Hollywood set to star in US 2016 presidential race

AS the US elections swing into gear, the film industry is lining up releases that could affect the outcome, says Michael Cieply

Emma Thompson and John Travolta in 1998 film Primary Colors. Picture: Kobal

Hillary Clinton should keep an eye on George Clooney: behind that smile, he is producing a movie satire inspired by the antics of some former Clinton advisers whose wildest war stories might best be forgotten. As for Jeb Bush, it’s time to fret about Cate Blanchett. She will soon star as Mary Mapes, the CBS News producer who bored into questions about Bush family privilege during his brother’s presidential re-election campaign in 2004 (and was then fired when the 60 Minutes II report was called into question). Everybody else can sit back and enjoy the cinematic ride.

An inevitable convergence between the movies and the coming US presidential campaign season is already emerging, though few candidates have yet declared, and the first primary is still months away.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

On film schedules, there is little sign of blatant campaigning so far. The most pointedly partisan films tend to come later in the campaign cycle, as did Michael Moore’s anti-Bush Fahrenheit 9/11, which was released in June 2004, or 2016: Obama’s America, from the Obama opponents Dinesh D’Souza and John Sullivan, which opened in July of 2012.

Democratic presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton attends a presentation at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. Picture: Getty

But the political fever is building. Clinton has already announced her candidacy, while Jeb Bush may follow soon, joining Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul on the Republican side. These are critical weeks in which candidates-to-be and their consultants will seek to craft their narratives: Clinton as a grandmother with Midwestern roots who wants to help lift the middle class; Bush as a roll-up-your-sleeves, pro-business Republican with a natural connection to Hispanic voters by virtue of his wife, who was born in Mexico.

But those story lines may receive some Hollywood augmentation as movies inspired by 2016 hopefuls, and their networks of advisers and friends, take shape in editing rooms, both in the US and abroad.

No longer in the mix is Martin Scorsese’s documentary tribute to the former President Bill Clinton. That project, from HBO, stalled over questions about content and control.

But Oliver Stone, a political perennial (W, Nixon), has been at work in Germany and elsewhere on Snowden, a drama likely to bring a fresh critique of both the Bush and Obama administrations with its release by Open Road Films in December.

And the team of Kathryn Bigelow and Mark Boal, whose Zero Dark Thirty, about the hunt for Osama bin Laden, was held by Sony Pictures until just after the 2012 election, could join the scrum in 2016. That would happen if their prospective project about Sgt Bowe Bergdahl, who was held in Afghanistan for five years before being exchanged for Taliban prisoners and was then charged with desertion, suddenly snaps into place. The release of the movie could again raise the contentious political question of whether the Obama administration should have agreed to the exchange.

No release date is yet set for Our Brand Is Crisis, the consultant satire being produced by Clooney and his business partner, Grant Heslov. It is written by Peter Straughan (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy), directed by David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and will be released by Warner Bros in association with Participant Media.

The comedy stars Billy Bob Thornton and Sandra Bullock as fictionalised trouble-prone rival consultants. (Bullock’s character is known as Calamity Jane.) It is inspired by Rachel Boynton’s namesake 2005 documentary, which followed the Clinton associates James Carville and Jeremy Rosner, among others, as they used hardball American-style campaign tactics to re-elect a former Bolivian president, Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, only to see him resign in the face of violent protests.

Neither Carville (who was evoked, if not quite portrayed, by Thornton in the 1998 movie Primary Colors) nor Rosner is mentioned by name, according to people briefed on the film. But viewers are certain to look for Clinton links: Carville, who was chief strategist for Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign and remains close to the Clintons, was an adviser to Hillary Clinton’s last presidential campaign in 2008. And only recently, Rosner was listed among those with leave to work both in private business and under Clinton during her tenure as secretary of state.

Carville says he has heard that Clooney has bought the rights to the documentary but that he is not involved in the film and the filmmakers did not reach out to him to consult. “I think it’s probably smart marketing to coincide it with a political campaign,” says Carville, who is friendly with Clooney and Thornton.

Carville has caused some real-life drama for Clinton in recent weeks. A ubiquitous presence on cable news, he has defended her exclusive use of private email while at the State Department by reminding the electorate of a couple decades worth of Clinton family scandals. “Do you remember Whitewater?” he asked MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell. “You remember Filegate? You remember Travelgate? You remember Pardongate? You remember Benghazi?” Not exactly the stuff of campaign posters.

Blanchett’s film, Truth, is written and directed by James Vanderbilt and stars Robert Redford as the former CBS anchor Dan Rather. It is based on Mapes’ book, Truth and Duty: The Press, the President, and the Privilege of Power, and could surface this year as it seeks a distributor.

Jeb Bush doesn’t figure in the drama, which was shot in Australia and is still being edited, and his brother the former President George W Bush will likely appear only in news clips, if at all. But concerns about entitlement and the Bush dynasty will be prominent, as the movie tells how Mapes was fired and Rather lost his post amid questions about the authenticity of documents underpinning their examination of George W Bush’s service in the Texas Air National Guard.

“I won’t give up. I promise,” Mapes says in her book’s conclusion.

There will be more.

“Yes, we’ve seen some strong politically themed films so far,” says Cameron Bailey, the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, where some of the most sharp-edged films about US politics, including The Ides of March, in which Clooney played a John Edwards-like candidate, have surfaced in the past.

The festival begins on 10 September and it is too early, says Bailey, to provide details about what films will be part of its lineup. But he remarkes that the sharpest messages may dwell in movies that don’t wear partisan stripes on their sleeves.

“I still think Jean-Luc Godard says it best,” Bailey wrote in an email message. “The problem is not to make political films, but to make films politically.”