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Looking for political meanings in films during election time

Steven Spielberg is delaying the release of 'Lincoln' until after the presidential election to avoid claims of politicking. Harvey Weinstein's 'SEAL Team Six' about Osama bin Laden's killing is showing this weekend. Are such films influential?

October 30, 2012|By Scott Collins, Ben Fritz and Rebecca Keegan
  • Steven Spielberg, left, and Daniel Day-Lewis discuss "Lincoln" at a special screening.
Steven Spielberg, left, and Daniel Day-Lewis discuss "Lincoln"… (Bryan Bedder / Getty Images…)

Steven Spielberg knows the dust that can be kicked up when Hollywood takes up political themes in the weeks before a closely contested presidential election.

So the veteran director didn't take any chances with his new "Lincoln" movie, pushing back the release until the weekend after the Tuesday election.

"The movie coming out after the election gives the film at least a chance to stand on its own," Spielberg said in an interview. The filmmaker said he wanted the historical drama to be viewed in the context of its own time, not the present.

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With Democratic incumbent Barack Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney locked in a close race, partisans on both sides are looking for hidden propaganda from the entertainment industry, which enjoys a cultural prominence like few others.

Some political moves are overt. Clint Eastwood, who squared off against an empty chair at the Republican National Convention, made a commercial on behalf of GOP candidate Romney last week. Barbra Streisand, an icon of the Hollywood liberal elite, recently put out an "emergency" fundraising appeal for Obama.

In other cases, claims of Hollywood politicking are open to debate.

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Some Obama foes are voicing suspicions over the content and broadcast date of "SEAL Team Six," a new film backed by liberal mogul Harvey Weinstein that chronicles the Navy strike team that pursued and killed Osama bin Laden.

The film is slated to air on National Geographic Channel on Sunday and be available the next day on Netflix, which is just one day before the election.

In an article last week, the New York Times reported that "some of the Obama moments [in the film] were added at the suggestion of Mr. Weinstein" — triggering criticism that Weinstein was essentially giving Obama a free ad.

"The fact that they are releasing it two days before the election and editing the film to add the president — of course it's political," said Gerald Molen, an executive producer of the anti-Obama documentary "2016: Obama's America."

Weinstein disputes any such intent, saying Obama was included because of the crucial role he played in green-lighting the raid.

"If people think the president is a hero in the movie, that's because he is. If they think he isn't, that's their interpretation," Weinstein said in an interview. "Joe Biden was against [the raid] and that's in the movie too."

In a separate interview, director John Stockwell said Obama footage wasn't included originally because it wasn't in the film's budget.

"There was always an element of Obama in it, but we couldn't afford to buy the footage we wanted from the White House or the battlefield in Afghanistan until the Weinsteins got involved," Stockwell said. "Harvey gave us the resources to do that."

The National Geographic Channel, meanwhile, is owned by News Corp., whose chief Rupert Murdoch has been an outspoken supporter of conservative causes. A News Corp. spokeswoman did not respond to an email seeking comment.

This is hardly the first political spat for Hollywood. In 2004, Michael Moore's anti-George W. Bush film "Fahrenheit 9/11" was released amid the heat of the presidential campaign, spurring conservative complaints that entertainment industry liberals were using their resources to try to tilt the election toward Democratic nominee John Kerry.

The film became a hit, grossing $119 million at the box office — but Kerry nevertheless lost the election to GOP incumbent Bush. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who often takes up political themes in his work, has made no secret of his left-wing leanings in works such as "The West Wing," "The American President," and his most recent HBO series, "The Newsroom."

The people running Hollywood studios tend to support Democrats. DreamWorks Animation Chief Executive Jeffrey Katzenberg, for example, hosted a fundraiser at George Clooney's house in May that raised nearly $15 million for Obama's re-election effort. But the entertainment industry also includes some prominent right-leaning voices, including Eastwood, "The View" cohost Elisabeth Hasselbeck, and TV tough guys Chuck Norris and Tom Selleck.

There's no doubt that the entertainment industry can help attract attention for a presidential candidate. But others say that, despite all the sound and fury, Hollywood's role in any election is probably tangential at best.

Marty Kaplan, a USC professor who once worked for former Democratic White House contender Walter Mondale, called the SEALs film a "brilliant" ploy by Weinstein, who's as well-known for his marketing prowess as for his tendency to meddle in last-minute creative decisions.

If not for the controversy, "people wouldn't be talking about it," Kaplan said of "SEAL Team Six." "But as for any impact on the voter? The chances are pretty slim."

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