The Barack Obama of 2008, the inspiring candidate whose soaring rhetoric transfixed a nation, is about to reemerge in a film meant to alter the course of the current campaign. The Obama of four years ago will again be seen at the height of his powers, transporting vast throngs of supporters to a promised land blessed by a new kind of politics.
The movie’s creators do not wish the president well.
The film is a product of Citizens United, the conservative advocacy group whose landmark 2010 Supreme Court victory over the Federal Elections Commission denuded campaign-finance reform, earned an unprecedented State of the Union rebuke from Obama, and gave rise to the dominant role of super PACs in national politics. Those were unexpected results; what Citizens United really wanted when it took the FEC to court was to make movies.
David Bossie, the group’s president, had been impressed by Michael Moore’s 2004 anti-Bush polemic, Fahrenheit 911—not only by the film’s commercial success, but by the impact of the advertising campaign promoting the film. Bossie considered Moore’s ads by far the best political spots of the 2004 cycle, and he decided to transform Citizens United into a political production company. He’d make conservative films targeting liberal candidates, perhaps making some money through the sale of DVDs. But his larger purpose was to use the advertisements for his films as political weapons, exempt (he hoped) from the restrictions of campaign-finance laws because they were in support of a commercial product.
His first big effort was Hillary: The Movie, a frontal assault on the character and alleged dark ambitions of the former first lady—who, Bossie assumed, would be the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee. Hillary was ready for its rollout just as the Democratic primary season heated up, but the FEC and a federal court declared that the film and its ads (one of which featured political consultant Dick Morris proclaiming “Hillary is the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist”) were clearly “electioneering communications,” and thus banned from airing near the date of a primary election. Bossie appealed, and, two years later, the John Roberts court gave him a victory.
The fruit of that triumph is The Hope and the Change, an hour-long film that will make its premiere at a screening next week at the Republican National Convention, complete with a planned introduction by one of the convention’s star speakers—perhaps keynoter Chris Christie. The film will go into theatrical release in selected cities in September, and, if all proceeds according to plan, will play several dozen times on a cable channel right up to election day.
The Hope and the Change is a more sophisticated and potentially potent effort than the Hillary project was. Instead of featuring strident partisan voices such as Morris or Ann Coulter, the cast of 40 is composed entirely of registered Democrats and independents who voted for Obama in 2008. This reflects a political premise shared by Bossie and Stephen K. Bannon, the film’s director—that the 2012 election will be decided by that group of voters in key states whose enthusiasm for Obama has descended toward disillusion.
The film’s early production stage, reflecting the true nature of the project, involved an ambitious political operation in dozens of key counties in seven swing states. Bossie used market research firms to identify their pool of Obama voters, and then conducted focus group sessions to cull the group down to those who would appear in the film. He contracted with Pat Caddell, the Democratic pollster and adviser to former president Jimmy Carter, who had been researching the very group Bannon and Bossie were interested in, to design the sessions.
In the film’s opening segment, a haunting musical strain plays as Obama’s campaign plane (dubbed “Change”) is seen descending through the clouds over Denver, interspersed with vast crowd scenes of breathlessly expectant supporters. Bits of Obama’s cosmic rhetoric (“this was the moment when the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal”) are intercut with close-ups of faces twisted in ecstatic zeal, culminating in Obama’s memorable line, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
The music is not Wagner, but cineastes will recognize echoes of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi-propaganda masterwork, Triumph of the Will. The reference, Bossie says, was intentional. “There are no accidents in this film,” he says.
Bannon, the director, says he did not intend to associate Obama with Hitler. “Absolutely not, that’s ridiculous,” he says. “The reason I did it was because everybody in the film, to a person, was talking about the overwhelming nature of this catharsis they experienced. And I just said, Hey, let’s structure it like this, and see how it plays. And it plays.”
Sitting before Bannon’s camera, the film’s subjects recall, in dreamy language, their memories of those hopeful moments of the Obama movement. “Everyone was just so excited for this, this savior of our nation,” says one woman. A young mother recalls, “It was just that hope, that spirit, it was just undeniable, the feeling you got watching him win, because you thought it was just this wind of change coming in and all of these things were going to be at least looked at if not done, taken care of for our country.”
Through the course of the film, the subjects tell how their hope turned to disappointment, as the economy floundered and Obama focused on health-care reform and presided over an explosion in government spending. “It actually is a feeling that I would best describe as resentment,” said one of the disillusioned.
“As I looked at that film, I understand why Chicago”—the Obama campaign—“never goes back to reminding people what they felt in 2008,” says Caddell. “Politically, this speaks to what really is the Obama crisis.”
Bannon says he sees his movie as “a referendum film,” which, of course, neatly fits the election framework that the Romney camp is hoping for. Advertising spots are already being cut, and will serve the duel purpose of promoting the film and signaling to voters hesitant about an Obama reelection that they are not alone.
The film’s rollout will begin with an hour-long special on Fox News this Friday, hosted by Sean Hannity. But Bossie says that Fox viewers are not the targeted audience. He says that PBS is planning to broadcast a panel discussion on the film’s subject—disillusioned Obama voters—and that his ad money (the film’s production and promotion cost is about $5 million) will be spent at MSNBC and CNN. “I’m not gonna preach to the choir with this film,” he says. “And you get a lot bigger bang for your buck on CNN and MSNBC—Fox is expensive.”