Kerry’s Spielbergian Nominating Film: “A Remarkable Promise”; Here’s What’s In It

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

television audience:

“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

dimension.

“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

said.

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

whackiness.

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

War.

“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

“tourist footage.”

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.”

“A Remarkable

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

27.

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

been daunting.

“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

for worse.”

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

Ranh Bay.

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

4th weekend.

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

hour ago.”

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.