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It's hard to count the explosions. Battle for America has the sort of pyrotechnics that would make Michael Bay worry about the viewers' retinas. Some buildings implode as fireballs tumble out the windows. Others crumble into clouds of dust and rubble. A group of dinosaurs, minding their own business, scrambles away from a meteor that causes a mushroom cloud, bringing them all to extinction.
All of this is in the service of a very sober argument about the failures of the 111th Congress.
Battle for America is the fifth film produced in 2010 by Citizens United and the third by a former mergers-and-acquisitions manager named Stephen K. Bannon. Not too long ago, he was an amateur director. Now, he's playing his movies at Tea Party events, conventions, and special screenings like the one in Georgetown Thursday night. Citizens United President David Bossie was there, as was the movie's host, Dick Morris, and Rep. Dan Lungren, R-Calif. Bannon, wearing a West Point windbreaker (his daughter attended the school), was giddy about what his movies can do to the Democrats.
"We've tried to weaponize film," he said. "And we've tried to do in it a certain way to get this view to people who might not necessarily see a political documentary. We made this film for independents and for Reagan Democrats. We're actually going to take it to Paul Kanjorski's district," he said, referring to the Pennsylvania Democrat who's on the first line of the incumbent deathwatch. "His constituents, those are the kind of people who need to see this."
Outside the theater, one of the Washington panics of the moment concerns the surge of campaign spending brought on by Citizens United. It was Bossie's group and its advertisements for Hillary: The Movie, that initiated a lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court. "We won," Bossie told the premiere audience. "And we want to make use of that."
Battle for America is one of the products of that big win. It's the group's final film of the year and the one with the least promotion, especially compared to last month's Newt Gingrich spectacular America at Risk. Bannon's Fire From the Heartland had the irresistible hook of being all about conservative women; this weekend, it is being screened at the Smart Girl Politics blogger conference at a Hyatt across the Potomac. Bannon's first film, Generation Zero, premiered at the National Tea Party Convention in Nashville, Tenn.
This movie, though, doesn't have the historical weight or niche appeal of other Citizens United productions. It's what the group went to court for: a campaign pick-me-up meant to rally and win voters. It is a tie-in, effectively, to the campaign tour that Morris is doing for Republican candidates. It's going to be advertised on TV. It's going to play wherever there's a waiting screen. "That's what we won the right to do," Bossie said.
"The genius of Bossie and Citizens United," said Morris, "is that instead of producing 30-second and 60-second ads, they're producing 90-minute films, I think the Supreme Court calls them. We overemphasize reach and frequency. In the modern era, what you really need is depth to get to people."
So, then: the depth. Bannon denies being influenced too much by Michael Moore, but Battle for America is so similar to Moore's work that it's impossible not to make the connection. Most of the images—400 or so of them, bragged Bannon—are stock footage chosen for impact and, occasionally, silliness. For example:
- A monologue from Lungren about how President Obama was born in America but lacks some appreciation for his country is played over images of Obama making weak opening throws at baseball games.
- Assertions about the "myth" that the 2009 stimulus bill created jobs are illustrated by a man in a Sasquatch suit making his lazy way through a forest.
- Multiple commenters say Obama is enslaving America economically; to prove it, we see video of African slaves hauling giant blocks to build pyramids.
- Grumbles about an "imperial Congress" from Lou Dobbs—who, in his monologue, alternately accuses Democrats of hating capitalism and of being beholden to corporations—are illustrated by clips of men in Roman centurion costumes.
All of this is told by Ann Coulter, Newt Gingrich, AEI President Arthur Brooks, and other pundits backing up Morris. And then there are the many, many explosions. According to Bannon, they "move the story to the crescendo." They're aided by a soundtrack that's unremittingly grim and sounds almost exactly like Philip Glass' soundtrack to Koyaanisqatsi *, all droning organs and tragic horns.
There's something here, though, that doesn't remind us of Michael Moore. It's familiarity. As proud as the Citizens United team is of its films, edited out of a brownstone east of the Capitol, they are not making arguments as bold as the ones Moore made or using footage as rare as he used. The enduring video of Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11, for example, is of George W. Bush on the golf course talking about terrorismand then saying, "Watch this drive." That was a clip few had noticed until then.
The Citizens United films are outgrowths of Fox News and conservative activists with YouTube accounts. Battle for America's clips of Obama and the Democrats are ones conservatives have seen many, many times—Obama "bowing" to Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi telling a union crowd that Democrats had to pass health care "so you know what's in it," Rep. Bob Etheridge being a jerk to an anonymous kid with a camera. This is what Democrats fail to understand about the Tea and Republican parties massed against them.
"Our actors kind of act like a Greek chorus, knitting all of this together," said Bannon.
This is an artistic way of looking at things. The Citizens United films don't just "weaponize" politics. They verify and build on the accepted history that, if you're a conservative, you consume every day. Do Tea Partiers really need this to get revved up?
Bannon may be done making movies for now. But Bossie isn't done promoting them. The next month will be spent on publicity and, at some point, working on what Morris tentatively calls Project 100, which will buy ads against Democrats that pollsters have not yet listed as vulnerable. After the movie is over, at a small reception, Bossie reported that the campaign is already under way. "There should be an ad for America at Risk on MSNBC right about"—he checks his watch—"right about now."
Correction, Oct. 5, 2010: The original version of this article misspelled the title of film Koyaanisqatsi. (Return to the corrected sentence.)