Here’s how James Moll created the version of John Kerry that will introduce the
candidate at the Democratic National Convention tonight to a national
“It’s the story of a young boy who from a very young age showed
promise,” said the 41-year-old director, describing “A Remarkable
Promise,” the nine-minute campaign film he made about the life of Senator
Kerry. “Unfortunately, he grows up and goes to Vietnam. He volunteers and
comes out and finds his sense of duty. And it changes his life.”
Here’s what will be in the film: the New York Observer sat and watched the film
with Mr. Moll early Thursday morning, about 22 hours before Mr. Moll was
sitting in his room at the Millennium Hotel in Boston, just down the street
from the Fleet Center, where his film will be shown immediately before Mr.
Kerry’s speech to the delegates, and more important, to a television audience that
is also an electorate trying to make up its mind how to think about the
Democratic nominee for President. It was late and Mr. Moll was exhausted. In 21
days, he had created the film meant to define the essence of a man who
desperately needed to convey his personality, and his potential as the
Democratic nominee for President of the United States.
For his title, Mr. Moll latched on to the three words “A Remarkable
Promise” in an early copy of the script. In it, he said he had found what
he was looking for.
“At the end, I even stopped the camera and even told him, I said, `Look, I
want to ask you this question–what’s your promise, you know, to the American
people? And the answer he gave is right there.”
Mr. Moll flipped to Mr. Kerry’s answer on the videotape.
“I decided to run for president because I was frustrated,” says Mr.
Kerry. “I’m confident I can make America safer and I want it safer, for my
kids, for the world, for the future. And my promise is to lead our country, to
bring people together and take us to a better place.”
And there it was, Mr. Kerry’s presidential essence, as seen by the director
recommended to Sen. Kerry’s campaign by Mr. Moll’s boss, Steven Spielberg, and
by his filmmaking team, articulated by the sonorous baritone and Hollywood
gravity of Morgan Freeman, who narrates the film and does a voice-over
describing Mr. Kerry as “a man devoted to our country’s remarkable
promise.” Cue rising violins and a French horn that seemed to send Mr.
Kerry like Roy Neary in Close Encounters of the Third Kind into a transcendent
“It had a lot of meaning to me,” said Mr. Moll. “It made sense
to me. It’s both the promise of this young boy and the promise of America. I
didn’t do a political interview,” he added. “I didn’t ask how he felt
about the war in Iraq. That’s not what this was about.”
Mr. Moll has the distinction of being Steven Spielberg’s in-house documentarian
at DreamWorks SKG. And it shows. The Kerry film is full of warm, golden-hued,
Spielbergian images, beginning with the saturated colors of home movies, images
of Mr. Kerry as a young, shirtless boy climbing trees and throwing footballs.
The teenage years, in black and white stills, are set to “Stand by
Me.” The goofy era of his rock’n'roll band, “The Electras,” Mr.
Moll plays for laughs, like an episode of VH1′s ‘Behind the Music, ‘ with
the daughters wincing in embarrassment. He even has an adolescent version of
Jimmy Carter’s “lust in his heart” moment, saying that playing in the Electras
was “a great way to meet girls.”
Then, the mood changes.
There are the home movies from Vietnam, the young soldier
(Mr. Kerry’s personal footage, shot on Super 8 film), somberly strolling with
his rifle. Mr. Moll’s eye lingers, with the heavy use of slow motion, through
his younger years, hovers on the promise. “That this man was willing to
take a bullet,” says a former colleague from his war years, “Makes
you respect him.”
With the protest years, the film starts to speed up, and eventually there is
less of the warm, time-softened young man. He becomes the less stirring Senator
from Massachusetts, but now brighter hues, set against July 4th bunting and the
saturated reds of flags. “This isn’t a resume, it’s a story,” he
Mr. Moll said the sweetest aspect of Mr. Kerry’s biography lay in his family:
Mr. Moll said the birth of his daughters, Alex and Vanessa, elicited warm,
stirring responses from Mr. Kerry. “I cried like a baby when they were
born, both of them,” says Mr. Kerry in the film, sitting in the warm,
living room light in the study at Ms. Heinz Kerry’s estate near Pittsburgh.
“It’s a miracle.”
“The other one that really moved me was Teresa,” said Mr. Moll.
“I loved her.”
Ms. Heinz Kerry gets Mr. Kerry to laugh with her fizzy, frizzy, Mozimbique
Missing from the film testimonial is Mr. Kerry’s first wife, Julia
Thorne–there is not a single image of her. Mr. Moll said she was “very
private” and Mr. Kerry had asked that she not be included. The absence is
somewhat conspicuous when Ms. Heinz Kerry pops up.
“She is apparently a very private person,” Mr.
Moll said. “And I was told she’s just not in the public eye and she’s not
somebody I could include in the film.”
Did he think about that?
“Yeah,” he said. “I did. And you know, this
isn’t a piece of journalism.”
Mr. Spielberg, he said, loved the film.
“He liked it very much,” he said. “After the
cut-down version, he said go back to the old one. He’s a storyteller. He likes
the story told.”
“I certainly have never, ever, ever in my career attempted
to do anything Spielbergian,” said Mr. Moll, but, he said of the
description, “I certainly don’t see it as an insult.”
Since 1994, when he was hired by Mr. Spielberg to assemble
an archive of interviews with Holocaust survivors, Mr. Moll has found himself
producing a number of Holocaust films and documentaries about the Second World
“I approached it like I do all my documentaries,”
he said of Mr. Kerry’s introduction. “I didn’t think of it as a
commercial. For the most part, other than those last 15 seconds, I approached
like any other documentary. I didn’t have to be manipulative.”
And Mr. Moll described the Vietnam film as just
Mr. Moll said he hadn’t intellectualized the process of
making the film. “A lot of it’s just gut,” he said. “What
graphically works. That’s it.”
“It would have been very hard to make him something he
wasn’t,” he said. “I wouldn’t have been capable of doing that.”
Promise,” a nine-minute film, is impressive, emotional, stirring,
particularly when it comes to Mr. Kerry’s Vietnam service. Its combination of
remembered bravery, goofy sentimentality and ramrod integrity communicate
something that Mr. Kerry has had a difficult time conveying on his own: that a human
being that dwells within Sen. Kerry’s craggy facade, who being running to be
President of the United States. It was directed by James Moll, a 41-year-old
filmmaker who won an Academy Award for his Holocaust documentary, The Last
Days, and who is Steven Spielberg’s in-house documentarian at DreamWorks SKG.
Despite its function as a combination of political propaganda and salesmanship,
Mr. Moll who is also directing a documentary about World War II veterans for
HBO’s Band of Brothers series said he was given full artistic license to create
the story he saw fit, without interference from political handlers.
“I wasn’t given a mandate or
any script,” he said. “I wanted to film it myself. I reserved my own judgment
until I finally met him.”
Mr. Moll was hired shortly before July 4th weekend and given 21 days to create
the mini-movie that would shape Sen. Kerry’s public persona for the American
public. The director has been hunkered down for weeks inside the fortified
compound of Universal Studios, in Universal City, Calif., where Mr. Spielberg
got his start and from which the late Lew Wasserman once offered advice and
support to many Democratic candidates, working right up until and during the
Democratic National Convention. He completed the final editing on Tuesday, July
By Mr. Moll’s account, he was able to operate with little input from Mr.
Kerry’s campaign team. He said Robert Shrum, Mr. Kerry’s media strategist and
chief speechwriter, did not advise him on the film’s theme. The lack of
guidance, extraordinary in a highly stage-managed and disciplined campaign, had
“And that was good and bad,” said Mr. Moll. “It would have been nice to have
something to run on. I mean where do I start? Tell us what you want. I had to
come up with everything, the title, the storytelling is mine. For better, or
It’s also the story that the Republican attack machine, in the days before the
films unveiling, has done its best to foil. On Tuesday, July 27, the RNC
released an 11-minute video montage supposedly depicting Mr. Kerry’s opposing
views on the war in Iraq. On Wednesday, the right-wing Webmeister Matt Drudge
revealed excerpts from a book entitled Unfit for Command : Swift Boat
Veterans Speak Out Against John Kerry, which claimed that Mr. Kerry “reenacted”
battle scenes in Vietnam with a Super 8 camera he bought at the PX in Cam
But while Mr. Moll had access to the two-hours of the Senator’s personal
Vietnam footage, shot by both Mr. Kerry and members of his crew and now
preserved on video, Mr. Moll shot most of the film himself, doing his own
sit-down interviews and following Mr. Kerry with a camera crew during the July
Mr. Moll said he was unaware that “reenacted” film footage existed. None of the
footage he saw, he said, included “reenacted” battle scenes, nor had he
suspected that he was watching any while pouring through it. “Absolutely not,”
he said. “I saw the footage. I don’t get it. I hadn’t heard of that until an
Mr. Moll said he used the footage while telling the story of Mr. Kerry saving
the life of fellow Vietnam veteran Jim Rassmann.”When Jim Rassman is talking
about how John Kerry saved his life,” he said, “I’m using some of that footage.
It shows the swift boat and various shots of the swift boat, and some firing
like you see in the water. Bullets in the water.”
“It’s just illustrative,” he added, saying the bullets in the water were not
from the actual event. He also used footage of “water hitting the side of the
boat as it’s traveling through the water. It’s just having some images to put
on while he’s telling the story.”
“I would have used archival footage,” he said, “but it was a pleasant surprise
that he had taken his own footage while in Vietnam.”
Mr. Moll also used original 8-mm home movies showing Mr. Kerry as a child,
footage that was in the possession of Mr. Kerry’s sister, Diana Kerry. Mr. Moll
had promised Don Mischer, the executive producer of the Democratic National
Convention, that the film would be five to seven minutes long. But the first
cut Mr. Moll turned in was 11-minutes in length. He showed it to Steven
Spielberg first, the week before the convention.
“He was very pleased. He liked it,” said Mr. Moll. “When he saw the next cut,
he missed the previous one. He wanted to see it longer.”
Apparently, the length of the movie was the only point of contention. “Although
I didn’t have pressure from anyone in terms of content, there was certainly
pressure in terms of time,” he explained. “I had Steven saying make it more, so
I was being pulled apart by both sides.”
His instinct, he said, was to create a personal profile, and not necessarily
linger on Mr. Kerry’s accomplishments as a senator, which had felt was already
been well-publicized. “I didn’t know who he was as a father or who he was as a
son and those are things that I was really interested in,” he said.
He researched previous campaign filmsincluding Ronald Reagan’s 1984 film, “A
New Beginning,” inspected Republican attack ads aimed at Mr. Kerry and poured
over archival material and previous interviews with the Massachusetts Senator.
While he used some previously-recorded interview material, he said he
ultimately decided and quick to rely on the straight-ahead documentary
techniques he knew, best exemplified in The Last Days , the story of five
Hungarian Holocaust survivors, which won the Academy Award in 1999. That meant
immediately gathering his crew to follow Mr. Kerry on his July 4th trip to TK,
and filming Mr. Kerry in candid sit-down interviews. “I guess I fell back on
experience and I knew very quickly what I wanted to do,” he said. “I didn’t
know if I would be allowed to, but they allowed me to and they didn’t ask for
the footage and they didn’t ask to see a cut until I was finished. It was very
surprising to me also.”
Mr. Moll first heard that he was being considered as the director of Mr.
Kerry’s film from a Dreamworks SKG staffer. Then Mr. Spielberg called
him.”Clearly, I was flattered,” he said, “but I was also very nervous. It
seemed like a major undertaking in a very short period of time.”
Tonight, Mr. Moll’s inaugural
voyage as a political persuader will be viewed by a hundred million people,
more or less, who will make up their minds if the documentary filmmaker has, as
Hollywood has dubbed the film, succeeded in Saving Private Kerry.