News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Mark Bennett B-Sides

April 29, 2012

MARK BENNETT: Political life imitates art

Signs of 2012 campaign visible in film based on Debs’ legacy

TERRE HAUTE — A movie plot typically touches the extremes of life.

It’s called “dramatic effect.” It leads people to buy theater tickets and pay for Netflix.

Real life generally unfolds somewhere between the fringes. Unless, of course, the subject matter is a political campaign. The creative license used by filmmakers is no more outlandish than the unbridled kookiness of a 21st-century attack ad. The line between cinematic art and the dark art of politics is beyond blurry.

Terre Haute natives William Tanoos and Paul Fleschner are putting the finishing touches on “The Drunk,” a political drama based on the fictional grandson of social activist and five-time presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs, who also grew up in Terre Haute and died here in 1926.

Tanoos and Fleschner filmed most of “The Drunk” last summer in Terre Haute, but returned earlier this month to shoot two additional scenes to solidify the storyline. They’re getting advice from experts at 20th Century Fox, though that studio is not formally involved in the independent film. A composer is crafting a soundtrack. Post-production veterans and editors with credits such as “X-Men” and “Date Night” are helping to hone this effort by Tanoos and Fleschner, who produced, directed and acted in “The Drunk” — their first full-length movie effort.

They hope to release the film by November, coinciding with the peak of 2012 election fervor. The plot swims in politics and history. Joe Debs (played by Tanoos) decides to run for governor against a corrupt prosecutor, who pursued a drunk-driving charge against the hard-drinking Joe for political reasons. The campaign turns tumultuous, as Joe develops a better understanding of political hardball and a new appreciation for the legacy of his grandfather, who ran for president atop the Socialist Party ticket in 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912 and 1920.

Earlier this year, while doing post-production work, the filmmakers spotted an ad from the campaign of Sen. Rick Santorum, who then was seeking the Republican presidential nomination. The ad attacked President Obama, showing a bleak future in 2014 if the incumbent Democrat remains in office. Entitled “Obamaville,” it predicts a virtual apocalypse. The portion of the ad that caught the eyes of Tanoos and Fleschner, though, was its ludicrous scheme to draw a subliminal connection between President Obama and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the erratic president of Iran.

As Ahmadinejad’s face is shown, a snapshot of Obama appears for a nanosecond, before flashing back to Ahmadinejad. The narrator cautions that a “sworn American enemy becomes a nuclear threat.”

The ad says, “Welcome to Obamaville.”

Ironically, long before that farcical commercial debuted, the makers of “The Drunk” created a similar ad for their screenplay. In it, a super PAC supporting Joe Debs’ opponent, Bruce Frye (played by noted actor Tom Sizemore), briefly inserts an image of Joe between those of well-known political rogues. Again, the sinister comparison is subliminal.

Santorum’s “Obamaville” ad “was eerily similar to what we did,” Tanoos said by telephone last week from California, where he works as both an attorney and a fledgling actor and producer.

“When we saw that, we were like, ‘Hold on, we just did that six months ago,” added Fleschner, who works in Chicago and commutes to Los Angeles every couple weeks to help with the film.

The difference, though, is that Tanoos and Fleschner were making a movie, clearly fictitious. (Eugene Debs had no children and, thus, no grandchildren.) By contrast, the Santorum ad team was capitalizing on the relentless, well-rehearsed efforts to demonize the real-life president. More is undoubtedly on the way as Mitt Romney takes over the point-man role in the push to return the Oval Office to the GOP four years after George W. Bush ended his two terms.

The presence of super PACs in “The Drunk” mirrors 2012 reality, too. Those political action committees, which raise unlimited amounts of money mostly from wealthy individuals and some corporations, have become masters of the all-too-effective attack ads, which simply wear down viewers’ reasonability by repeating exaggerations until they’re believed. Democrats and Republicans both play that game on state and national levels.

Joe Debs gets a full taste of that venom in his mythical run for governor of Indiana.

“It’s certainly happening today,” Tanoos said, “as everyone can see.”

“The film is definitely relevant,” added Fleschner.

Reality — which is never purely black-and-white, but often gray — gets strip-mined in modern campaigns. You won’t find Mitt Romney’s archrivals or people unwilling to see any good in President Obama admit that both seem to be committed family men and caring fathers who — and this is pretty important in America circa 2012 — have kept their families together. Both want the best for their country, and differ mostly on the methods needed to help America grow; but that comparison won’t turn heads in a 30-second TV ad. The opponents of Romney and Obama will illuminate their flaws and ignore their virtues, and the super PACs will pour millions of dollars into molding a caricature of their target instead of a whole, flesh-and-blood person.

At some point, we have to wonder whether we’re watching a movie or a political campaign.

In the film, the protagonist listens to speeches by his grandfather. In one speech, Eugene Debs reflects on his days in a federal penitentiary, where he conducted his final presidential campaign while serving time for speaking out against World War I. Debs says, “I’m no better than the prisoners that surround me.”

“It’s a really wonderful, powerful confession,” Fleschner said.

So real, too. Debs, running for the nation’s highest office, as an inmate. A super PAC would’ve wasted its money on an anti-Eugene Debs attack ad. He wore openly his greatest vulnerability, yet received almost 1 million votes from that prison cell. As his grandson enters his own political race 90 years later, Joe Debs learns a lesson from his grandfather’s experience.

“What we’re hoping to show is that a forthright candidate who presents himself as a flawed human being would be much more powerful than a candidate who presents himself as an angel,” Fleschner said.

That’s one reality show America hasn’t seen lately.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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