Poor Ted Cruz. On Tuesday, the Texas senator found himself on the receiving end of Donald Trump’s wild imagination, when the orange-hued reality star, who’s never met an insult he didn’t want to spoon, insinuated that Cruz’s Cuban-born father, Rafael, was somehow connected to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Eat your heart out, Oliver Stone. Later that evening, “Lucifer in the flesh” (John Boehner’s words) dropped out of the presidential race, punching and elbowing his wife in the face along the way, as one does.
A day earlier, I’m seated across from filmmaker Rob Reiner at an office building in Downtown Manhattan. Cruz is undoubtedly a huge fan of Reiner’s work, having reenacted Billy Crystal’s Miracle Max sequence from The Princess Bride word-for-word on the campaign trail, as well as quoting a line from The American President while defending his wife, Heidi, from a misogynistic retweet courtesy of Donald J. Trump.
“It’s crazy!” says Reiner, shaking his head. “He used The Princess Bride and he also used a line from The American President the other day. He does that whole Miracle Max scene and knows the lines, so he’s obviously a movie buff, but these are the fans I don’t need. I don’t need these fans.” “I’m sure he’ll introduce it to his daughters, at least,” he adds. “It really is a little weird. But listen, it’s gonna be over pretty soon. He’s headed for the last round, this guy. But The Princess Bride does cut across politics. I think it’s a movie for everybody.”
Reiner is in New York to promote his latest film, Being Charlie—a bildungsroman of sorts about a troubled teenager (Jurassic World’s Nick Robinson) battling a heroin addiction whose father (Cary Elwes) is too consumed by his gubernatorial run to help his son. The film is Reiner’s most personal yet, co-written by his son, Nick Reiner, and based on his own experiences with addiction, having been to several rehab facilities from the ages 15-19.
The younger Reiner began writing the screenplay with Matt Elisofon while the two were in rehab, and initially scripted it as a half-hour situational comedy about their life in rehab. Then, they retooled it as slightly more serious hour-long comedy/drama, but when the elder Reiner—whose production company, Castle Rock, made Seinfeld—pitched it to the TV networks, none of them bit. So they refashioned it once more, this time into a film.
“We didn’t make Being Charlie to work stuff out, but it turned out that it really did,” says Reiner. “It was done because it was something that Nick had experienced, and it wasn’t until we got into it that I realized how profound the effect of working on this would be to my relationship to Nick, which did change quite a bit. It forced me to see what he had gone through, and it forced him to see what me and his mother had gone through. It brought us closer together.”
The father in the film, acting as Reiner’s surrogate, is not let off the hook, sacrificing his son’s health and safety at the altar of his own ambition. While Reiner says the film “is a fiction,” the father’s attitude in the film still mirrored the director’s own at the time. “I listened to anybody who had a desk and a diploma, and the first charge of a parent is to keep your child safe, so I did what people told me to do—the whole ‘tough love’ thing—and it really goes against my nature, because I’m not a disciplinarian by any stretch of the imagination,” he explains. “I acted the role of the ‘tough love’ guy because that’s what they told me to do, and as we went along, I discovered that I know my child better than any expert could know them, and I learned to trust myself more, and to listen to Nick more.”
And the father character’s bid for governor was based on real life as well, when Reiner famously considered running for governor of California against Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, but only “polled forty percent in my own family” and decided to abandon the idea. But Reiner’s always been an outspoken political activist, and has some very pointed opinions about Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“This is a guy who said he saw thousands of Muslims cheering on 9/11,” says Reiner, perplexed. “He’s a pathological liar, and it’s interesting to watch because anybody who lies as much as he does, and as continual as he does, it’s almost impossible to fact-check because it just never ends! It keeps going and going. When I think about a guy like that, all I can think is that he’s really insecure, because why would you make up stuff all the time if you really had confidence in yourself? And on top of that, you feel the need to put your name on everything. He’s the most thin-skinned, egomaniacal, narcissistic liar ever. I’ve never seen anything like that. What scares me is that people actually pay attention to this guy! I don’t get it at all.”While Reiner is mainly known for his tremendous directorial run in the ’80s and ’90s, cutting across a variety of genres with the mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, the coming of age flick Stand By Me, the swashbuckling The Princess Bride, the classic rom-com When Harry Met Sally…, and the psychological horror of Misery, he’s also quite adept at political movies, having filmed the Aaron Sorkin-scripted A Few Good Men and The American President. He’ll return to political filmmaking for his next feature, LBJ, a biopic of the late president Lyndon B. Johnson starring Woody Harrelson, who Reiner says is “off the charts” good in it. He’s already wrapped filming and hopes to have it in theaters before the election ends.
“It’s a very narrow sliver of LBJ’s life,” says Reiner. “We do have a flashback to him being Majority Leader in the U.S. Senate, but the majority of the film takes place from when Kennedy picks him as his running mate up to the Kennedy assassination and to him becoming president, and the first week where he has to deliver the big speech to the House of Representatives about continuing Kennedy’s legacy.” “He’s a complex character,” Reiner continues. “He’s very Shakespearean. If it hadn’t been for the Vietnam War, I think he would’ve gone down as one of the great presidents in American history—Voting Rights Act, Civil Rights Act, Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start, it goes on and on. He was a real paradox of incredible power, legislative wisdom, persuasive abilities, and incredible insecurity and fear of being loved, and of not being able to move forward because of that. I wanted to show him as a human being because I was of draft age when he was president, and I only had one view of him: I hated him because he could send me to my death. But as I’ve gotten older, and I’ve been in the political realm for a while, I see what he was able to accomplish, and how he did it.”
But does the film address LBJ’s obsession with his own penis, I ask a chuckling Reiner. “It does have one thing which we took right out of the Oval Office tapes, where he talks about how big he is. ‘I’m well-endowed,’ he says. He’s ordering pants and wants the guy to put a little more room down there for it.”
Reiner’s next film will be even more controversial, if he has his way.
“The picture that I want to do after that is called Shock and Awe, and it’s based on this true story about these four journalists who wrote for the Knight Ridder news service, which is now owned by McClatchy, that serviced about 31 papers around the country, and in the run-up to the Iraq War, these four guys—Joe Galloway, John Walcott, Warren Strobel, and Jonathan Landay—they all got it right, unlike The New York Times,” he says. “They were the anti-Judith Millers. They debunked the aluminum tubes, the yellowcake, etc., but nobody paid attention to them. Once it’s in The New York Times, that’s the paper of record, and the rest of the mainstream media drank the Kool-Aid. So it’s an incredible story about the danger of the disappearance of the independent press.” “You need media outlets to tell the truth,” he adds, with a head full of steam. “So many of these media outlets are owned by big corporations so they’re beholden to the bottom line and show business, or they want to maintain access to the powers that be, so they end up whitewashing things and the result can literally be deadly.”
The 69-year-old filmmaker has made no secret of his support for Hillary Clinton in the past, having backed her presidential run in 2008 and again this year. But Hillary did support the Iraq War, so to play devil’s advocate, I ask him why he’s thrown his weight behind the most hawkish candidate. “Well, here’s the difference: Hillary did make that vote [for the Iraq War] and she did say it was a bad vote, and everybody needs to understand what that vote is,” he offers. “It gives the power to the president to be able to go to war if they want to, it doesn’t say, ‘I’m going to war.’ If you’re the President of the United States, you’re the commander-in-chief, and you’re the only one with the authority to pull the trigger. So Bush could have said, ‘Well, I’ve got the authority but there’s no rationale here.’ But he didn’t say that. He lied, and they all lied. And poor Colin Powell had to fall on his sword. So, we need this independent press because it’s the only way you can hold elected officials accountable.”
He pauses, and his mind soon wanders over to the Benghazi hearing, where Hillary was grilled by a room full of venomous Republican congressmen for 11 straight hours and didn’t stumble once.
“They had her in there for eleven hours,” says Reiner. “After that, I said, ‘They just handed her the presidency. We just saw a president: someone who is cool under fire and knows how to handle situations. That’s what we want.’” Reiner shakes his head. “If you look out at the field, it’s not even close. She’s literally the only one qualified to be president right now. Is she a perfect person? No. Is anyone a perfect person? No. But she’s the best possible candidate by a million miles.”