With Steven Spielberg as the guiding force and Morgan Freeman as the narrator, John F. Kerry hopes to win hearts and minds Thursday night with a 91/2-minute film in which he recounts how he "cried like a baby" when his daughters were born.
Aides to Kerry hope that "A Remarkable Promise" might do for their candidate what the 1992 convention movie "The Man From Hope," by television producer Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, did for Bill Clinton.
"It's not a political film; it's a personal film," Kerry adviser Bill Knapp said of the work by Spielberg protege James Moll, an Academy Award-winning documentary filmmaker. "It doesn't push political information down your throat like political ads, where you have to drive a message with bullet points."
The broadcast networks are not expected to air the film when it is shown at the Democratic convention in the prime 10 p.m. hour. But Kerry aides hope the cable networks and C-SPAN will show at least part of the movie and that others will view it on the candidate's Web site. The campaign is also considering selling it in CD form.
Spielberg, a Democratic Party contributor, made some suggestions about pacing and adding possible scenes after seeing the first cut, Moll recalled, and was disappointed when some parts had to be excised because of time constraints. Knapp said he and Kerry's political team offered modest advice and corrected some factual errors.
According to the convention choreography worked out by the campaign for Thursday night, Kerry's daughter Vanessa will introduce the film, and after it is shown her father will hug former senator Max Cleland, a triple amputee who fought in Vietnam.
That war, not surprisingly, is a major cinematic theme. One of Kerry's Navy crew mates, James Rassman, delivers a longer version of the tale seen in several campaign ads of how Kerry turned a Swift boat around to rescue him after hostile fire blew him into the water.
"I was just hanging there and all these rounds kept coming in. And John ran up and dropped down on his hands and knees and pulled me over. Had he not come out on that bow like that and exposed himself, I'd be dead."
The Rassman rescue is recreated through a mixture of 8mm footage shot by Lt. Kerry at other times and some stock Vietnam footage, Moll said. Critics have said Kerry made the movies of himself -- Moll said he had a couple of hours to work with -- in an attempt to promote a future political career.
The filmmaker said he met Kerry for the first time on the July Fourth weekend, shortly after getting the assignment. "I didn't have a strong sense of who he was as a person, as a family man," Moll said. "I didn't know anything about his parents." He said his main goal was to get the Massachusetts senator to open up at the end of a long day of campaigning. "I needed it to be conversational and personal," Moll said.
Mandy Grunwald, Clinton's media adviser during the 1992 campaign, said "The Man From Hope" was important because many voters assumed her candidate came from a privileged background. "People went in the convention with misimpressions about Bill Clinton -- they knew about Gennifer Flowers, draft dodging and 'I didn't inhale.'" While PBS was the only network to show the film during the convention, she said, it later aired as an infomercial and helped influence coverage of Clinton.
"Given the drama of John Kerry's story, I expect it to be more riveting," Grunwald said of the new film.
Set against swelling orchestral music (with an original score), the documentary, which Kerry aides previewed for The Washington Post, uses home movies and still photographs to trace the arc of Kerry's life. At one point Moll changed a wire service photo of Kerry at a Senate desk from color to black and white to produce a more archival feel.
But his Senate career gets little mention beyond a series of photos of Kerry with the likes of Clinton and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). Convention delegates will see pictures of a young Kerry in hockey and lacrosse uniforms, and playing football and riding horses with his young children.
Kerry refers to his faith -- "I am alive today through the grace of a higher being" -- and likens his experience in Vietnam to "what the guys in Iraq and Afghanistan are going through now." He also speaks, as he rarely does on the campaign trail, about becoming an antiwar leader, and there is footage of Kerry as a long-haired veteran testifying before a Senate committee.
"I had felt that the government had not been truthful with the American people. . . . I became an activist putting my passion into ending the war," he says.
As if designed as an antidote for a candidate some people find stiff and formal, the movie is filled with personal reflections from his wife, brother and sister. Kerry talks about how his mother was his den leader in the Cub Scouts. Teresa Heinz Kerry describes how she and her husband sometimes get grouchy with each other. Former brother-in-law David Thorne recalls Kerry as a young prosecutor who "went after white-collar crime with a vengeance." This soon gives way to Kerry surrounded by crowds and flags, punctuated by balloons and fireworks.
Kerry's daughters, Alexandra and Vanessa, poke fun at his old rock band, the Electras. But, their father says in perhaps the film's more candid statements, "it was a great way to meet girls."