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The Nation

Hollywood sees politics as a plot

As the campaigns get into full swing, movies take a political turn. Historically, such films are not box office hits.

September 07, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer

The president believes he is above the law. America hasn't been caring for its soldiers. Liberals have no clue about what makes our country great.

These are precisely the kinds of declarations you would expect to hear in the midst of the election season. Yet these arguments come not from any presidential candidate or congressional campaign but from several politically minded movies that are to arrive in theaters over the next several weeks.

The people behind these films -- which include an indictment of the CIA and its interrogation techniques and a conservative comedy lampooning a Michael Moore-like muckraker -- are betting that the presidential election season will make moviegoers more inclined to sample their topical stories.

"George W. Bush barely even got a mention at the Republican National Convention, and that to me is fascinating," said Oliver Stone, director of the fictionalized presidential biography "W.," due in theaters Oct. 17.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 09, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 46 words Type of Material: Correction
Political movies: In an article in Sunday's Section A on upcoming Hollywood films with political themes, a photo caption referred to "W.," a film about George W. Bush directed by Oliver Stone, as a "fictional autobiography." It should have said the movie is a fictionalized biography.

Some of the filmmakers are holding out hope that their movies might inform and change policy debates -- or even play a starring role in the cultural conversation.

If the latest box office history is a guide, however, these movies may find only a small audience, as today's moviegoers seem to prefer by a wide margin forget-your-cares escapism over intellectual engagement, especially when it comes to current events.

Recent films about war and the Middle East -- "Rendition," "Stop-Loss," "In the Valley of Elah" and the Oscar-winning documentary "Taxi to the Dark Side" among them -- failed to attract large audiences.

But rather than try to downplay their movies' political plots, several filmmakers used the just-concluded party conventions to drum up interest in their forthcoming movies.

David Zucker, director and co-writer of "An American Carol," showed his film to more than 2,000 guests at the Republican National Convention. Stuart Townsend, writer and director of "Battle in Seattle," took his drama about 1999's World Trade Organization demonstrations to both conventions. "Battle" is due Sept. 26; "Carol" is due Oct. 3.

"My intention is that when people see the film, they connect to the characters and they want to learn more," Townsend said.

In addition to "W.," "Battle in Seattle" and "An American Carol," the lineup of new movies about government, public policy, citizenship and personal beliefs includes:

* "Body of Lies." An ends-justify-the-means CIA bureaucrat (Russell Crowe) and an idealistic operative (Leonardo DiCaprio) star in director Ridley Scott's Mideast terrorist drama, which opens Oct. 10.

* "The Lucky Ones." Written and directed by Neil Burger, the road comedy due out Sept. 26 follows three Iraq veterans as they return home to a United States that seems indifferent to their personal and physical sacrifices.

* "Religulous." Comedian and talk show host Bill Maher stars in director Larry Charles' documentary, due Oct. 3, about what some people, including Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), have to say about faith and religion, almost all of which Maher belittles.

* "Slacker Uprising." Firebrand Michael Moore's new documentary will be available for free Internet downloads starting Sept. 23. The film follows Moore's efforts to register young (and indifferent) voters in 2004.

* "Frost/Nixon." Director Ron Howard's adaptation of Peter Morgan's play about the machinations and revelations of the interview between the British talk show host David Frost and the disgraced president is to open Dec. 5.

Despite Hollywood's reputation for liberal beliefs, the films are not consistently partisan, and several writers and directors have labored to make sure their works are not dogmatic.

Morgan said that in writing "Frost/Nixon" for the stage and adapting it for the screen (both versions star Frank Langella as Richard M. Nixon and Michael Sheen as Frost), he tried to avoid making his fictionalized interpretation of 1977 interviews feel like a modern parable, even though the story hinges on the idea of executive privilege.

"If anything, I went back to the text to take things out. I didn't want it to be viewed in the context as a metaphor for Iraq and the Bush presidency," Morgan said.

And Burger said his depiction of soldiers on leave from Iraq (Tim Robbins, Rachel McAdams and Michael Pena) in "The Lucky Ones" is not intended to score partisan points. Rather, he said, it's a movie about strangers in their own land. "It's looking at the changing American landscape, the changing American character, and the changing American spirit," Burger said.

Scott hopes his "Body of Lies" will be both entertaining and illuminating; that it will not only dramatize how difficult foreign affairs can be -- "Whoever is in charge, the job is impossible," the director said -- but also spark meaningful after-screening conversations about how to grapple with terrorism.

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