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Film Rights

Conservatives set out to win the culture through cinema. Instead, they made campaign ads.

The American Film Renaissance, held in Washington D.C. the first week of October, billed itself as “the only film festival in the world devoted to celebrating America’s timeless traditional values like freedom, rugged individualism, and the triumph of the human spirit.” In shorthand, AFR is a conservative film festival. During its first wine-and-cheese afterparty, one Washington lawyer aptly reinterpreted AFR’s mission statement, saying he hoped the festival “will get Hollywood to go back to the pro-American films that they used to have. Like the ones John Wayne used to be in.”

He’s not alone. Figures on the Right from William F. Buckley Jr. to Tom Wolfe have lamented that conservatives have focused on electoral politics to the exclusion of cultural endeavors. Think tanks, magazines, and activist groups can accomplish political tasks, they say, but culture-makers shape our prejudices and ideals in a subtle though more profound way than any policy paper or election. Liberals may lose at the ballot box, but through the box office, they are winning America’s hearts and minds.

AFR, founded five years ago by lawyers Jim and Ellen Hubbard, is supposed to be the conservative film movement’s workshop and showcase. Unfortunately, the festival reveals that self-conscious conservatives are largely incapable of producing good films. Worse, whenever they get their hands on the tools and money to produce quality work, their talents are employed less as storytellers informed by great truths about man and civilization than as political operatives obliged to serve the GOP.

The top-billed film of this year’s festival was “An American Carol,” a slapstick spoof produced by David Zucker, the man behind “Airplane,” the “Naked Gun” flicks, and a series of unaired Bush re-election commercials. “Carol” tells the story of “anti-American” documentarian, Michael Malone, who sets out to abolish the Fourth of July. Why? Because he hates America, we’re told. To the delight of the audience, JFK, General Patton, and George Washington make appearances to slap the Michael Moore lookalike and teach him that America is the greatest country ever. By the end, the liberal filmmaker realizes that being American means being pro-war (any war), and that’s okay.

To prime the audience, before AFR screened “Carol,”the conservative crowd was treated to an extended trailer for Oliver Stone’s scabrous Bush biopic, “W.” Predictably, “An American Carol” received an extended ovation, and “W.” was jeered. Of course, neither film will have an enduring effect on the culture. But each will gauge the relative box-office clout of conservatives and liberals as demographic groups. And the political Right is desperate to prove that it is not just a movement but an audience.

Conservatives launched an extensive get-out-the-popcorn effort for “Carol.” The movie has been promoted by bloggers on National Review Online. The Leadership Institute, an activist group that maintains contact with College Republicans nationwide, urged its charges to see the movie on opening weekend, even handing out tickets to its interns. The effort wasn’t a disaster—the film made the top ten—but while it opened on nearly three times as many screens as Bill Maher’s “Religulous,”“Carol” earned roughly the same dollar amount, a paltry $3.5 million.

Is “An American Carol” funny? In parts. There is some mildly amusing ethnic humor and a bravura film-within-a-film about Christian terrorists. Nuns perform the sign of the cross before blowing up buses, priests hijack flights, and Americans are forced to go through a humiliating new security procedure at airports because of “that Episcopalian suppository bomber.”

But the rest is a series of tiresome gags hastily tied together. Adorable children curse out their liberal relatives, Dennis Hopper blows away ACLU zombies with a shotgun, soldiers and sailors are hailed for their prowess in the sack. Of course, antiwar activists are smeared as pro-slavery Nazi-appeasers. Some scenes are recycled from Zucker’s campaign work. In one of his unaired 2004 spots, Arab terrorists fool Madeleine Albright by singing “Kumbaya.”In “Carol,” Hitler and his friends reach for their six-strings to serenade Neville Chamberlain, the Michael Moore stand-in, and a displeased Patton. Bill O’Reilly makes a cringe-inducing cameo.

Far from lampooning the Left, “Carol” insults conservatives by presuming that they are so simple as to be won over by fat jokes and flatulence. But the audience, imagining itself to be persecuted by Hollywood, is so grateful to be flattered by Zucker and company that they chuckle obediently at every cheap laff. Conservatives, once the scourge of coarsening culture, are happy to play crass as long as the joke is on liberals.

But contrary to the victim mentality of the AFR attendees, media elites are willing to praise genuine conservative achievements in filmmaking. New York Times critic A.O. Scott hailed the Peter Weir adaptation of “Master and Commander” as “among the most thoroughly and proudly conservative movies ever made. It imagines the H.M.S. Surprise as a coherent society in which stability is underwritten by custom and every man knows his duty and his place. I would not have been surprised to see Edmund Burke’s name in the credits.” But unlike “Carol,” the compelling maritime epic was informed by its conservative worldview, not driven by it.

At the same time, Hollywood liberals sometimes churn out products that conservatives love. Democratic donors Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced “Saving Private Ryan” and the “Band of Brothers” miniseries that National Review hailed as part “a new tradition of ‘getting it right.’” Spielberg and Hanks, the conservative biweekly, claimed, were “excellent caretakers” of this tradition.

Ellen Hubbard would love to see more subtle fare at AFR. She says that she and her husband “debate every year whether to search for more mainstream films or stick with more overtly partisan material” but, “especially, in an election-year, our audience wants the red meat.”

Despite this insatiable hunger, AFR has grown slightly more circumspect since its founding. In 2004, screenings opened with the Pledge of Allegiance and almost every film was preceded by a montage of military photos urging the audience to support the troops. In the early days, the Hubbards raised most of their money from friends and family. Now AFR is Ellen’s fulltime vocation. As the organization has grown, it has found sponsors in the Drudge Report and the Heritage Foundation. And the recent box-office success of liberal documentaries by Al Gore, Michael Moore, and Errol Morris means that AFR is now full of right-leaning imitators.

“U.N. Me” takes an acid look at the United Nations, investigating the Oil for Food scandal, blunderous missteps during non-proliferation efforts, and the institution’s tragic interventions in Africa. The filmmakers had a difficult time making such stomach-turning material entertaining. A satirical section called “Peacekeepers Gone Wild,” in which UN troops are shown dancing with underage prostitutes in a Côte d’Ivoire brothel, is too disturbing to be funny.

Another offering, “Do As I Say,” a documentary based on Peter Schweitzer’s book about liberal hypocrisy, deftly skewers its subjects. We learn that Michael Moore owned Halliburton stocks at the same time he told lecture audiences not to buy stocks at all. Noam Chomsky benefited from Pentagon contracts for his linguistics work, yet compares that institution to the Third Reich. Hillary Clinton campaigned in 2008 against many of the same mortgage practices she and her partners profited from in Whitewater. But what is the purpose of this dreary parade? The effect is to induce a certain smugness and self-satisfied lack of curiosity. If Al Gore owns a big house and carbon offsets are a fraud, then there is no need to think about global warming.

“Blocking the Path to 9/11” is a well-executed documentary about the 2006 ABC miniseries based on the 9/11 Commission Report. Watching the film, those who had forgotten the controversy might have guessed that the series never aired. It did, but with confusing last-minute edits, done at the behest of the Clintons and ABC brass, to make Bubba’s administration look less culpable for failing to capture bin Laden.

The travails of a minseries may seem like a small subject for a feature-length documentary, but the film is decidedly watchable because it lifts the curtain on Hollywood’s players and turns around powerful themes: the struggles of an artist pursuing his vision, the pettiness of bureaucratic men, and the triumph of partisan politics over truth. The film makes much of former national security adviser Sandy Berger’s baffoonish antics at the National Archives, where he stuffed his pants with incriminating documents from the Clinton administration, later destroying them. The criminal, and criminally stupid, Berger is shown accusing the miniseries’ director of manipulating history for partisan purposes. The nerve!

But it is here that we encounter the fundamental problem with AFR and many of its films. As “Blocking” moves into its final scenes, we are prepared for a stunning indictment of Washington and Hollywood. The audience anticipates that the documentary will champion the cause of artistic freedom and truth-telling. Instead we get a boring endorsement of the Republican Party. An assistant director on “The Path to 9/11” turns to the screen and says, “I considered myself liberal on most issues. But, after this, I really have a new perspective on who gets it—who gets the nature of our enemies.” Members of AFR’s audience murmured little “Amens” and nodded their heads.

At AFR, to hate Sandy Berger is to fall into the arms of Condi Rice. To despise Michael Moore is to cheer Bill O’Reilly. If Noam Chomsky is a hypocrite, then why criticize the Pentagon at all? AFR, instead of promoting American values, is trolling for votes. Its mission is high-toned and cultural, but its goals are transparently political. No wonder that after its first years in Dallas and Los Angeles, the festival seems to have found its permanent home in Washington, where Leadership Institute and Heritage interns can be marshaled to volunteer their efforts and their eyes.

It is no wonder that artists of a conservative bent like Tom Wolfe, Whit Stillman, and Mark Helprin have kept a formal distance from the conservative movement. The organized Right cannot stop itself from turning a popcorn flick into a pamphlet or a documentary into a screeching polemic. Freedom, rugged individualism, and the triumph of the human spirit? Sure. Just vote GOP. 

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