CNN and the Danger of Living Political Movies

By  · Published on August 7th, 2013

The Republican National Committee led by Reince Priebus doesn’t want CNN to move forward on its untitled Hillary Clinton documentary or for NBC to produce and air its Diane Lane-starring miniseries Hillary. Both are set for 2014, but Priebus sent the heads of each network letters explaining his plan to guide the RNC toward not partnering with them for Republican primary debates if they don’t agree to can the programs by August 14th.

Instead of saying one way or another whether they’d push ahead with the production (they probably will), CNN offered a weak-kneed response that sounded like a corporation saying, “No, you are!” after a levelheaded explanation of their position that the RNC doesn’t even know what’s in the movie so calling for its end seems premature.

While the NBC situation is absurd en face (the entertainment and news divisions are separate beasts), the CNN vs. RNC squabble is a rare look at free market jockeying happening out in the open instead of inside the boardroom. It stems from a belief on the RNC side (and pretty much everyone in the country) that Clinton, who is currently a private citizen after serving as Secretary of State, is likely to run again for President in 2016. That remains to be seen, but the situation still raises some interesting questions about what happens when producers choose to make movies focused on living, politically active figures.

Political Ads or Impartial Storytelling?

It’s impossible to discuss a subject that everyone has an opinion on without having labels thrown at you. That goes for people exploring an issue without agenda and for people trying to prove a point alike. If the water gets too hot, either side can always toss out invective as a means to dismiss a political movie without having to engage with it. For proof, just see the comments section on any version of this CNN story (but don’t actually do that because you’ll get dumber).

The funny thing is that in a time where even the chairs around your dining table can be twisted into a partisan launch pad (“Has no one thought of the children in those chairs?”), the question of whether a movie is an impartial story or a political prop should matter, but it doesn’t. The crowd won’t let it. Thus, it’s a situation where artist intent is important, but is shouted over until entirely muted. That’s pretty scary, because it means that if you’re merely interested in telling the story of a living figure, you’re going to face a hostile mob that’s judged you and your work even before you walk out on stage.

So in a way, it doesn’t really matter what CNN or director Charles Ferguson’s (No End in Sight, Inside Job) intentions are because the people have already spoken. One side wants to give it a shot at being a fair, warts-and-all representation of Clinton’s life, while the other is already at the torch store asking where the bulk cases of lighter fluid are (aisle 3 in the back next to the maps to Frankenstein’s house).

The two most responsible for this shift in thinking toward movies are Michael Moore and people who don’t own kites.

Moore is an obvious culprit simply because of how overtly he shared his political messaging through insanely popular documentaries during the George W. Bush administration. There was no question of his motivations for making Fahrenheit 9/11 or for his timing in distributing it. He showed it in Crawford, Texas a few miles from Bush’s famous ranch, he ensured it would hit home video a month before the election in 2004, he turned down Oscar eligibility in order to show it on Pay-Per-View the day before people went to the polls. It was pretty damned obvious what he was getting at.

Moore’s popularity led to other filmmakers taking up the torch, most notably Dinesh D’Souza with 2016: Obama’s America, which also just happened to be released 2 months before a national election featuring a divisive incumbent. Both movies made waves while being decried as blindingly obvious in their partisan motivations. By swinging the door open wide, they sacrificed any goodwill audiences might have had toward artist intent so that even apolitical interest in a national figure looks suspicious.

As for people who don’t own kites, they tend to muck things up by failing to go outside, take a deep breath and enjoy themselves once in a while. People on all sides of the political spectrum who don’t own kites are usually the ones who can’t help but see your dining room chairs as a talking point (“The children!”).

Now because of the new evolution of movies being used again as political baking pans and a society that has far too many People Who Need Kites in it, we have an environment where things are poked with pitchforks before they’re asked what they are.

In that toxic a swimming pool (and who brings a pitchfork to a swimming pool?), it’s no wonder the film arm of a news network is being scolded in a highly organized way for making a documentary about a prominent meme star former government official 1) more than 3 full years before the next election and 2) long before she’s announced any aspiration to run for office again. Not to mention they’ll release it long before the election or any kind of formal announcement.

That’s the danger of making a movie focused on someone like Hillary Clinton.

Plus, all of this isn’t to say that CNN didn’t want or deserve this kind of attention. As a distributor, CNN Films has released docs like Blackfish and Our Nixon on TV, but they haven’t produced anything until now. It’s not that they’re forming a production arm for a documentary about Hillary Clinton, but they’re definitely forming one with it.

They also couldn’t have been deaf to the chatter about Clinton re-running for President, but being boycotted by the RNC may have taken them by surprise. If so, they earnestly have a difficult decision to make because the RNC primary debates in 2012 helped the floundering network in the ratings. So do they look a ratings gift horse in the mouth, or forge ahead with a documentary they believe will be hot-button enough to secure viewers?

It’s easy to imagine they’ll choose the documentary either to call the RNC’s bluff or to prove they don’t care. It could potentially hurt the network (if Untitled Hillary Clinton Documentary doesn’t draw as many eyes as the RNC primary debate could), but it’s hilariously win-win for an RNC that wants to pare down the amount of primary debates and distance itself from what they consider members of the liberally biased media.

Perhaps the only thing that loses here is the idea of a fair filmic exploration of any significant figure who’s still living.

Citizens United

All of this is wrapped in a big, bright bow of either irony or appropriateness (depending on what side you’re on, probably). It was another movie about Clinton – Citizens United’s Hillary: The Movie – that led to the Supreme Court case where it was decided that corporations and union groups could contribute to electioneering communications and promote them.

As Preibus points out in his letter to CNN,

“Liberals complained noisily when Citizens United sought to air a pay-per-view documentary on Hillary Clinton prior to the 2008 election, and yet they’re conspicuously silent now that a major news network will launch a documentary of its own. They must trust that you’re doing her a favor.”

The larger questions of whether a news organization should attempt a documentary like this, and whether corporations should be able to wield their power of the purse to influence elections under the guise of free speech notwithstanding, this (maybe to the RNC’s chagrin) is what Citizens United hath wrought.

The Fog

In closing, I want to use Errol Morris’ 2003 documentary about Vietnam-era Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as a counter balance to what’s going on with the Clinton doc.

Owing in part to Morris’ ability and the raw nature of the direct conversation with the figure in question, The Fog of War was hailed as a triumph and earned a level of controversy nowhere near what the CNN doc that doesn’t yet exist has already gotten.

Yet it still had the potential to earn ire from the general public beyond groups that get angry professionally because it covered (and depicted) perhaps the most controversial war in our nation’s history. Put simply, when people can get upset about Civil War movies not telling the story fairly, it’s open season on something people actually lived through.

But it’s still a discussion that was saved for academia or cinephilia. If the past is irritating, and the present is infuriating, then the future is nuclear. With CNN’s project, the amps are already up to 11 because the perceived notion that it can cause change in real-time. Ther are people that believe it can alter the future course of the country.

Interviewing McNamara after decades of self-reflection was eye-opening, but without a time machine, Morris and his film were relegated to the position of archivist. People tend to get more agitated when a movie has the potential to move beyond storytelling to affect things in the real world.

It’s rare when it happens, but it’s so stirringly powerful that this is what follows. A powerful organization leverages something people think is important to try and stop the movie from even existing.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.