The Hollywoodification Of Presidential Politics Early ads from 2012 candidates look more like movie trailers for a summer blockbuster. Sarah Palin will be the subject of a feature-length documentary in theaters this month. Do voters have to be entertained into paying attention?
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The Hollywoodification Of Presidential Politics

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The Hollywoodification Of Presidential Politics

The Hollywoodification Of Presidential Politics

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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TIM PAWLENTY (FORMER MINNESOTA GOVERNOR): The United States of America is the most successful nation the world has ever known.

RACHEL MARTIN, host: Summer movie season is here. And while what you're hearing may sound like a trailer for a summer blockbuster...


PAWLENTY: Humans cannot reach their potential, cannot realize their dreams unless they're free.


PAWLENTY: We have seen difficulties before.

MARTIN: Sounds exciting, right? Here's another one.


MITT ROMNEY (FORMER GOVERNOR, MASSACHUSETTS): I think we have to tell the American people the truth, and lead with integrity, and ask the American people to rise to the occasion.

MARTIN: That's an add from Mitt Romney, who announced his own presidential bid this past week. These ads use sweeping music, cinematic editing, and look more like Hollywood movie trailers than commercials about politicians. That's our cover story today: How Hollywood is reshaping campaign politics; why voters might buy in; and why one conservative movie producer is betting a million bucks that they will.

I'm Rachel Martin, in for Guy Raz. This is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.


ROMNEY: Thanks, you guys.

DARRELL WEST: (Author) They're very good ads.

MARTIN: Darrell West is author of "Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns."

WEST: They demonstrate kind of a new, emerging trend in campaign advertising because we're seeing kind of a blurring of the line between politics and entertainment.

MARTIN: These ads, released online and some two minutes long, are coming mainly from Republicans right now, but West says their inspiration probably lies in Barack Obama's 2008 campaign. Back then, Obama aired a half-an-hour television special in prime time that was pretty cinematic in its own right.


WEST: The viewer is seeing wheat fields in the background. You see Americans engaging in daily activities. And then in the video itself, once you get into it...


President BARACK OBAMA: Each passing month...

WEST: ...Barack Obama uses very powerful visuals - images that people can relate to - and then using ordinary Americans to tell the story about the problems that they were having.


OBAMA: Mark Dowell and his wife, Melinda, have worked at the local plant for most of their adult lives. Juliana Sanchez is a widow with two children and a mortgage.

MARTIN: So that was 2008. Today's presidential candidates aren't just using narrative and music to tug on your heartstrings; they're trying to rip them apart.


PAWLENTY: It takes an extraordinary effort. It takes extraordinary commitment.

WEST: Some of these ads actually do take on the features of a mini-movie.


PAWLENTY: Valley Forge wasn't easy.

WEST: Campaigns today really require a very strong storyline because there's just so much information out there in society, you need a strong narrative to break through all that information clutter.

MARTIN: And the rewards of breaking through that clutter are huge. In 2008, West says 80 percent of voters said TV was the most likely way they'd learn about a political candidate. Seventy-one percent said, political ads help me understand what a candidate stands for.

WEST: When you look at a campaign budget, about half of the money still goes for television ads because that's still, even in the Internet era, where people get much of their information about the campaign.

MARTIN: And what about style? Is there any evidence that these more epic, cinematic ads work better than traditional political ads? Is the audience saying, yeah, I'd see that movie?

WEST: People do believe that these epic ads are influential. Voters like to see those types of presentations. They often find those presentations memorable, and that style of communication can be very effective for politicians.

MARTIN: Darrell West - he is the author of "Air Wars: Television Advertising in Election Campaigns." For a deeper look at the cinematic techniques at work in ads like Tim Pawlenty's, we went to NPR's film critic Bob Mondello.

BOB MONDELLO: If you watch this ad, it is a whole bunch of little, tiny bits. It's lots of quick edits between things like a Martin Luther King speech and jets flying over. I'm not sure what all that has to do with Mr. Pawlenty, but it places him there. And the other thing is, that he doesn't speak to the camera in this. He's giving speeches, but you never see him just sort of looking at the camera the way that you do in most political ads. It's designed to place him in the context of Americana, and make him look very forceful by making him sound forceful. It puts all that music behind him.

MARTIN: Let's talk about that music. I mean, first, before we talk, let's take a listen.


PAWLENTY: If prosperity were easy, everybody around the world would be prosperous. If freedom were easy, everybody around the world would be free. If security were easy, everybody around the world would be secure. They are not.

MARTIN: That's high drama, man. OK, now let's hear the speech from the ad but as Pawlenty originally delivered it, at the National Press Club this year.


PAWLENTY: If prosperity were easy, everybody around the world would be prosperous. If freedom were easy, everybody around the world would be free. If security were easy, everybody around the world would be secure. They are not.

MARTIN: So a little different.

MONDELLO: Yeah. No, he's actually delivering the speech pretty forcefully. But you know, when you have that music behind you - I mean, I want brasses behind me when I'm talking. That would be great.

MARTIN: Yeah, it makes you sound very important.

MONDELLO: Exactly. There's also a history of using this to power speeches in movies, and I have a favorite example of that. If you go back to the - "Henry V" that Laurence Olivier made, he made it at the height of World War II, and he was trying to inspire the British public. And he did that with the music of his own voice.


LAURENCE OLIVIER: (As King Henry V) We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so base.

MONDELLO: That's 1944. Now, Kenneth Branagh came along and wanted to do "Henry V" in 1989. That's a different era. That's after Vietnam. War doesn't sound as appealing to a contemporary audience. So he needed to punch it up a little. And listen what he did.


KENNETH BRANAGH: (As King Henry V) We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; for he today that sheds his blood with me shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile. This day shall gentle his condition. And gentlemen in England, now abed, shall think themselves a curse they were not here.


MONDELLO: It's soaring, isn't it?

MARTIN: Oh, it is soaring.

MONDELLO: And you do, you get all goose-bumpily.

MARTIN: And it's - there's an optimism, strangely enough, about this speech of war.

MONDELLO: Yeah. That music is just soaring, and it really pumps it.

MARTIN: But really, what this is about is telling stories, and that's what filmmakers are doing. That's what they do with this music. They're trying to lead us to an emotional place. I guess it would make sense that in politics, they're trying to do the same thing. They're creating leading men and women, characters.

MONDELLO: You know, in film, you want to use everything that's at your disposal. You use the sound, and you use the visuals. And these days, you use the 3-D to try and make it as full an experience as possible. I assume that in politics, they are trying to do exactly the same thing.


MARTIN: NPR's Bob Mondello, thanks.

MONDELLO: Thank you.

MARTIN: Another candidate - potential candidate, that is - with a cinematic call to action is Sarah Palin. Filmmaker Steve Bannon spent a million dollars on a documentary film about Palin. It's called "The Undefeated," and it will screen across the country this month.

Bannon says he made the film without any editorial input from the Palin camp, and he reaches deep for theatrical inspiration.

STEVE BANNON: I needed to get to the people in Alaska. They would be kind of the Greek chorus, and you would actually be in the middle of the whirlwind, which was Governor Palin's time in Alaska. I would bring in sound-ups, you bring in news footage, you bring in interviews, you bring in speeches, you bring in all this great footage they had up there in Alaska television. As I started to get into the film and actually physically make it, I realized I didn't want a narrator. And I needed a linking device since I had studied, particularly, the first half of "Going Rogue."

MARTIN: Sarah Palin's book.

BANNON: Yeah. We went to HarperCollins and got the audio rights. So you hear her voice in there, and it kind of links the scenes together.

MARTIN: So some might see a precedent for this work, looking at Barack Obama's half-an-hour television special that aired during the 2008 presidential campaign. Do you see a connection there? How is your film different?

BANNON: I think it's very different. Look, I think film is, you know, Pawlenty put out a two-minute video to start his. I think people are putting out videos and understanding that media is much more sophisticated. I think that - I harken back, really, to Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11." I think feature film, and I think particularly feature nonfiction or documentary, it can have a major role in explaining ideas, and describing people's lives and their struggles. If a screenwriter pitches some of this - you know, her struggles with big oil, and her struggles with the Republican establishment - it would be something like out of a screenplay. So these things lend themselves to dramatic interpretation, and I think you're going to see a lot more of it in the future.

MARTIN: And you talk about using these characters from Alaska as a sort of Greek chorus, with Sarah Palin as the heroine. Is there a risk of building her up as this character, as this leading lady, to the point where she can't possibly live up to the characterization of her?

BANNON: Well, you know, there's a lot of - by the way, it's not all successes. There's failures throughout this film. That's why I think it's inspirational. I think - I have not heard one person that's seen this, that's been politically liberal, say that I had to fix in to kind of, you know, make this like she's some sort of superwoman. It's not that at all.

MARTIN: So is Sarah Palin running for president?

BANNON: You know, I have no idea. The good news is the other night, Greta Van Susteren asked her what she thought when she saw the film, and she's - her quote was, it blew her away. But she mispronounced my name.


BANNON: So it's - I don't really have any involvement...

MARTIN: Would you like her to run for president? Did you make this movie to convince her to run for president?

BANNON: I certainly didn't make this movie to convince her, but I do think it's very important for, particularly the Republicans and the conservatives, to have a campaign like 1976, where you had President Reagan as an outsider.

MARTIN: But you know, we should point out that the Republicans did lose in 1976.

BANNON: They lost in 1976, that's correct, but you would not have had the Reagan revolution. That's a great point. You had to have that to have the Reagan revolution. I mean, look, this title, "The Undefeated" - because some of the left-wing bloggers have already said, well, doesn't the guy know she lost lieutenant governor...

MARTIN: There is that, yeah.

BANNON: Well, it's - but you have to see the film. It's about some of the values she stands for, the American working class or the American middle class, these things of self-reliance and self-determination. That's really the undefeated. And I made a bet at the beginning of this that American people are not just a fair people, they're an open-minded people. And I think if they see this film, I believe they'll see Governor Palin. They may not agree with her politically, but they will see her in a very different light.

MARTIN: So you liken yourself more to Michael Moore as a filmmaker, but Michael Moore is a very political, polarizing figure, someone who doesn't shy away from the fact that he's got an agenda, a political agenda. Do you think of yourself as a conservative counterpoint to that?

BANNON: Well, I think - I would never - I think Michael Moore, look, is a master of the craft. I'm learning the craft. I don't agree with Michael Moore's politics, but I love watching his films because I think he's a master of what he does. Look, I think it takes the subject - we've had some Shakespearean characters in our politics. Here, I think we're, you know, very blessed in the degree that we have someone like Governor Palin, who comes from America's last frontier. And you also have President Obama, who comes from a very different perspective but is also a very fascinating story.

MARTIN: Steve Bannon joined us from Arlington, Virginia. Thanks very much, Steve.

BANNON: Thanks, Rachel. Appreciate - having me on.

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