Sunday, February 26, 2012

MOMENTUM II: A Presidential Death Match

Coming soon! FIRST LOOK
Presidents have long been the focus of bio-pictures and, to a lesser extent, TV sit-coms. In recent times, however, the race to be “the decider” has become a common theme in more imaginative storytelling. 
    On the tube, the plots have often been dramatic; Martin Sheen fighting for a second term on The West Wing or Dennis Haysbert narrowly avoiding assassination on 24 come to mind. In 2008 HBO took on the 2000 Bush-Gore Death Match in Recount. Next month not-TV will release Game Change, a TV translation of the political bestseller about the 2008 race and, for cultural train-wreck fans, the emergence of Sarah Palin.
     Movie makers often tend toward comedy. Released in 1997, Barry Levinson’s Wag the Dog was prescient in its dark comedy premise that a president facing scandal might resort to staging a phony war to distract voters and jack up his poll numbers before the vote. The following year Primary Colors combined laughs and pathos as John Travolta played a fictional version of Bill Clinton during his first campaign. More recently, the plots have become a bit unlikely.
     In Head of State, Chris Rock became an “everyman” candidate who was supposed to lose but defied expectations. He won by telling the truth (with jokes), echoing the title of Al Frankin’s satirical book. Playing a talk show host, Robin Williams also used comedy to win an election in Man of the Year, a less successful Levinson project. This time the joke was on the voters: Williams’ victory was the result of a computer glitch.
      But these projects just scratched the surface. As any political junky knows, campaigns are high drama, filled with the possibility of betrayal, murder, even war. Gore Vidal launched the genre with The Best Man, a 1964 film (based on his play) in which a principled (pre-Sergio Leone) Henry Fonda had to decide whether to go negative during a brokered convention in order to prevent an unscrupulous Cliff Robertson from winning the nomination. Most people got that they were playing fictional versions of Adlai Stevenson and Jack Kennedy.
     Times – and movies – have changed. Since more people get their opinions today from TV shows and cinema than newspapers and talking heads, we deserve films that rip their stories from the headlines. To fill that niche, during the 2000 presidential race Maverick made a development deal with FantasyWorks to develop the next political-action franchise. The way we pitched it, a presidential blockbuster is less costly, more entertaining and certainly less damaging than the real thing. Everybody wins.
     The title, Momentum, telegraphed out-of-control energy – and also what makes the difference in most campaigns.
     In Momentum I, released overseas on video late in 2000, an unscrupulous governor (Michael Douglas) used a phony assassination attempt to secure the nomination. Some reviews called it Extreme Gekko. He faced a former basketball player (Kevin Costner) and a wrestler-turned-talk-show-host (Arnold Schwartzenegger) running as an independent. The solution was to use Islamic fundamentalists (led by John Malkovich) to take out Arnold on TV -- in exchange for Afghanistan. When the plot failed, Arnold hunted down Michael (plenty of Act 3 action) and Kevin became president.
      The tag line for the ad campaign said it all: “Momentum. Some people will do anything for it." Foreign sales went well, but it never got the expected platform release. Distributor negotiations stalled. Since then the film has been re-edited three times, the latest version for release in 3-D.
(unreleased 2008 poster)
     In Momentum II, which is set for release this summer, we move ahead many years. Now a former candidate’s daughter is on the road to the White House -- after her dad lost the presidency 20 years before due to a scandal. (I can't reveal what.) Her chief opponents are a war hero and a charismatic billionaire with a youthful following. The popularity of the incumbent President is so low that one of these three is likely be the next president.
FantasyWorks Gets a Dream Cast
    As Christine Norris Nichols, a driven Congresswoman haunted by the need to settle old scores, you could hardly do better than Michelle Pfeiffer, still a potential box office draw and due for a Meryl Streep moment. After the scandal Christine's mother and father broke up, and later her playboy husband died in a mysterious plane crash. Now her main relationship is with her dad, Ted Nichols. 
     A well-connected lawyer and popular public speaker, Nichols often shows up on TV chat shows. In an early scene Gene Hackman, who nails it as a cynical yet charming old fixer, gets well-deserved applause tearing into a Sean Hannity clone.
     But the path to the nomination is not clear. The film opens with military action as retired General Frederick Oxhart (friends call him Fox) orchestrates the dramatic rescue of POWs held in Iran after an abortive attempt to bomb a suspected nuclear installation. That’s one way to get momentum.
     Laurence Fishburne, who first appeared on screen in Apocalypse Now and achieved icon status in the Matrix trilogy, delivers the goods as a career soldier with principles, personal demons and an iron will. FantasyWorks also considered Samuel Jackson. Personally, I'm happy to see Fishburne on the big screen again.
    The wild card in the race is Nathan B. Crane, who would be the youngest president in US history if he won. Crane recently rocked the media world with the launch of a 3D television network over the Internet. Inspiring and charismatic, he’s practically a rock star.
    Armie Hammer nails the role of an overconfident entrepreneur – a better looking Donald Trump – with money to burn. Early on, Ben Affleck was cast, and Matt Damon and Brad Pitt considered it. But the development phase went on so long that they had all aged too much. After J. Edgar, Hammer is ready for a break-out role.
Act One Begins
     During a brutal primary season, with the prospect of a brokered convention looming ahead, rumors fly about Fishburne’s alleged connection with a private military company that has received diamond concessions in exchange for backing a fundamentalist rebellion in Africa. It’s not true, but Armie exploits the controversy to press his change agenda, arguing that both of his opponents represent an obsolete politics.
     The momentum is shifting. But Hackman is really behind the smear. He is determined to gain access to the White House for himself and secret Chinese backers.
     Cut to: On the way to a campaign event, Michelle’s plane almost crashes. The mishap totally dominates cable news, drawing attention to her husband’s death and giving her a sympathy bump. When Internet rumors begin to circulate that her hubby was returning from a secret tryst when he died, the role of victim triumphing over adversity revives her flagging campaign. Shades of Hillary’s travails and the Kennedy curse. 
     Now Michelle has the “big Mo”...
Find out more: 
Momentum II highlights (and a casting call)