Jon Eric: Not that anyone cares, but I’d argue that all fiction, even the fiction that is not obviously about politics, is political in some fashion. Thus, it would be nearly impossible to find any film — whether it’s about Washington or about aliens blowing up the cities of Earth — that doesn’t have some kind of political bias. And isn’t that okay? Art is supposed to be by and about real people who have subjective beliefs and points of view, not robots with some kind of magic objectivity chip (as if such a thing were possible).


  17. Jon Eric #

    @Jon Eric: …I’d argue that all fiction, even the fiction that is not obviously about politics, is political in some fashion. Thus, it would be nearly impossible to find any film — whether it’s about Washington or about aliens blowing up the cities of Earth — that doesn’t have some kind of political bias. And isn’t that okay?

    Absolutely it’s okay. At least, that was my point. It seems Dan went into The American President expecting a politically neutral, or at least bipartisan, film, and that expectation seems to have soured him on the film. I don’t think it’s a bad idea, in most instances, to forearm yourself with some knowledge about the filmmakers’ personal biases before going in.


  18. Brimstone #

    I always hated this movie, and I’m a lefty. I do love the ‘why aren’t you a member of the ACLU?’ bit, though

    its strange coming to Australia… over here the gun lobby is so insignificant its basically a joke. they’re represented by the ‘Shooter’s Party’, and i don’t think they have any seats. our most popular third party is the Greens, actually

    and the Labour bastards are still trying to push through Internet censorship. grrrr


  19. Foxbat #

    So he proposed global warming legislation which we all knew was a hoax? This is still happening today people wake up!!!

    He proposed introducing legislation to take away people’s guns. Its already illegal to shoot someone. So if a criminal isn’t going to follow that rule what makes you think they will follow your gun law too? Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. Look at all the stabbing in Britain. Now they want to outlaw knives. After that it will be clubbings. And then they will outlaw clubs.

    Point being if you make having guns a crime only criminals will have them. It doesn’t make you any safer. A person with malicious intent will find a way to depribe you of your money or your life to get what they want. In Texas the knoledge that most homeowners are well armed keeps us safe at night.

    In britain people get stabbed all the time and it is just as fatal if not more since knives don’t run out of bullets.

    It was a silly movie with a silly political agenda at the time. The fact that people still consider global warming legislation even today knowing that it is a fraud is just sad.

    The writting was good enough so that people with clouded political ideas such as “guns are the real crime problem in america” might actually buy his speach. Myself, I found it to be a load of tripe.


  20. cat #

    I have thoroughly enjoyed this article and the comments that followed.

    Especially Dan and the baby roasting, mlawski combining robots (technology) with some kind of magic objectivity chip (mysticism), and “and then they will outlaw clubs and “knives don’t run out of bullets”.

    Not having seen the film, I will instead respond to mlawski and Caroline on art. I think quite obviously (at least I hope so) all movies cannot and should not be realistic all the time. How dull would the world be if we only had nonfiction? Without unrealistic elements you eliminate entire genres like fantasy, science fiction, many animated films, romantic comedy. And I like those. But outside of those there is also the compression of time and unrealistic circumstance of either a incredibly dramatic unusual event or the combination of far too many unusual events to be realistic.

    Perhaps you wish to limit this discussion to whether “art should reflect life, or can it be a better version of life, one that inspires viewers to change their world in order to live up to the artistic fantasy”. In this case, the focus is shifted to subjugating reality to prove a point or contribute to the artistic vision instead of just having something unrealistic for the sake of making a film more entertaining or some such reason. I think this connects to the discussion of bias that happened earlier in the comment section. Certainly, if one views a film as presenting a clear viewpoint (which it has to…no film can be completely blank, can it?) the scenes are a collection of evidence supporting that point. However, I do think there is something to be said for a light hand and a degree of subtlety in making this point and presenting this evidence. A fantasy world that is TOO idealistic can make that artistic fantasy seem completely unattainable, possibly causing people to stop reaching for it. Alternately, it may repel people who are opposed to the fantasy and make it easily dismissable (ahem, see comments above). But that is just a case of execution, so yes, there are merits in both representing reality and a version of reality that we wish were our own.

    New question: Connecting to that “worst speech in political history”…what if that artistic fantasy is something negative? Should we represent horrific/untasteful/etc. things on film if they are someone’s artistic vision even if they might inspire someone to make that vision a reality? Free speech? Freedom?


  21. mlawski OTI Staff #

    @cat: Re: Robots & magic computer chips – I was thinking that this sort of technology would be so advanced that it would be indistinguishable from magic :)

    Reading the rest of your comment, I was thinking about inspiring films, and especially the difference between a “heavy-handed” one and a “subtle” one. It seems to me nowadays that audiences have grown anti-heavy-handedness, which seems a good thing at first — I mean, subtlety is always better, right? But when I think about many of my favorite old movies, such as the aforementioned Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Casablanca, The Grapes of Wrath, To Kill a Mockingbird, etc…. Well, these are movies that wear their morals on their sleeves. Talk about heavy-handed! All of these films end with a climactic speech in which the hero tells the audience exactly what to believe. And yet I’d argue that these movies are some of the best of the best of all time. Explain that, subtlety-lovers.

    @Foxbat: Hey, lay off the politics. We’re an entertainment site. Now, if you want to make an argument that countries with gun bans have more knife-related rap lyrics than gun-related ones… That would be Overthinking It.


  22. Foxbat #

    Yes it was a very political post. But the speach in the movie was also very political. I was saying that it was revulting to me because it was so heavy handed. We all know the ACLU only defends the portions of the constitution that coincide with its liveral agenda. We all know that guns don’t kill people on their own. They have to be in the hand of someone with malicious intent. We all know that global warming is a fraud. So why would a speach about these 3 things be any less of a farce.

    If the film had chosen to leave the political message out and istead made the speach about a man defending the honor of the women he loved it would have been a much better movie.

    Sorry it took so long for me to put that into words.


  23. cat #

    @mlawski I’ve seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and To Kill a Mockingbird and read To Kill a Mockingbird and The Grapes of Wrath. With that out of the way, I will respond to those specific examples, knowing that the films and novels may differ in their portrayal of the material.

    Now that I think about it more (overthink it, if you will) I think there might be two ways to view heavy-handedness and subtlety. Yes, explicitly stating the main point you are trying to prove isn’t subtle. I think the examples you have chosen don’t cross into the unbelievable, though. In all of the examples I have seen/read the characters have to struggle for what they achieve and what they achieve doesn’t seem to be beyond the realm of possibility. In the case of To Kill a Mockingbird, (without spoiling anything) I think it’s obvious what the less believable alternative would have been. If everything worked out in the end and you got a PERFECT happy ending that proved that the side we had been rooting for was right, then that would have been very heavy-handed and hard to swallow. Instead, the result is a little subtler. We win, but we also lose. We learn to fight and to stand up for truth and honor and what is right although we might often lose. We will achieve change and success bit by bit, in increments.

    Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. First of all, love Jimmy Stewart. The Shop Around the Corner=one of my favorite movies. Yes, the protagonist is the embodiment of an ideal, he is naive, his actions stretch the realms of believability quite a bit. But he operates under the rules of Congress. (I think?…It’s been a while since I’ve seen the film.) The help he gets and the general exuberance and fervor in those finals scenes is a little over the top. However, the thing that finally resolves the issue of his guilt doesn’t seem to be that unbelievable. Right wins through an acceptable pattern of human behavior/relationship/interaction (I’m trying not to ruin anything).

    The Grapes of Wrath (at the least the book version). They struggle, they persevere, but it doesn’t seem impossible. It’s not as though it ends with them in a nice big house with steady employment and a guarantee that there will always be food on the table. They are still in pretty terrible circumstances, they just have hope and will continue pressing on.

    I think a film has to be somewhat believable, still grounded even if only by one root hair in reality, for it to be truly inspiring. And explicitly stating the moral doesn’t mean there isn’t subtlety elsewhere (acting, dialogue, result, etc.).

    If you made it to the end of another one of my incredibly long comments I feel like I should give you a prize. But I don’t have one. So… *pat pat*. There.


  24. Gab #

    @McNeil: _The American President_ is one of my favorite movies of all time, and at first I laughed really hard reading the piece because I love the movie so much. And then I realized you’re totally right, that if a president gave a speech like that (and followed through with changing the referenced pieces of legislation and such), it would be political suicide. So I got all grumpy. Awesome job, good Sir. :)

    But then I jump back to the discussion about what art should portray, sort of. Sure, if a president in the *real* world gave a speech like that, they’d get picked apart and left for dead, but would it really happen in the world of the movie? Hard to say- if Rumson was defeated by that speech, would there be any slimy anti-Shepherds left to do the picking? Perhaps not. Further, since Shehehrd’s staff is so politically savvy, I’m sure there are ways they could have back-pedalled and compromised without making it look like Shepherd was flat-out reneging on his promises. For example, “I’m gonna get the guns,” could be retro-grade defined as, “I’m gonna make the background checks for gun licenses much, much more stringent and make them an annual thing once a person gets theirs,” in accordance with the new bill- here, guns aren’t inherently and overarchingly illegal, it’s just a lot harder to obtain one legally, so he’s still “getting” them, in a sense. Since in the movie, all we really see are Rumson and his personal cronies and yes-men and the people in the West Wing, there is no way of telling what the tactics or methodologies of people outside those spheres are like and thus how they would react politically to the speech.

    So, the speech actually may, indeed, have worked. After all, that last shot is, as you say, of both Houses of Congress ardently applauding his entrance. Maybe they weren’t politically savvy enough to *ever* realize the potential ramifications of the speech, nor the misconduct in its delivery.

    There. That’s how it still stays happy for me. Huzzah!

    But as for that conversation about art again, I’d re-submit Caroline’s point that this is a question best left to each individual to answer for their own self. But, I’ll submit I sometimes get hung up in trite details that are in conflict with reality, even if the characters react to their world (basically) as one would expect a person in that world to react- your example, Caroline, of the arpartments, is one I get bothered by a lot, sadly. It’s (one of the myriad reasons) why I couldn’t stand _Friends_. At the same time, though, I suppose when it gets to me, there are usually other things getting to me at the same time, and they often have to do with other aspects of the writing (eg. character development, structure, dialogue, etc.). So maybe I’m nitpicky about some things, but I get that way as things add together.

    I think Caroline hit it spot on: “I think a film has to be somewhat believable, still grounded even if only by one root hair in reality, for it to be truly inspiring. And explicitly stating the moral doesn’t mean there isn’t subtlety elsewhere (acting, dialogue, result, etc.).” I really couldn’t agree more. The degrees of how grounded in reality a movie should be will vary from person to person, but you’re especially right about that second part. (Imagine Nic Cage trying to deliver that same speech as Michael Douglas. I mean… I cringe.) The skill in execution of the entire thing, and in every way, has a lot to do with how successful of an Inspire Factor a movie’s speech has.


    And Lee, I do think you’re right, at least in terms of the “political neutrality” of President Whitmore. He, too, gives an awesome speech, all-inspiring and epic- and, as is Shephard’s, *totally* unrealistic (which is partly what makes it so awesome, imo- why I love both of them is a *different* sidebar of some overthinking, but for another place, I suppose). So let’s dissect that character a bit, shall we? (Yes, yes we shall…)

    He’s a former pilot, as they insist on reminding us while he’s being criticized on TV, then later when he says his place is with the other people flying during their assault at the end. Former soldier, so this implies a Republican (for, Kerry and a few other famous ones notwithstanding, most vets and former members of the armed services tend to be Republican). But his knee-jerk reaction to negotiate and not strike with more than fighter planes, even after most of those planes are blown up, is indicative of a dove, not a hawk. While his decision to “nuke the bastards” is rather hawkish in itself, the fact that he/mankind had to be ordered to “die” by the alien he was talking to before he finally decided to use nuclear weapons is rather “sissy,” which equates to Democratic in a lot of minds. Yet what does he do, but jump into the cockpit of one of the planes launching in that last attempt at a stand- rather gung-ho, ala Custer or something/one (and thus, at least vaguely Republican, since the collective culture seems to assign this mindset/attitude to Republicans). Also, ignoring the “liberal bias” in Hollywood (since there is a notion that all movies portraying political figures are automatically going to make the “good” ones liberal and the “bad” ones conservative), it’s rather hard to tell what his politics are, since they are never stated: we only see President Whitmore in the context of the alien invasion. We hear nothing about his actual policies other than, “Can there be a peace between us?” and, “Spread the word [about how to kill these bastards].” His “people” also don’t really present their views or politics, either- they, too, are only presented in the context of the invasion. It is suggested by the television in the beginning that his approval ratings are low because he isn’t performing as expected, but what, precisely, he isn’t performing *on* is, as far as I can remember, not specified- he’s just under-performing. And his speech and responses, once the “Peace? No peace!” was heard, are probably pretty much what anybody in his position and situation would have been compelled to do. Of course, an inexperienced person wouldn’t want to fly a plane in the end, so that is something special to his character, but I’m sure even the most peaceful of world leaders would be okay with using nuclear bombs against a race that wants to exterminate ours; and it’s noble and patriotic to be willing to die for the cause, but Republicans don’t (or at least shouldn’t) have soul claim to those (although some misguided ones may try to claim they do).

    That’s all I’ve got in a spur-of-the-moment analysis- did I leave anything out?

    But yes, I do believe President Thomas Whitmore is portrayed as politically neutral.

    ::end sidebar::


  25. IronKnight #

    In the US today art is politics.
    Why else would Americans listen to a college drop-out that plays a stoner well blather on about the excellence of dictators?
    Look, this movie was about a message.
    It humanizes political activists, the President, and the President’s staff.
    It portrays a liberal POTUS that is soft on defense and strong on social policy.
    In an early scene he retaliates against Libya for blowing up Marines.
    “More significant is the issue of a “proportional response” to military attacks on American assets abroad. In The American President, Andrew Shepherd finds himself in the Situation Room having to order such an attack against Libya’s intelligence HQ after they bombed something called “C-STAD” (Capricorn Surface-To-Air Defense, a missile defense system) which had been positioned by the U.S. in Israel. He muses for a single line “Someday, someone’s gonna have to explain to me the virtue of a proportional response,” before giving the order.”” -Wikipedia.
    The mood of the scene is that he is reluctant to make such an order and only does because he has to.
    So, we have a President (read The Commander in Chief of the United States Armed Forces), who just heard that Libya purposely and deliberately attacked US forces; not accidently hit the Marines while attacking the equipment or Israelis, and he doesn’t seem to feel any personnel responsibility to retaliate? But he does want to take guns away from people.
    So, that’s two things that are in the Constitution that he does not support.
    But, hey that’s okay right, the guy is compassionate, speaks well, can do as many takes as he wants to get the speech jjjuuuusssstttt right.
    That’s cool, but hey it’s not like people have posted opinions here that describe how they support this pretend-President.



  26. Valatan #


    How many Britons die each year in drive-by knifings?


  27. Valatan #

    and apologies for the last comment. It was OT, and I’m guilty of ‘someone’s wrong on the internet’ syndrome more than most.


  28. Foxbat #


    Well in Britain when there is a knifing it is silent. Knives don’t go bang bang. So there is no need to escape quickly in a vehicle.

    If they have blood on their hoodie they turn it inside out so the blood doesn’t show and walk away.


  29. chad draxler #

    I love this movie. And these quotes. His last speech is the best


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