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Calming D.C.'s Movie Critics

Viacom quietly works Capitol Hill to avert a backlash to a 9/11 film by director Oliver Stone.

July 30, 2006|Jim Puzzanghera | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- It wasn't a new White House initiative or pending bill that preoccupied Rep. Peter T. King one day this spring.

It was Oliver Stone.

The director's political, conspiracy-tinged movies such as "JFK" and "Salvador" had made him a scourge of conservatives. King was concerned that Stone's upcoming film, "World Trade Center," would take a provocative look at the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

King, whose Long Island district was home to scores of 9/11 victims, peppered Paramount Pictures representatives with questions as they showed him the trailer in his Capitol Hill office in May.

"I asked them several times: Are there any Oliver Stone conspiracies in there?" King recalled. "Is it going to be, 'Bush really did it? Clinton really did? Lyndon Johnson really did it?' I was concerned this would be like a 9/11 version of 'JFK.' "

The meeting was part of a quiet, preemptive effort by Paramount and parent Viacom Inc. to head off any political backlash to Stone's movie.

Executives have been reassuring congressional leaders, White House staff members and lawmakers who represent the New York area, such as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), that Stone is telling a nonpartisan tale of heroism, not advancing his political agenda.

"People were beginning to form ideas about what the movie might be about," said DeDe Lea, Viacom's senior vice president for government relations. "And rather than wait for those ideas to be formed, we thought, 'Let's get in there early and explain what the movie is about.' "

Viacom's effort to reassure lawmakers underscores how important having smooth relations in Washington is to the media giant, which has at stake such issues as indecency and cable-TV regulations. Viacom this week showed lawmakers the movie, which opens Aug. 9 and tells the story of two Port Authority police officers trapped in the rubble of the twin towers.

Universal Pictures' "United 93," chronicling the on-board passenger rebellion that resulted in one hijacked 9/11 airplane crashing in a Pennsylvania field, was the first major studio film dealing with the terrorist attacks. But that movie was by a relatively unknown director, not a Hollywood lightning rod such as Stone. Universal did not brief any Washington politicians before the film's release this spring, a spokeswoman said.

Viacom and Paramount sensed higher hurdles for "World Trade Center," given its bigger scale, a well-known cast that includes Nicolas Cage and its polarizing filmmaker. Adding to the tensions are upcoming elections in which the congressional balance of power could be at stake.

For many Republicans, Stone falls just below "Fahrenheit 9/11" documentarian Michael Moore on their enemies list of Hollywood filmmakers.

Although Stone's 1991 movie "JFK" suggested a Kennedy assassination conspiracy led by Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson, it also asserted a cabal of right-wing anti-Communists was behind the killing.

His 1995 film "Nixon" portrayed the former GOP president as a borderline psychopath. "Salvador" in 1986 was critical of President Reagan's Central American policy. And some believe Stone's most recent film, 2004's "Alexander," contained a subtle indictment of President Bush and the Iraq war.

So Viacom followed an old Washington adage: Spotlight your problem, said Eric Ueland, chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.). Ueland saw the trailer, which he said appeared to back up the studio's description of a "straightforward presentation of a very difficult day."

Although Stone "has a reputation as being very political, the product I saw didn't seem to put forward any sort of aggressive point of view," said Ueland, who discussed what he saw with Frist.

Suspicions about conspiracy theories were behind the first questions at each of Viacom's approximately one dozen meetings in Washington, Lea said, but the company's presentation seemed to ease those fears.

"Some were emotional ... but they were all very thankful and grateful that we came in to give them a heads up about the movie," she said. "No one came back to us and said you wasted your time."

A Washington veteran, Lea had suggested that key politicians be briefed after she saw dailies of the film this year. She wanted to get ahead of any potential criticism and help lawmakers from the New York area answer questions from constituents. Stone did not attend any of the briefings.

Concerns about the movie haven't been limited to Republicans.

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), whose district includes parts of the Bronx and New York's suburbs, described "JFK" as a mix of "one part truth" and "half part fiction." He hopes "World Trade Center" is different, but he may pass on the screening because that day in 2001 still resonates with him emotionally.

"If I don't go, it's not out of any kind of protest out of what they've done," he said. "I just don't know if I'm up to it."

King said his meeting with the studio representatives had allayed his concerns. He's even looking forward to watching the movie.

"I think it's important for the country to see it," King said.

Some conservative activists who got an early screening say Stone surprised them.

Brent Bozell, president of the Parents Television Council, called the film a masterpiece.

And syndicated columnist Cal Thomas called it "one of the greatest pro-American, pro-family, pro-faith, pro-male, flag-waving, God Bless America films you will ever see."

"Whatever one thinks of Oliver Stone," he wrote, "the man knows how to make movies."

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