Barry Levinson isn’t a pundit and he won’t play one on TV—or, for that matter, in an interview with The Daily Beast.
“I don’t think anybody cares what my opinion is, and when you give it they always say, ‘What does he know? He doesn’t know anything!’” Levinson told me in the midst of promoting PoliWood, his Showtime documentary (debuting Monday Nov. 2) about the much-discussed nexis of politics and Hollywood, and the actor/celebrities who freely share their feelings about issues of the day. “‘Director’ is a credential for something, but it’s not a credential for determining how we fight our wars for the next decade. Movies are the turf I know.”
“That guy Joe Wilson who said ‘you lie!’—look at the amount of coverage that got. What does he represent? It doesn’t matter.”
The 67-year-old Levinson—whose films include Rain Man (which earned him an Oscar), Diner (which revealed the romance of Levinson’s native Baltimore) and Wag the Dog (which introduced a now-ubiquitous term into the political lexicon)—prefers to play the naïf. Although he is a brand-name Hollywood director with the ability to recruit such megastars as Cruise, De Niro, Hoffman and Pacino, he’s appropriately modest about his political acumen and refreshingly unsophisticated about the democratic process—the polar opposite of the self-identified insiders who blather knowingly on cable.
“All of a sudden 15 different spokespeople in a political party are all saying the same things—how do they come up with that?” Levinson asked me.
It’s no big secret: They've all got their talking points.
“But most people don’t think in those terms,” Levinson told me. “They think: Aren’t these all independent politicians as opposed to ‘they all get their talking points’? I mean, there’s something very sinister about that. Everybody gets their talking points so when they all go on television they’re all going to have a unified point of view—that’s a very frightening thing, because it’s not 15 congress-people with independent minds, it’s 15 people being directed by somebody above them. That’s scary to me.”
The movie’s jumping-off point is Levinson’s hardly original insight that television has ruined politics with its cheap need to entertain rather than educate.
“You always have to understand the repercussions of any new invention,” he said. “I think television is more exploitative and ultimately manipulates in a much greater way than word of mouth or something to be read in the newspaper. But the political consultants who use television don’t manipulate us ultimately to do much of anything. That’s the reality. We’re angry, but nothing happens and nothing gets done. Most of the politicians are on the air talking, but no one actually works through to get to a conclusion.”
Using his broad brush like a paint roller, Levinson went on: “These are like ongoing soap operas—conflict for the sake of conflict with no resolution. People yelling at each other and carrying on is much more fun than listening to political discourse. Political discourse is boring to us. Television and the politicians feed one another and if you want to be noticed, you’ve got to say something really audacious—even if it has no relevance. That guy Joe Wilson who said ‘you lie!’—look at the amount of coverage that got. What does he represent? It doesn’t matter, and so we’re now going down the road of ‘Is it appropriate? Is it not appropriate? What is the nature of civility? How much money is he getting in donations because of that?’ And then we can just play that out for days!”
The director’s inchoate fear of manipulation and gimmickry, and his gut sense of the citizenry’s gnat-like attention span, are leitmotifs of his documentary, in which Levinson trails Anne Hathaway through the 2008 Democratic and Republican national conventions along with her lower-ranking fellow cause celebs from the Creative Coalition—a nominally nonpartisan group of actors and writers focused on the arts and education. (Levinson is listed by the perpetually buzz-seeking group as a member of its board of directors—which is news to him. “I’m not actually even a member of the Creative Coalition,” he laughingly insisted, and a top Creative Coalition official, one of PoliWood’s producers, seemed unable to shed light on this awkward circumstance.)
Meanwhile, to hear Levinson tell it, the movie biz is possibly in sadder shape than the body politic.
“The shorthand of it all—it’s really about the corporatization of Hollywood, and with that comes this myopic view of entertainment," he told me. "So they basically work in little areas and they really can't see much beyond that—so you get certain movies that are goofball comedies, the action type of movies, remakes. The nature of a corporation is that it doesn’t have any sort of creativity in its DNA. The idea is, let’s make what’s been made; let’s remake what’s been made. That’s the safest bet. Take a movie like Rain Man. That couldn’t be made today because of these corporations. It made half a billion dollars on an investment of $24 million, but they wouldn’t do it today, they wouldn’t know what it meant. They’re looking for a guarantee. The Hollywood Old Guard had a much better understanding of the movies than the new corporate suits.”
Levinson’s next project, coincidentally enough, is an HBO movie titled You Don’t Know Jack. But it’s about mercy-killer Dr. Jack Kevorkian, not corporate and political ignoramuses.
Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.