Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Coming to a Movie Theater Near You: Electoral Propaganda

What's up with the Yari Film Group? Chances are most of us have never heard of them. I had to do a bit of homework to discover that they were behind one of the more fascinating movies I have seen recently, The Illusionist. However as Anthony D'Alessandro pointed out in his recent analysis of the production company for Variety, that was back in 2006, which in the entertainment business is ancient history. Here is D'Alessandro's summary (in unadulterated Variety-speak):

Unlike 2006, when Yari Film Group saw plenty of B.O. action from critical fave "The Illusionist" ($34 million), the distrib's 2007-'08 slate of five films fell short. The biggest title for YFG, which has a distribution partnership with Freestyle Releasing, was the urban laffer "The Perfect Holiday" ($5.8 million). That pic's performance was arguably stunted by another yuletide urban hit in the market, "This Christmas" ($49 million), which bowed three weeks earlier. Topper Bob Yari says he's excited about his upcoming lineup and the indie biz in general. "We're going through a cycle where new technology is maturing," Yari says. "The way people choose their films is changing."

However, on the basis of a review by Todd McCarthy posted yesterday to the Variety Web site, Yari may have hit on a new source of revenue for his shop: propaganda. The film under review is called Nothing but the Truth (which should be a red flag for anyone with a literary frame of mind); and it was released as a Battleplan production (which should be a red flag for everyone else). Consider McCarthy's synopsis of the plot:

Opening startlingly with an assassination attempt on the U.S. president, pic proposes a scenario in which the government launches a military attack on Venezuela, based on evidence that its unnamed leader was behind the plot. In a blockbuster story that puts the administration on the defensive, ace Capitol Sun-Times political reporter Rachel Armstrong ([Kate] Beckinsale) outs Erica Van Doren ([Vera] Farmiga) as a covert CIA op who went to Venezuela and reported back that the South American country did not instigate the attempt on the president's life.

Erica, whose husband just happens to have been ambassador to Venezuela but who resigned in disagreement with the administration, is furious about her cover having been blown, but not as much as the government, which assigns a special prosecutor, Patton Dubois (Matt Dillon), to convince Rachel to name her source. But nothing will make her budge and she eventually lands in jail for contempt of court.

The days she spends behind bars -- in a brightly lit common room with dozens of other women -- are counted off by onscreen titles, as the government waits for Rachel to cave. With the might of the government on one side and Rachel backed by her newspaper and high-toned attorney Albert Burnside (Alan Alda), the case comes down to differing views of what's at stake: Is it a First Ammendment issue, as Rachel maintains, or a matter in which national security takes precedence?

It is hard not to be suspicious of a narrative that confounds two of the more depressing stories of the current Administration. The resemblance of the Van Dorens to Joseph Wilson and his wife Valerie Plame is too close to be dismissed as coincidence, even if the scene has changed significantly. However, the core of the plot revolves around the extent to which we shall connect Rachel Armstrong not with Bob Novak but with Judith Miller, whose own jail time built up her character as an intrepid journalist before the extent of her thoroughly unprofessional complicity with the Bush Administration over claims of weapons of mass destruction was revealed.

Now, when two stories that do not really fit very well together get squeezed into the same film, the result is usually attributed to some committee mucking with the production process (as in the old joke about a camel being a horse designed by a committee). However, at the risk of sounding too much like a conspiracy theorist, what if the intent of this project was a deliberate effort to muddy the waters of the history of the last eight years. After all, it is not that unreasonable to assume that most moviegoers did not follow either the Plame case or the Miller affair particularly closely (particularly due to all the twists and turns in the details); and there is also a tendency to take a film that has even a vague "ring of truth" to it as if it were truth. If we grant these two premises, then, while McCarthy saw the result as "unquestionably part of the zeitgeist as an anti-Bush administration film by virtue of its highlighting of the threats to civil liberties in the name of national security," he may have missed out on the extent to which, for all of its surface appearances, the work is actually an insidious piece of propaganda, which will ultimately serve neoconservative ends by appealing to and then hopelessly confusing those who would might oppose those ends (say, by how they vote in November).

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