Should Filmmakers 'Contact' Presidents?


Predident Clinton plays a key role in the new summer blockbuster "Contact." And he didn't even need to audition for the part.

The film's producer, Robert Zemeckis, uses sound bites and actual footage of Mr. Clinton at press conferences that seemingly show him commenting on the discovery of extraterrestrial life - the movie's plot. But Clinton made the remarks in a different context and never approved their use in the movie. Mr. Zemeckis lifted the material from comments made last summer when scientists found a Martian meteorite with bacteria-like fossils.

While the clips might make for good entertainment, some say the movie crosses a line, going beyond imitation to cinematic exploitation of the presidency.

"It has serious consequences," says George Edwards, director of the Center for Presidential Studies at Texas A&M University. "I don't say that as an institutional loyalist, or someone who wants to put the president up on a throne .... I am merely saying it reduces the presidency to entertainment."

But the Clintons are not the first first family to be used for commercial gain.

* Look-alikes were used to capitalize on former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in advertisements for sunglasses and water skis.

* A Washington developer featured former President Bush, his wife, and their dog, Millie, in ads that read, "Move to a neighborhood where the residents are kinder and gentler."

* The 1970s movie "Cold Turkey," in which an entire town attempts to quit smoking, features "outtakes of [former Vice President] Spiro Agnew and [former first lady] Pat Nixon speaking publicly ... as though they were talking about this town in the Midwest," says historian Carl Sferrazza Anthony.

In "Contact," Zemeckis goes even further. By using large sections of the president's speeches and by including Cable News Network hosts Bernard Shaw and Larry King, who play themselves, the movie tries to create a heightened sense of realism.

CNN president Tom Johnson has responded to criticism by stating that network journalists will not appear in future movies. Meanwhile, the White House has sent a severe letter to Zemeckis, saying the filmmakers were "fundamentally unfair."

Given the cost of producing a full-length feature film, the White House will not seek to have the footage removed. But it hopes to send a clear message to future film producers about what it sees as a misuse of the presidency.

"By appropriating President Clinton's image and words in this manner," writes White House counsel Charles Ruff in his letter to Zemeckis, "you have essentially given him a role in your film without his authorization."

Moreover, the White House says the clips are misleading. "There is a difference in which the president's image, which is his alone to control, is used in a way that would lead a viewer to imagine that he said something he really didn't say," says White House spokesman Mike McCurry.

Telephone calls to the Warner Bros. office in Washington were not returned.

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