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The people are sick of posturing party politics and politicians who are clowns, have no heart, no humanity, so when a tv comedian runs for President of the US …. Not a bad idea! And veteran filmmaker Barry Levinson shows how it could just happen, while giving us a good laugh. (Remember the hanging chad …?)

For writer-director Barry Levinson, the concept for his latest comedy, Man of the Year, began with the much-discussed slip-up that rocked 2004's presidential election: voting-machine error. Levinson says, "Following the election, there were many questions about the computer systems in Ohio and other states . . . whether or not they were 'hackable.' Plus, you had Ralph Nader as a third-party candidate inserted into the mix. The ideas coming out of this election seemed a good basis from which to construct a screenplay."

He was keenly interested in the fact that, as we move into the new millennium, computer-assisted voting has become an inevitability for our world. Beginning with 2000's Florida "hanging chad" challenges to election legitimacy-and culminating in the past few years' issues of technical problems with machines, delayed equipment arrival, incorrect exit polls and human error-the cautionary stories have blanketed the news. The filmmaker joined many of his fellow Americans in wondering about the sanctity of the process. Further stimulating Levinson's imagination were the discussions of a reliable paper trail that would ensure the person voted for was the one who would assume presidential office.

"fragile and questionable"

Levinson questioned that if this was a problem in the early stages of computer assisted voting, what could happen down the road in American politics? "We talk about our democracy and how important it is to us, yet on the other hand we have something that seems rather fragile and questionable," he reflects. "We shouldn't have to question whether our votes count or don't. As Tom Dobbs says in the film, 'We shouldn't put our faith in voting machines that have fewer safeguards than a Vegas slot machine."'

Of parallel interest to the writer-director was the idea that certain people who have significant television or rum exposure are becoming more and more involved in the political process, most often because they are becoming household names across the nation. He summarizes, "It's easier to sell a name brand than an unknown."

The filmmaker felt that the best way to make certain political points, without the burden of pontification, "was to create a comical, human movie that doesn't force you into any political box. We can laugh, but simultaneously think about the issues brought up."

Whereas 1997s much darker, more satirical film Wag the Dog was framed in a time and place where optimism more or less prevailed, Man of the Year comes to the amidst the backdrop of an unusually dark America. Levinson admits he wasn't interested in revisiting territory he had already explored, but rather liked the idea of creating a positive piece as balance to our new era. "Frankly, I liked the hope in this story," he notes. "Two people with a great deal of honour and character are coming forward to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences."

A fall 2005 meeting with James G. Robinson, the head of the production company Morgan Creek, would seal the production deal. Levinson and the producer had known one another for decades, but not worked together on a project. Over lunch, Levinson discussed his screenplay for Man of the Year and the two agreed that Robin Williams signing on to play the lead role of Dobbs would secure the finance.

Robinson responded to the fact that “the script is a reflection of our culture. Tom Dobbs is an honest everyman who has some very big decisions to make about the power that's bee granted to him."

"innocence and optimism"

The producer felt audiences would enjoy not only the sometimes dry, often ribald, humour but also the film's "innocence and optimism. Humans are by our very nature optimists, and we want to believe things can get better." That doesn't stop him from admitting, however that the film should very much make fun of politics and politicians. "Sometimes you have bring 'em down to Earth a bit," Robinson chuckles."

Levinson has often written the films he has directed, including such personal titles as Diner and Avalon. The director comments he enjoys the flexibility that comes with pulling double duty on his movies." At a certain point, you try not to make a distinction between whether you are the writer or the director," he says. "As a director, however, it's an advantage to b able to fiddle and make changes more quickly than if you are the writer only." He created a central character in Tom Dobbs that would allow his audience to not only laugh at the hypocrisy of the political process but also challenge themselves as participator members of their government. "Tom finds ways to allow humour in, so discussin1 accountability and responsibility becomes more palatable," the filmmaker offers.

For his comedian-turned-contender, Levinson wrote about a man who - once he realize that he's an actual candidate - retains his comic roots. After Tom understands he has a legitimate voice in the process, he jumps at the chance to shake up the system. But he begins to sound like the clone candidates with empty vows. Levinson reflects, "It's only when Tom comes back to his real essence-his comedy-that he suddenly has credibility.'

And that's when the humour, not the preaching, takes centre stage in the film. "The point of the movie is that it's not about liberals, conservatives, Democrats o Republicans," Levinson continues. "There is something wrong in a system when people begin to feel disconnected as if there isn't some type of representation. Dobbs is saying, 'We have bigger problems. We don't seem to have leadership. We don't have the guidance necessary. The average Joe doesn't feel his government is responding to his needs."' In that respect, Man of the Year is very much a feel good movie: we feel good that Dobbs shows the politicians a third way.

March 1, 2007

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