August 2, 2008

Hollywood Churning Out Presidential Contenders

By Anthony Breznican

Hollywood is getting presidential this election year, but will moviegoers say they approve this message?

Films about U.S. presidents -- past, present and fictional -- start this week.

"Swing Vote," opening today, stars Kevin Costner as a blue- collar worker who becomes the focus of two candidates (Kelsey Grammer and Dennis Hopper) after an Election Day tie and a ballot error traced back to his vote.

"Frost/Nixon," based on the play by Peter Morgan (screenwriter of "The Queen"), traces the origins of the fierce post-Watergate interview between British journalist David Frost and former president Richard Nixon. It's directed by Ron Howard and opens Dec. 5.

"W.," from director Oliver Stone, chronicles the rise of the current president and his relationship with his father, former president George H.W. Bush. It premieres Oct. 17 and stars Josh Brolin as the president, Elizabeth Banks as Laura Bush and James Cromwell as the elder Bush.

And, after the election dust settles, Michael Moore returns in the spring, back on the Bush-whacking trail with a documentary described as a follow-up to "Fahrenheit 9/11."

It's unclear whether election-year fervor will boost enthusiasm, says Gregg Kilday, film editor for The Hollywood Reporter. "The challenge for the movies is that politics have been so entertaining all year long, that if a movie isn't good, it will pale by comparison," he says.

As escapism, "Swing Vote" stands the best chance.

Costner, who financed the movie himself, says he was aiming for a "Capraesque" story, reflecting first the cynicism many feel toward politicians but shifting to a more hopeful point of view. "He basically says that voting doesn't count for a damned thing. It's just a way to make you feel important," Costner says of his character.

"Frost/Nixon" might have an easier time connecting with today's audience, says Kendall R. Phillips, author of "Controversial Cinema."

"My theory would be the "Frost/Nixon" film would have a better chance at being politically relevant because it's historically removed."

Of "W.," Phillips says the director of "JFK" and "Nixon" might be able to regain his provocateur reputation if the film works. "The thing about Oliver Stone is, when he's making great films, he holds up a mirror to the American conscience."

Vetting the contender

Which will be higher: voter turnout or box-office turnout? Four films that deal with presidential figures are headed to theaters. We vet the contenders.

"Swing Vote," today

Kevin Costner plays a blue-collar worker who doesn't care much about politics, until a voting machine error is traced back to his ballot -- and the two presidential candidates are locked in a tie.

As his young daughter tries to teach him the importance of his choice, the two candidates (Dennis Hopper and Kelsey Grammer) cater to his every whim.

Costner says the movie mocks lethargic voters who are swayed by superficiality.

"Our ego has gotten us into all our trouble. Our fatness, so to speak ... Our inability to look to the future and see where we're headed and change the direction and the way we do things," Costner says. "There's an inability for people to take Americans where they don't want to go. And that's really leadership."

"W.," Oct. 17

Oliver Stone does Dubya.

This drama, starring Josh Brolin as the current U.S. president and Elizabeth Banks as first lady Laura Bush, delves into George W. Bush's wild youth and explores how the troubled son of President George H.W. Bush ascended to the presidency.

Sure to create controversy and provoke defenders of the Bush family, Stone's film also could have difficulty persuading Bush critics to watch the story of a politician they despise.

"The difficulty 'W.' faces is that George Bush isn't running this year, and a lot of voters, based on the polls, have written him off. ... In a way, he'll be a fading figure in October, when this movie comes out," says Gregg Kilday, film editor for The Hollywood Reporter.

"Frost/Nixon," Dec. 5

Ron Howard directs this retelling of the combative and revealing 1977 interview of President Richard Nixon by British journalist David Frost.

Frank Langella, who won a Tony for the original stage play, reprises his role as Nixon, and Frost is played by Michael Sheen of "The Queen," which was written by "Frost/Nixon" playwright Peter Morgan.

"It's a duel between two people who are politicians, a cat-and- mouse combat between the two that would appeal to me and any dramatist," Morgan says. "It's more a shoot-out, a tug of war. It's hand-to-hand combat using thoughts and words."

Meanwhile, Morgan is writing another film about the relationship between Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair and President Bill Clinton.

"I need to wait a decade," Morgan says. "Otherwise, it feels like journalism. Then enough time passes where we get perspective on events. If it's told too quickly, you end up just telling people what they already know."

"Fahrenheit 9/11" sequel, spring

Michael Moore is a man on a secret mission.

The Oscar-winning documentary maker and professional thorn in the side of President Bush is working on a follow-up to his blockbuster "Fahrenheit 9/11," but he has revealed little more, saying he fears supporters of the president might try to disrupt his production.

"This film is about how, after the election, we're going to have to pick up the pieces and have to clean up the mess that Bush made and how that mess affects the rest of the world," he says.

While "Fahrenheit" dealt with the run-up to the Iraq war, Moore says this time he's focusing on "all the other things that they got away with over the past eight years."

What does Moore hope to accomplish, since the movie will likely come out next spring, well after a new president has been sworn in? "A perp walk," Moore answers. "Yeah, that's what I'd personally like. But I don't think it's going to happen."

(c) 2008 Tribune-Review/Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All rights Reserved.