Race for the White House Hits the Big Screen

Filmmakers -- many vocal partisans -- take on politics, war and the '08 race.

June 30, 2008— -- Every director dreams of winning an Oscar, but for Charles Ferguson, whose "No End in Sight," a documentary about the Iraq War that critics called "devastating," "enraging" and "lacerating," the wish to win was firmly rooted in strong political convictions.

"I would have had 45 seconds to say something about Iraq in front of a large number of people," Ferguson, whose film was nominated for an Academy Award but didn't win, told ABC News. "I had a quite carefully worked out set of remarks that basically was a rapid, direct, blunt depiction of what had actually happened. That after five years, there are 4,000 Americans dead, half a million Iraqis dead, 5 million refugees. That the country is still in chaos, and there's no sign that it's going to be in decent shape any time soon. That it was monumentally bungled by an incompetent and dishonest administration."

Ferguson didn't get to deliver those remarks, but in the next couple of weeks, he plans to release his film on the Internet. Encouraged by such factors as the number of YouTube hits for the film's trailer, he's "optimistic" the film will be seen by a lot of people. "I want the issue of Iraq to be raised and debated in the election."

So, too, does Hollywood director David Zucker ("Scary Movie 4," "The Naked Gun 2½"), but from the other side of the aisle.

His latest movie, which he hopes to release in October, is "American Carol," based on Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." "Only it's not Christmas, it's the Fourth of July," Zucker, a self-proclaimed "9/11 Republican," told ABC News. The film is designed "to give a thank you to the military."

The main character, Michael Malone, played by Kevin Farley, who "is saying bah-humbug to the Fourth of July, learns how to appreciate how great America is," Zucker said.

This year's race to the White House promises to be hotly contested in movie theaters, on DVDs and the Internet. Supplementing the nightly newscasts and cable stations will be films about Iraq, the Supreme Court, George Bush, lobbyists, Sen. Barack Obama in Africa, the election process itself.

Some are documentaries, many made from a liberal-left perspective.

Oren Jacoby, writer-director of the documentary "Constantine's Sword," is working on "InJustice," about "the U.S. attorneys who were fired by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales because they wouldn't do the political hatchet work of Karl Rove and the Republican Party," Jacoby told ABC News.

David Van Taylor ("A Perfect Candidate") has completed "Advise and Dissent," a behind-the-scenes look at the Supreme Court confirmation process. "The Democratic appointments are much older than the Republican appointees," said Van Taylor, who hopes his film brings the issue of appointments to the forefront of discussion. "The stakes are quite high on the next vacancy."

PBS's POV will air "Election Day" by Katy Chevigny ("Deadline") July 1, the same day the film — which was shot on Nov. 2, 2004, in 14 locations — is released in stores. "In the race to the White House, Obama versus McCain, the Bush legacy, etcetera, there's this whole other thread," Chevigny said. "How does our voting process work? There are 4,600 different voting systems in the United States. We have this romanticized notion of one person, one vote. But you're one person in one state, you're not that person in another state."

Other films, like "American Carol" and "Swing Vote" in which Kevin Costner plays the one man whose vote will determine an election's outcome, are satirical sendups.

Comedy is not his hallmark, but Oliver Stone's "W," with the current president being played by Josh Brolin ("No Country for Old Men"), promises not to be as "psychologically heavy" as "Nixon," from 1995, Stone has said. That tone wouldn't fit his main character. Bush is "awkward and goofy and makes faces all the time," Stone said.

The film, whose producers would like to see released before the election, has reportedly been financed by Chinese, German and Australian money. In Hollywood, "they hate Bush so much, they can't understand why I'd want to make a movie about him," Stone said.

"American Carol" is being produced in Hollywood by Stephen McEveety, who produced Mel Gibson's "The Passion of the Christ." He and Zucker met at the Wednesday Morning Club, lunches sponsored by the controversial conservative David Horowitz.

Zucker told ABC News that he's tired of movies out of the left that take "a proctologist view of America. I'm supporting [the military] as opposed to the movies that focus on a soldier who rapes a girl in Iraq, and that's the whole movie." (That summary roughly follows the story of Brian DePalma's "Redacted.")

Not all movies will be shown in theaters.

"Senator Obama Goes to Africa," a one-hour documentary shot in 2006 by Bob Hercules, at the suggestion of David Axelrod, is currently being sold in stores. Sales have increased since Obama became the candidate. Churches, law firms, universities and local Democratic clubs have been buying copies for informal screenings, and the film's distributor hopes for wider sales to Move On or the Democratic National Committee.

Four years ago, Robert Greenwald used a nifty strategy for getting audiences to see his films by linking up with Move On for house parties. Get the film, invite your friends over and watch "Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch's War on Journalism" or "Uncovered: The War in Iraq."

This election year, "the house party doesn't figure into our election strategy," Greenwald told ABC News. It's the Internet, "focusing on shorter, specific pieces." Popular shorts include "McCain Has a You Tube Problem" and "McCain versus McCain."

"We see patterns of his saying one thing that contradicts something else," Greenwald said. "[Last Monday] we put one up about the price of gas and how many members of his staff are lobbyists."

Lobbyists will be playing a prominent role in Alex Gibney's new documentary, "Casino Jack and the United States of Money." "Jack" is Jack Abramoff, the Republican lobbyist who in 2006 pleaded guilty to tax evasion, fraud and conspiracy. "It doesn't portray Abramoff as a bad apple," Gibney told ABC News. "It looks at the way the whole barrel is rotten."

The film will probably not be finished before the election. "I tried to push 'Taxi to the Dark Side' sooner than it was ready, and it was rejected by two major festivals, Sundance and Berlin," said Gibney. "I went back into the edit room."

"Taxi," about Afghanistan, won the Oscar this past year, beating out Ferguson's "No End in Sight."

What will be available from "Casino Jack" before the election will be "clips from the film on YouTube, particularly if they have special relevance to the election."

The Internet will not be the sole province of liberals this fall. Four years ago, the Liberty Film Festival made its debut to highlight conservatives' films. "A lot of people in the last 10, 20 years feel they've been denied work, with themes that were pro-military or had old-fashioned values," Govindini Murty, the festival's artistic director, told ABC News. "In 2004, the real catalysts were Michael Moore and Mel Gibson," the latter because conservatives felt he was unfairly attacked.

The first festival featured 20 films and 3,000 people turned up, with "people saying, 'This is our Woodstock,'" said Murty. "Each year, we saw our submissions doubling." This year, Liberty's Internet presence is increasing, with trailers, shorts, features, streamlining, DVD sales and film reviews from conservative critics.

Also working the clicks will be Floyd Brown, who was behind the Willie Horton ad of 1988 that helped tank Michael Dukakis' campaign. The current election, Brown told ABC News, "is a battle that will be won or lost on the Internet. The day when political consultants had a monopoly on the message is over."

So Brown, using his Web site, ExposeObama.com, is launching a contest "to use social media to have people generate their own ads."

Perhaps it will attract the 20-somethings who this past spring took a workshop sponsored by the G.I. Film Festival and the Leadership Institute, whose mission is "to identify, train and place conservatives in politics, government and the media."

"The students attending the class were tired of the Michael Moore documentaries," said multimedia training director Eric Slee.

Conservatives warn that these first forays into filmmaking may not be as polished and professional as those from the left. Matt Lewis, a blogger for TownHall.com (the right's Huffington Post), told ABC News, "The nascent version is going to be bad. When Christian rock first started, it was not cool at all, very lame, you could hear it a mile away. Now there are people who say, 'This is really good music.'"

The question, of course, is will these films make a difference? Films of 2004 such as "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Bush's Brain" had lots of viewers, but Bush was re-elected. Still, with the Internet playing a role in people's lives that grows by the nanosecond, and presidential elections being won by fewer than a thousand votes in one state, a few hundred thousand hits on YouTube could make a difference, analysts and filmmakers on both sides of the aisle speculate. If not, the films and spots will generate talk on radio and cable TV.

And in an election year, anything can happen. If you had told Robert Greenwald a year ago that his shorts would pass 22 million total views, he told ABC News, "I would have said, 'You're out of your mind.'"