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Partisan pictures: Movies vs. campaign ads

August 12, 2011 | 11:56 am

Moore The fuss over Kathryn Bigelow’s upcoming movie about the killing of Osama bin Laden -– which is slated for release on Oct. 12, 2012, just a month before the presidential election -– raises some interesting questions about what separates feature films from campaign commercials. Conservative bloggers see Bigelow’s movie as the latter, an attempt by liberal Hollywood executives to produce an October surprise by glamorizing one of President Obama’s greatest achievements in office. Never mind that it’s not even clear whether Obama (or rather, an actor playing Obama) is going to appear in the movie, or that it will chronicle any of the president’s actions.

Whether or not Bigelow or her distributor Sony Pictures are deliberately trying to influence the election, it’s getting harder to draw the line between movies and campaign speech these days, especially when it comes to documentaries. Was Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11," released six months before the 2004 election, a campaign commercial? (That is, a commercial for then-Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, since it was ruthlessly critical of President Bush.) Is "The Undefeated," this summer’s film about Sarah Palin, a documentary or political propaganda? Citizens United, an independently funded conservative advocacy organization at the heart of last year’s controversial Supreme Court decision that did away with campaign funding restrictions for corporations and unions, makes straight-to-video "documentaries" boosting the likes of GOP presidential hopeful Michele Bachmann and blasting the likes of Hillary Rodham Clinton. Popcorn-fest or pandering?

Personally, I’d draw the line at commercial appeal. That is, a movie produced as a moneymaking venture qualifies as a bona fide commercial film, whereas a movie funded by ideologues solely for the purpose of boosting a political view is a campaign ad. But this definition has its drawbacks. Citizens United, which is very clearly in the business of generating right-wing propaganda, would no doubt dearly love to make money on its films and broaden their mainstream audience; if its films lack commercial viability it's because they're so poorly produced, not because the organization intends them to be mere advertisements. If anybody out there has a better definition, pipe up!

--Dan Turner

Photo: Michael Moore. Credit: Sean Kilpatrick / AP

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