Reince Priebus says a lot of goofy things, but the chairman of the Republican National Committee has a point.
Films can dramatically alter the way famous people are viewed, making them cooler, more glamorous, more sympathetic — and the reverse. Clever filmmakers can offer up delicious souffl? of propaganda and storytelling, putting a new imprint on the historical record.
Priebus has complained to NBC and CNN executives about plans for what he calls Hillary Clinton "puff pieces" while Hillary is "on the dance floor." The NBC entertainment division is doing a four-hour miniseries starring Diane Lane, and CNN Films is producing a documentary to be shown in theaters next year directed by Charles Ferguson, who won an Oscar for "Inside Job," his scorching 2010 documentary on Wall Street.
Priebus says the films would be political ads "masquerading" as unbiased productions. He should know, since Republicans popularized full-length attack films, sliming the Clintons and Obamas. (In the 2008 documentary "Hillary: The Movie," produced by the conservative Citizens United, one woman claimed the Clintons put a hit out on her cat.)
NBC is planning to make the miniseries soon, before Hillary formally announces, so that the network doesn't run into problems with less scintillating rivals demanding equal time. Priebus says that shows "a guilty conscience."
You need look no further than "The Queen" — Helen Mirren's Oscar-winning turn in 2006 as Queen Elizabeth — to see how reputations can be burnished. After Princess Diana's death in 1997, the royals were seen as bloodless ice cubes, and there were questions about the viability of the monarchy. But when the sympathetic movie came out, the queen's popularity soared. Peter Morgan, the British screenwriter of "The Queen," acknowledges he played "a small part" in that.
"When people sobered up from the week after Diana's death, a lot of them felt pretty silly," he told me. "The royal family behaved badly, but we behaved worse, millions of people who knew nothing about Diana holding her up as a patron saint.
"The surprise in the movie was, oh, the queen is quite an emotional woman. We connected to her terrible loneliness, a privileged person living in vast houses, a woman who was making mistakes, getting lost, missing steps, getting confused. It was endearing."
Morgan, who rooted for Hillary against Barack Obama in 2008 and still feels "pretty sure she'd be a great president," doesn't think there's much potential for dramatically revising her image.
"The horse has bolted in terms of original thought," he said. "You can only further consolidate stuff we already know."
Consolidation, however, can still be brutal. Julianne Moore's Emmy-winning performance in "Game Change" solidified Sarah Palin's reputation as an emotionally erratic dunce. Palin attacked the "pro-leftist, pro-Barack Obama machine there at HBO."
Moore and Palin aside, often when someone is portrayed by a popular actor — consider Robert Redford as Bob Woodward — some of the glamour seeps into the subject. And Diane Lane is a very alluring actress. Hillary tries awkwardly to airbrush her history, but everybody can use some professional help. By the time Hollywood is finished, Hillary could be fighting critics with the sexy charm and kickboxing skills of Catwoman.
Of course, Priebus being Priebus, he went on to say something goofy, petulantly threatening to cut NBC and CNN out of Republican debates if they don't cancel their Hillary shows by Wednesday.