That Time Philip Seymour Hoffman Starred in a Political Documentary

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Feb. 4 2014 8:18 PM

Star Struck

That time Philip Seymour Hoffman made a political documentary.

140204_POL_ThePartysOver
The 2000 election as hosted by Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Still via Film Movement

Philip Seymour Hoffman slumps in his chair, dressed for a sick day—baggy clothes, knit cap. He lolls his eyes at a TV set that’s playing a series of depressing videos from the 2000 presidential campaign. George Bush yammers his talking points. Al Gore rises like Aphrodite, shirtless, out of a tossing sea.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

“I decided to host this documentary because I felt ill-informed,” says Hoffman. “I’ve always had an aversion to politics. Can’t say why.”

This is the first real scene of The Party’s Over, also known as Last Party 2000, maybe more easily explained as Hoffman’s sole political documentary. For a few weeks that year, a 34-year old Hoffman teamed up with filmmakers Donovan Leitch and Rebecca Chaiklin and acted as a layman guide to America’s last pre–war-on-terror election. The result was a curio that hasn’t been discussed much by Hoffman’s countless admirers and eulogists. He was probably the best actor of his generation, and there’s no acting in this movie.

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The Party’s Over was one of the only sequels Hoffman ever made. Eight years earlier, Leitch had produced a similarly experimental documentary, The Last Party, in which a manic Robert Downey Jr. sort of reported on the 1992 election. I say “sort of” because the most memorable parts of the movie are not his interviews (he asks Bill Clinton if “anybody under 30” will speak at the convention) but the many scenes in which Downey unleashes his inner “goat boy” and jumps around on all fours.

“The prerequisite for Downey was that he'd never participated in politics and never voted,” remembers Leitch. (Chaiklin politely declined to talk about the movie.) “It was the same for Philip. He'd never voted. Also, we had some friends in common, and we loved his work. It wasn't like he was a huge A-list actor, but we kind of liked his no-nonsense approach—kind of the antithesis of Robert Downey. Everything was so big with him. Phil played it much closer to the vest.”

Much closer. Hoffman tended to sound wise, sad, and searching in the many interviews he gave about his acting. If he’d researched a role, he could explain the character’s motivations and biases with the skill of an authorized biographer. But as a political correspondent he was earnest and occasionally overwhelmed.

“The first interview we did was with Harold Ford Jr., when he was a congressman,” says Leitch. “We hadn't prepped Phil, and during that interview he felt a little out of his depth. So we wrapped and he said, ‘Hey, guys—next time, I want to get the brief before I go in.’ From then on, we'd have a conversation about who we were about to talk to; we’d have a file. He was an incredibly smart guy, and he could figure things out for himself, but part of the process of making these films was that we wanted him to come into it on his own.”

So the filmmakers hooked Hoffman up with thinkers and strategists on the right and left. “Hoffman struck me as a guy with noble intent,” remembers Mark McKinnon, then a strategist for the Bush campaign. “He didn't know much about politics, but he seemed to genuinely want to discover what was at the root of the dysfunction and corruption we call American politics today. While it turned out to be pretty left-leaning, I had the sense that Hoffman was sincere in his approach, and sadly discovered himself knee deep in a cesspool of bipartisan bile.”

The film lets us see Hoffman struggling to escape the cesspool. “I’m nervous,” he says before a hastily-scheduled interview with Jesse Jackson. “I’m forgetting all my questions.” Hoffman eventually just lets Jackson roll, nudging him along to see how much contempt he has for the Republican rebranding effort that defined the 2000 convention in Philadelphia.

The actor takes the same approach with everyone who comes on camera. They know more than him, fine—he’s not going to nail them, but he’s going to see how well they’ve thought through their dogmas. The more they had, whatever those dogmas were, the more engaged he got. After a night in a debate spin room, Hoffman wipes his brow with frustration at what John Kerry, Karl Rove, and the rest of the hacks have been telling him. Cut to an interview with Noam Chomsky about how meaningless the exercise had been.

“I remember the interview with Tim Robbins and Susan Sarandon,” says Leitch. “They were backing Ralph Nader, and they’d been political animals for years. Talking to them, you could see Phil get pumped up. Even Ralph Nader's convention was inspiring to be at. Phil respected the fact that Nader wasn't going to fall on his sword to let the Democrats win the election. That's where Phil's heart was. He had an independent spirit.”

He also happened to cover the most depressing election in a baby boomer’s lifetime. Filming was supposed to wrap on Election Day. The election didn’t end right then. The filmmakers hurried to Florida to cover the recount, and when he found time, Hoffman returned to Washington to gawk at the protests outside the Supreme Court. The cameras capture a series of protesters debasing themselves in the interest of making sure their candidate won. Hoffman tries to argue with a Republican who wants to stop the count before every county can be recanvassed with the same standards. The image freezes. “He’d just realized that the whole act of voting and making your voice heard got hijacked by high-powered attorneys,” says Leitch.

The Party’s Over ends with a shrug. Bush is inaugurated. Hoffman walks across a crowded New York street. He doesn’t have anything to say.

“In the post-production, he wanted to keep the voice-over very brief,” says Leitch. It wasn't about him. He said, ‘This is about a journey I'm going on.’ He wanted to just educate himself, not sit there and pontificate. This is a part of Phil that people maybe haven't seen before. Maybe this film can be a way to see him not playing Capote or a cult leader or one of the other roles he played. It's a way to see the real Phil Hoffman.”

David Weigel is a Slate political reporter. 

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