Hollywood Takes on the Left
David Zucker, the director who brought us 'Airplane!' and 'The Naked Gun,' turns his sights on anti-Americanism.
Aug 11, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 45 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
The spot cuts to footage of German bombers over Warsaw. "Well," intones a narrator, "that negotiation went well. Fifty million dead worldwide. Nicely done, Mr. Chamberlain."
Then viewers are shown footage of imaginary negotiations between James Baker, Syria's Bashar Assad, and "Iranian madman" Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Baker's Iraq Study Group had formally recommended talks with Iran and Syria as part of its proposed solution to the problems in Iraq.
When Ahmadinejad asks Baker for permission to develop nuclear weapons so long as Iran promises not to use them, Baker agrees. Triumphant music plays loudly in the background and the diplomacy pauses for a celebration and some photos.
The music stops and Baker returns to the table with Ahmadinejad and Syria's Bashar Assad.
"Next item: You must agree to stop supplying the explosive devices that are killing our American soldiers in Iraq," Baker insists.
"We won't do that."
"Well, can you reduce the number?"
"Okay, how about 10 percent?" Assad proposes.
"Twenty percent," Baker responds.
The music starts again and Baker, like Chamberlain, triumphantly waves the signed agreement.
"Now, this thing about destroying Israel," he says to Ahmadinejad.
"We will do that," says the Iranian leader.
Baker shrugs. "That's fair," he says, affixing his signature to yet another agreement and once again waving it before the cameras.
Zucker says that the idea to do a feature film grew out of those ads, and several of the actors in the spots, including Turkish actor Serdar Kalsin, who plays Ahmadinejad, have speaking roles in the film.
If An American Carol grew out of Zucker's work on these commercials, the narrative device dates back to 1843. An American Carol is based loosely--very loosely--on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens.
"Why be original?" Zucker asks. "I've done that. It doesn't work, like BASEketball"--as he says this, he rolls his eyes and moves his right hand across his body to indicate a car going off a cliff.
The holiday in An American Carol is not Christmas and the antagonist is not Ebenezer Scrooge. Instead, the film follows the exploits of a slovenly, anti-American filmmaker named Michael Malone, who has joined with a left-wing activist group (Moovealong.org) to ban the Fourth of July. Along the way, Malone is visited by the ghosts of three American heroes--George Washington, George S. Patton, and John F. Kennedy--who try to convince him he's got it all wrong. When terrorists from Afghanistan realize that they need to recruit more operatives to make up for the ever-diminishing supply of suicide bombers, they begin a search for just the right person to help produce a new propaganda video. "This will not be hard to find in Hollywood," says one. "They all hate America." When they settle on Malone, who is in need of work after his last film (Die You American Pigs) bombed at the box office, he unwittingly helps them with their plans to launch another attack on American soil.
The entire film is an extended rebuttal to the vacuous antiwar slogan that "War Is Not the Answer." Zucker's response, in effect: "It Depends on the Question."
Zucker had originally hoped to cast Dan Whitney (aka Larry the Cable Guy) as Malone, but a timing conflict kept him from getting it done. After briefly considering Frank Caliendo, a fellow Wisconsinite, a colleague passed him a reel from Kevin Farley, the younger brother of the late Chris Farley, and Zucker, who recalled seeing Kevin Farley in an episode of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, was interested.
Zucker and Sokoloff met Farley in April 2007. Zucker described his new film with words he had chosen carefully. "I figured he was like everyone else in Hollywood--a Democrat," Zucker recalls. "And we knew that this was not a Democrat movie." It would be a satirical look at the war on terror, he told Farley, and explained that he and Sokoloff were political "moderates."
Farley hadn't seen any of Zucker's ads and assumed he was like everyone else in Hollywood--a Democrat. So he answered with some strategic ambiguity of his own. "I consider myself a centrist," he said, worried that they might press him more about his political views.
Zucker gave Farley the script and, concerned that Farley's agent would advise him against accepting the role because of the film's politics, told the actor not to show it to anyone. Farley, best known for his recurring role in a series of Hertz commercials, read the script and called back the next day to accept.
When he met Zucker and Sokoloff on the set as shooting on the film began, he told them that he, too, had long considered himself a conservative. "I couldn't believe it," says Sokoloff. "We were afraid that he would not want to be involved in something that was so directly taking on the left and that he would not want to play the Michael Moore character."
Farley told me this story during a break in filming at the Daniel Webster Elementary School in Pasadena, last April, with Steve McEveety, the film's producer, listening in.
"I thought that the minute we started talking about politics that would be the end," Farley recalls. "There was this dance that we did--a dance familiar to conservative actors in Hollywood. Lots of actors have done it."
"All three of you," said McEveety.
"Yeah, all three of us."
Farley is not aggressive about his politics and has chosen simply to opt out of political discussions when they have arisen on other projects. "I usually just bite my tongue unless it gets too ridiculous," he says. "The only thing that really bothers me is when they go off about the president. It just gets annoying."
If Farley is nervous that his proverbial big break is coming in a film with politics that might make getting his next big role more difficult, he doesn't show it. "If it's the last movie I do, I'll go work for Steve's company," he says.
"If this doesn't work," McEveety deadpans, "I won't have a company."
Yes, he will. He founded the company, Mpower Pictures, two years ago with John Shepherd, a former child actor, and Todd Burns, who helped put himself through law school by working as an EMT. McEveety, whose producing credits include Braveheart, We Were Soldiers, and The Passion of the Christ, is far too well-established to live or die based on the success of one film. And he created Mpower in part because he wanted the freedom to take risks on film projects others in Hollywood wouldn't consider. One such film, The Fallen, will be out later this fall. The film, based on a powerful book by Iranian journalist Friedoune Sahebjam, tells the true story of a young Iranian woman who is framed by her husband on false charges of infidelity and persecuted under the strictures of sharia law. According to McEveety, the Iranian regime has already begun an effort to discredit the film.
McEveety is one of several big names that will make it hard for the Hollywood establishment to ignore An American Carol. Jon Voight plays George Washington. Dennis Hopper makes an appearance as a judge who defends his courthouse by gunning down ACLU lawyers trying to take down the Ten Commandments. James Woods plays Michael Malone's agent. And Kelsey Grammer plays General George S. Patton, Malone's guide to American history and the mouthpiece of the film's writers.
I chatted with Grammer on the set at Warner Brothers studios. "I'm glad some of the bigger guys jumped in--Dennis Hopper, Jon Voight, James Woods."
Grammer has been out as a conservative for several years and has publicly mused about running for office. His name comes up periodically when California Republicans are brainstorming about candidates to take on Barbara Boxer or Dianne Feinstein for their Senate seats. It's not hard to see why. He is passionate about the issues that matter most to conservatives and extraordinarily articulate.
"The accepted way to speak about America is in the voice that disrespects it. And the voice that's unacceptable is the one that loves America," he says, wearing the uniform of an Army general and sipping from a bottle of pomegranate juice. "How did we get here?"
Over the course of two hours, we are joined by several others working on the movie and talk about everything from taxes--"the rich in this country are being criminalized"--to Iraq. "Petraeus has to couch every bit of optimism in some convoluted formulation to avoid the promised rush of disrespect," Grammer says.
Eventually, the conversation turns from policy to punditry. Grammer, who is friends with Ann Coulter, says he quoted her once to some of the young people who work for him.
"'Ann Coulter,'" he says, recalling their horror and assuming their voice. "'She's the antichrist.' And I said: 'What the f-- do you know about the antichrist? You don't even believe in Christ.'"
Robert Davi, who plays the lead terrorist in the Zucker film, joins us as the discussion turns from policy to the cable pundit shows. Davi is one of those actors with an instantly recognizable face--he was the villain in the Bond film Licence to Kill--but whose name is unknown to most of the country.
"I can't stand Keith Olbermann," says Davi. "Jesus Christ, I want to slap that guy."
"I just sit there and watch these shows"--he picks up an imaginary remote from the table in front of him, points it at the imaginary television somewhere to the right of my head and begins clicking--"I watch them all. I cannot watch the murder shows anymore. Greta comes on and"--he changes the channel once more.
Our discussion continues over lunch and we are joined by Myrna Sokoloff, Kevin Farley, and Chriss Anglin, who plays JFK. Lunch lasts an hour, and we discuss marginal tax rates, the Democratic primary, whether John McCain will pick Condoleezza Rice as his running mate, the Colombia Free Trade Agreement, and whether the talk of closing Guantánamo is serious or just campaign rhetoric.
Eventually, the conversation turns to the war and the opposition to it--the subject of their current project. "No one on the left wants to admit that radical Islamists want to kill Americans, the Jews--everyone in the West," Davi says. "I try to talk to my friends on the left and they just don't get it. Most of them have never even heard of Sayyid Qutb. How can you have an intellectual discussion about the war we're in without knowing who Sayyid Qutb is?" he asks, raising his voice so that actors from other tables glance over to see what's causing the commotion. JFK concentrates on his food.
Later that same day, I spoke to Lee Reynolds, who plays the New York police officer whose efforts to search the terrorists are thwarted by the ACLU. Reynolds, too, is a conservative--something David Zucker did not know when he cast Reynolds in the anti-Kerry ad he produced in 2004. Reynolds was active duty military for 12 years and shortly after 9/11 worked as the chief media officer for detainee operations at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba.
When he returned, he took a job as a production assistant on a film--he asked me not to name it--shot in several locations across the United States. Reynolds worked hard and, he says, won the confidence of the film's directors, who gave him more responsibility. But just as he was making a name for himself, word began to spread that he had been in the military and, far worse, that he supported the efforts of his uniformed colleagues in the war on terror.
"Once they found out I was a Republican, unfortunately for some people it was a problem," he recalls. Several people who had talked to him regularly throughout the shoot simply stopped. And a trip that he was to have taken to participate in an offsite shoot across the country was abruptly cancelled. Another person was sent in his place. Reynolds says that he had only two colleagues who treated him the same way they had before, including "an anti-Bush lesbian" who was disgusted by the dogmatism of the others on the film. Reynolds, now a reservist, is scheduled to leave for Iraq in early 2009.
On one of the days I was on set, McEveety had invited Vivendi Entertainment president Tom O'Malley to meet Zucker. Vivendi had just agreed to distribute the film and had promised wide release--news that had the cast and crew of An American Carol in particularly good spirits.
O'Malley and Zucker chatted about the fact that O'Malley is the nephew of Candid Camera's Tom O'Malley and that they are both from the Midwest, among other things. Zucker thanked him for picking up the movie, which will be one of the first for Vivendi's new distribution arm. O'Malley told Zucker that he was particularly interested in this film in part because he, too, leans right.
Such revelations are common occurrences at the periodic meetings of the secret society of Hollywood conservatives known as the "Friends of Abe." The group, with no official membership list and no formal mission, has been meeting under the leadership of Gary Sinise (CSI New York, Forrest Gump) for four years. Zucker had spent a year working on a film with Christopher McDonald without learning anything about his politics. Shortly after the film wrapped, he ran into McDonald, best known as Shooter McGavin from Adam Sandler's Happy Gilmore, at one of these informal meetings.
"It's almost like people who are gay, show up at the baths and say, 'Oh, I didn't know you were gay!' " Zucker says.
From the beginning, Zucker knew what the political message of An American Carol would be. His problem was how to make it funny.
The war on terror, of course, does not lend itself to hilarity. But Zucker knows comedy and has spent nearly four decades making people laugh. With his friend Lewis Friedman, a comedy writer, Zucker went looking for the absurd in the political left and found an abundance of material.
Zucker and Friedman poked fun of the know-nothing culture of antiwar protests. During a rally at Columbia University, students chant: "Peace Now, We Don't Care How!" Some of their protest signs are ones you'd find at any antiwar rally. Some are not. "9/11 Was an Inside Job," "Kick Army Recruiters Off Campus!" "End Violence--War Is Not the Answer!" "End Disease--Medicine Is Not the Answer!" "It's Too Dark Outside, The Sun Is Not the Answer!" "Overpopulation--Gay Marriage Is the Answer!"
Other claims were so absurd they didn't require exaggeration. "We really didn't have to do a lot of stretching," says Zucker.
When he heard Rosie O'Donnell claim that "radical Christianity is just as threatening as radical Islam in a country like America where we have a separation of church and state," he knew he had several minutes of material.
In the film, a rotund comedian named Rosie O'Connell makes an appearance on The O'Reilly Factor to promote her documentary, The Truth About Radical Christians. O'Reilly shows a clip, which opens with a pair of priests walking through an airport--as seen from pre-hijacking surveillance video--before boarding the airplane. Once onboard, they storm the cockpit using crucifixes as their weapon of choice. Next the documentary looks at the growing phenomenon of nuns as suicide bombers, seeking 72 virgins in heaven. A dramatization shows two nuns, strapped with explosives, board a bus to the cries of the other passengers. "Oh, no! Not the Christians!" O'Connell's work ends with a warning about new threats and the particular menace of the "Episcopal suppository bomber."
Zucker is plainly not worried about offending anyone. David Alan Grier plays a slave in a scene designed to show Malone what might have happened if the United States had not fought the Civil War. As Patton explains to a dumbfounded Malone that the plantation they are visiting is his own, Grier thanks the documentarian for being such a humane owner. As they leave, another slave, played by Gary Coleman, finishes polishing a car and yells "Hey, Barack!" before tossing the sponge to someone off-camera.
It is one of just two references to the ongoing presidential campaign. (The other one, more cryptic, comes in a scene that's a throwback to the Iraq Study Group ad. Neville Chamberlain, after polishing Adolf Hitler's boots, signs the Munich Agreement, and declares: "We have hope now.") But Tom O'Malley, president of Vivendi, believes that the timing of the film's release--October 3--will give it special relevance to the current debates. And several of the film's leading figures have strong opinions about Barack Obama. "Obama is not qualified to be president, and it'll be a disaster," says Zucker, who then pauses as if he's said something he should have kept to himself. "Shouldn't I be allowed to say that?"
Zucker says that one of the major differences between the left and the right in America today is that leftists think of their political opponents as evil. "I don't think that Obama is an evil guy, I just think he's wrong. But I do think we face real evil in Ahmadinejad and the mullahs and all these crazy guys."
Does Obama understand that?
"I don't think so. I don't think so."
Zucker points to a National Journal study that found Obama to be the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate. "John Kerry was, and Obama is. Fortunately, Kerry was a stiff. But Obama isn't a stiff and he's really adaptable. He's like a really clever virus who adapts. Obama's the farthest left of all of these guys. And that's why he associated with all of those crazies--terrorists, preachers of hate."
Jon Voight, who says he was "duped" as a young man into rallying against the Vietnam war, is also troubled both by Obama's associations and his willingness to end them so abruptly. "When I look at the other side, when I look at Barack Obama, I see expediency," he says, pointing to Obama's relationship with the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, and assuming Obama's voice. "He's like family. I could never disown him. I didn't know him. I didn't hear those words in that church."
If those behind the film have similar views about Obama, many of them have opposing views about the long-term impact of a film like An American Carol on the movie industry.
"If this does well, it'll change everything," says Grammer.
"I think it would be pompous to say that," says Voight. "It's a movie. It's a satire. And it's a funny satire. I don't want to point to this thing, just because there are so few films from conservative sources, and make it a target. It's a movie. Let's not burden this little horse with additional weights."
David Zucker seems to be of two minds. When I ask him if he had an objective in making the film, he borrows a line from his friend and former partner, Jim Abrahams. "Avoid embarrassment."
He adds: "I don't have any desire to be taken seriously. Really, I really don't. But having said that, I really believe this stuff. Why can't I put it out there? And I'm scared to death of Obama. If I didn't do something about it I would feel--My kids would ask: 'What did you do in the war Daddy?'"
"I donated my career to stop this s--."
Stephen F. Hayes, a senior writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD, is the author of Cheney: The Untold Story of America's Most Powerful and Controversial Vice President (HarperCollins) .