William Powers on the Effects of Candidate Biography Films
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NEWSHOUR: Many people are arguing that the only value left to the conventions is the fact that Americans finally start paying attention to the presidential race which will come mid-August, be 16 months old.
WILLIAM POWERS: Right.
NEWSHOUR: Given that, is there a value to these candidate bio films, even if they’re only portraits of the men, and not what they believe, mostly?
WILLIAM POWERS: I think they engage people — one of the purposes they serve is that they engage people. They bring a story line, sort of a compact story line that people can get their minds around, (if the story line works,) and think about this guy, kind of in an engaged way, that they haven’t had a chance to do before it’s been so piecemeal. So if it’s a film that they are gonna watch for this concentrated time, and remember, they may come away talking about that candidate. I don’t think it happens very much. Though most of these things do not succeed in that way.
NEWSHOUR: Why don’t they succeed in that way?
WILLIAM POWERS: I think most of them are not super films. You know, every once in a while, you have one that comes along, like this RFK, sort of tribute, that was done after his assassination at the ’68 convention. You have the Clinton, “A Man From Hope” film, that really worked, and sort of people remember certain scenes and talk about them. But like most movies are not hugely successful, most of these little films are not either. It’s just hard to do, to engage people in that way, and get them thinking about something when they have so many images in their day anyway.
NEWSHOUR: Will enough people see them, even if they are very good, even if the Bush and the Gore films are very good–will enough people see them for them to have that sort of impact, to draw people in?
WILLIAM POWERS: They will if they’re good. “A Man From Hope” got picked up so much because it had that JFK-Clinton shaking hands scene, and so you didn’t just see it in the convention. You saw it again and again in news coverage, and throughout the campaign, ’cause it was such a dramatic image that pulled people in so much and got people talking. People said the next day, “God, I didn’t know that they met all those years ago!” I mean, it was an amazing thing to include in one of these films, and so, yes, it kept coming back. Most of these we won’t see again, we won’t see the images again. So if they work, they have to work that night.
NEWSHOUR: What do you think of the networks’ arguments that they’ve made in the past, and odds are will make this year, that the films are giant commercials, that they shouldn’t be obligated to carry them. They call them infotainment.
WILLIAM POWERS: Right.
NEWSHOUR: But isn’t, isn’t the whole convention almost infotainment?
WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah, and the whole campaign is, is a big commercial. I mean, let’s face it–that’s what a presidential campaign is, and the networks give these guys a chance in the debates, and elsewhere, to kind a present their best package to the people, and I think this is part of the package. I mean, as long as it doesn’t go on for an hour. You know, I think, it’s something the networks should cover. Here is what this guy wants you to see of him. That’s important information.
NEWSHOUR: The speech George Bush gives that night, on Thursday night, will be the first time that he’ll be out on his own before a national audience. What’s the opportunity there, for him, and for Gore, when he does the same thing?
WILLIAM POWERS: When they do the film?
NEWSHOUR: When they do the film, accompanied by the speech that he gives afterwards?
WILLIAM POWERS: The opportunity is to use this film to get people excited about them, in a way, and about their story, that they haven’t been excited. To follow it up–boom–with–and “Here I am, live,” backing that up with, hopefully, ideas, programs, et cetera, because these films tend not to have actual issues in them anymore. They have, sort of, images and feelings.
So it’s a way to have the one and the two. Here’s the story line I want you to hook into, and boom–here’s my platform, such as I’m gonna give it to you tonight, and really grab people.
NEWSHOUR: You mentioned “A Man From Hope,” but which other films, in recent years, the last 20 years or so, have been successes, and why, do you think? and which ones have been “bombs,” for lack of a better word?
WILLIAM POWERS: I think it’s interesting to look back at ’92 because the Clinton film was very successful, mainly for that one image of Clinton and Kennedy shaking hands when Clinton was a boy. The Bush film of that same year was not as successful. It was pretty good, you know, but it wasn’t as successful. It wasn’t as successful as the one he’d had in ’88. The ’88 Bush film was actually quite effective. It had great war footage, actual footage of Bush from that period when he was in the Navy, and also sort of generic footage of people in the streets, in New York, celebrating the end of the war, and so forth, and they put it all together very effectively.
The one before that, that was most successful, I think was the Reagan ’84 reelection tape, which had this wonderful scene of Reagan giving that speech in Normandy, a very moving speech about some of the men who fought in Normandy, one particular guy who couldn’t be there, who died before the celebration, and it was used extremely effectively and sort of melded into the whole picture of the last four years. “Return me to office. Here’s what I’ve done for America.”
NEWSHOUR: Is there a chance that the campaigns could cast a wrong tone with the film and miss an opportunity, and almost hurt the candidate with the film?
WILLIAM POWERS: Yeah, and I think it works at two levels. One is that you just bore people and they turn away from you, and say, you know, “Who cares about this guy?” which is one disaster.
The second disaster is these films are now serving a second function, which is they show you how this candidate manages his own image. One of the most important things a President does, these days, is image management. People know that. They actually care about it. They know it’s an important skill.
They say if this guy can’t even put together a good bio film for the convention, what’s he gonna do with his image and the image of the country in office? It’s sort of a demonstration of this one specific skill that Presidents actually need, for better or worse.
So it’s interesting that there’s the film itself, and then there’s the making of the film, that people are gonna judge.
NEWSHOUR: Do you think there’s any dishonesty inherent in this craft?
WILLIAM POWERS: I think they’re dishonest, only to the extent that so much of what we do in information management is dishonest. We’re surrounded by visual images. We’re all managing this stuff all the time. We’re very used to movies being used to send messages. So yes, to the extent that you can use images to create feelings that people wouldn’t have otherwise had, there’s a kind of dishonesty. But we all know that’s going on. This is part of our language now. It’s not just a “text society” anymore, an oral-based society. It’s visual. And so, in that sense, I think it’s just part of the way we all do business.
NEWSHOUR: The Reagan ’84 film was almost–almost 20 minutes long. The Bush film, which we saw being put together, the other day, is going to be short of ten.
What do they have to put into those ten minutes to really make it work?
WILLIAM POWERS: Two things I think are important.
You have to make this personal connection with the candidate, something that’s kind of moving about his life story, where you grab people and bring them in there, as you would with a movie character, and then, two, you have to connect that to the history of the country, sort of to the arc of what’s happening in our time, what’s happened in recent years. It has to be the man fitting in with his time, and you see that in the most successful films. The good Reagan film, the successful Bush film, and that Clinton film.
You saw the arc of their life somehow matching that of the country in recent years, and they can take us to greatness, supposedly. That’s what the film would show us.
NEWSHOUR: A lot of people have said that there’s that great center of undecided people who vote more on emotion than on intellect.
WILLIAM POWERS: Right.
NEWSHOUR: Where in the grand scheme of a campaign does the film fit in in that schematic?
WILLIAM POWERS: I think it fits into that in the sense that this is the chance for people to decide, in a very concentrated time, they like the guy, or they don’t like the guy. I mean, I think this is what people refer to when they say those last-minute voters kind of “go on their gut.”
It’s not so much on issues anymore. This is a time when there aren’t any kind of high-profile issues that people really track, or people in that group, that middle group track closely, and decide on the one issue.
They decide if they have a good gut about the person and his story, and this film is a really effective way to get people to think about that, and sort of know how they feel.
NEWSHOUR: How do you measure the overall success of these films, after the fact?
WILLIAM POWERS: I guess they do it by polling or something. I don’t know how I would measure it myself. You have to interview people, you know, look at sort of reactions to the thing. They must have these people hooked up to these meters, where they say where they liked it or not. But I think you can look back at somebody who wins a presidential race, and look at their film, and assume it had some role with some group of people.
NEWSHOUR: What do you think could be done with current crop of candidates? How would you recast them?
WILLIAM POWERS: Well, if you look at what Bush has been doing, he’s got this pretty consistent theme going, this idea of compassion, inclusiveness, including those who have willing hearts. I think he’s used that kind of phraseology, so far, in his campaign.
He just has to sort of follow through with that in the film, I think. It’s been successful for him so far. It’s been successful for him as governor. If he keeps it up, and has a film that really engages people on that theme, he’ll be fine.
Gore, on the other hand, has been moving among a lot of different themes. You see him trying out different Al Gores, basically, never quite settling on one. He needs to use this thing, I think, sort of strategically, to settle on one, to say to people, “Okay, here’s the Al Gore I’m selling to you, basically, and here’s what I’ll be as President. Here’s the man I want you to think of me as.” And eliminate all the other Al Gores that have been running around in our heads, because there’s too many.
NEWSHOUR: Why should networks carry the films?
WILLIAM POWERS: Well, I think that, as I said, this is a, this is a chance for these candidates to present, sort of their “best self,” and that’s information that people want. I wanna know if this guy can package himself and show me what he’s really made of, on his best day, which is what this film is an example of, I think the networks should give us that. They perform a similar role when they show us the debates.
You know, here’s this guy on his feet, hopefully at his best, debating the other candidate. I think it’s a perfectly legitimate news story for the networks, particularly if they follow it up with their own commentary and analysis. If they just let it kind of run, nothing, afterwards, from smart people, at the network–Ted Koppel, and so forth–well, that’s not too responsible. But if they tell us how to think about it and how to critique it, I think that’s very helpful.
NEWSHOUR: Given the importance of film-making and image in this time, how do these films fit into that?
WILLIAM POWERS: Film making is our principal way of telling stories in society–big stories.
We go to movies; we talk about them. We watch the Academy Awards to see which stories were told most effectively. That is the language that’s being spoken in one of these films, and people get that language.
It’s a very effective way of communicating who this candidate wants to be, the way he wants to be thought of out there, in the public arena, as people try and make a decision on him.
So I think it’s crucial. I think it’s a genre that’s gonna become more and more effective, and actually more and more analyzed. It is an ad, in a way, but it’s more than that, because it’s part of this political event, and it’s a concentrated look at the guy from his own point of view.
NEWSHOUR: Can these films every really be artistic, in nature, because they have to be so straightforward and they have to use images…
WILLIAM POWERS: An ad can be artistic. A two–a one-minute ad on TV can have artistic moments. These things are longer than that. They have many opportunities, in these movies, to really kind of move you, make their point effectively. Now because they’re serving this, you know, very practical purpose, to get somebody elected, you know, the underpinning, the, the motive is not artistic. But they can have moments that work on you, the way a good movie works on you, a good movie that’s trying to be art. I’m sure that they consider this–the people who do these films–to be the art of the political film, and if they do it well, it is an art.