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With Man of the Year, Oscar winning director Barry Levinson takes another comedic swipe at the American political system – with help from Robin Williams – but not with so much satire, as he explains to Andrew L. Urban as the film is released on DVD.

When Barry Levinson was writing the screenplay for Man of the Year, he immediately thought of Robin Williams for the role of talk show comedian Tom Dobbs, who ends up as a Presidential candidate, “because comedians can be smooth, but they can also cut into you,” he explains. “They’re fast and they don’t need a script, like an actor would.” Dobbs needs his wits about him as he accepts the inadvertent challenge of running for President. With Robin Williams of course, the script was a starting point; as Levinson says, Tom Dobbs’ lines in the film are a combination of Levinson and Williams.

This is Levinson’s second overtly political film, after Wag the Dog (based on Larry Beinhrat’s novel, American Hero), in which, less than two weeks before election day, a sex scandal involving a young intern erupts that threatens to cripple the US President’s bid for a second term. But before the incident can cause irreparable damage, a mysterious fixer is called to the White House. The ultimate spin doctor, Conrad Brean (Robert De Niro) has the uncanny ability to manipulate politics, the press and most importantly, the American people. Anticipating the reaction of a frenzied press corps, Brean deftly deflects attention from the President by creating a bigger and better story: a war.

"not intended as a full on satire"

“But Man of the Year is not intended as a full on satire,” says Levinson, “and critics who wanted it to be a satire were disappointed.” All the same, it was Levinson’s frustration with the system of American politics that drove him to make the film. And a bit of wishful thinking … “There’s too much money in the system. What Tom Dobbs is advocating is a return to a time in the past where there weren’t so many power brokers. There’s no chance of that happening, though; fund raising today is Very Big Business,” he says emphatically. “The corporations all donate money to the campaigns to gain leverage…”

Levinson has little hope of grass roots politics (like the one that elevated Dobbs to the candidacy) impinging on the two party system: “Grass roots politics doesn’t have much power without exposure. It needs TV and that’s a tough road, so 99% of the people are pushed out the political system.”

(Ditto Australia, where the party political system is under-performing as a robust, democratic format. The newRepublic movement is looking to find ways of bolstering constructive, deliberative models, like citizens’ assemblies, to counter the inflexible posturing of party positions, especially on major issues.)

Levinson’s claim that the film isn’t satire is partly true, but also partly contradicted by reality. “Yes, politics is a satire of itself these days…” And his art accidentally imitated life with the case of the company Delacroy whose computerized voting system delivered the wrong result. “While we were making the film, several things popped up – one was the discovery that about 85% of all US electronic voting is controlled by two companies. They are run by two brothers. And they are both Republicans.”

But Man of the Year is actually more positive than negative, since his central characters are decent and honest. “They come forward to tell the truth, regardless of the consequences.” Levinson the satirist is now Levinson the optimist.

Published August 2, 2007

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Barry Levinson

Dir: Barry Levinson
Popular TV comedian Tom Dobbs (Robin Williams) has made a career out of skewering politicians and speaking the mind of the exasperated nation on his talk show. One night a flip comment about the poverty of the party political system and maybe him standing for President – unaligned to any party - ignites a grassroots movement that puts him on track to the White House. Hot on the campaign trail with his manager (Christopher Walken), he debates the two other Presidential candidates on TV, saying exactly what frustrated voters have often thought. The new computerized voting system developed by Delacroy delivers him victory, but Delacroy staffer Eleanor Green (Laura Linney) has discovered a critical little fault that makes the result invalid. She puts her life in danger as she tries to tell Dobbs the truth, even though she isn’t sure she should.
Australian theatrical release: March 1, 2007
Australian DVD release: August 2, 2007

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