Those who knew Lee Atwater are hopeful that a Hollywood movie produced by comedian Will Ferrell’s production company will not seek to blame the legendary Republican operative for all that’s wrong with politics today.
Ferrell is partnering with director Adam McKay on a feature film about Atwater, the GOP trickster and campaign genius from South Carolina who ran George H.W. Bush’s 1988 presidential campaign.
“To condemn a dead man for dirty politics by burying his family in mud would not only be hypocritical, but reprehensible,” old friend and political operative Tucker Eskew said. “I hope they don’t.”
Atwater died from a brain tumor in 1991, after famously asking for forgiveness from his political foes, including Democrat Michael Dukakis.
Republican Mary Matalin, who worked closely with Atwater, hadn’t heard of the project until contacted by The Daily Caller.
“Lee was larger than life, but was not devoid of a moral center,” Matalin said. “He was complex and conflicted, to be sure, but not the amoral mercenary the chattering class has long clichéd. He was deeply talented, insightful, Cicero-like in his understanding of human nature and the intersection of it with politics.”
“I reserve the right to be surprised at the final product,” she said about the film. But her skepticism doesn’t mean she isn’t hopeful. “With this many skillful and truly funny people involved, it should be interesting, if fanciful.”
Atwater’s best friend and roommate from college and Washington D.C., Jim McCabe, said he’s spoken with a researcher for the movie for no more than 15 minutes — something he doesn’t see as a good sign.
“I’m just disappointed that the writers have not seen fit to contact me or any other personal friends. From what I’ve seen on blogs, it appears that the filmmakers already have their minds made up about Atwater and are going to tell the story they want whether it’s factual or not,” he said.
“Lee and I were like brothers for over 20 years. I’ve got so many stories about Lee that it’d take a mini-series to tell ’em all, not a 2-hour feature,” McCabe said. “Nothing has to be fabricated.”
This is not the first time Atwater has been the focus of a film. In 2008, a documentary called, “Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story,” was released. McCabe said that film’s director, Stefan Forbes, spent “countless hours talking with politicos and personal friends.”
Neither Ferrell’s publicist nor McKay, the director, could be reached for comment. But in one recent interview, McKay, the former head writer of Saturday Night Live, said producers are “framing Lee Atwater as the guy who was the linchpin of the past 25 years.”
“What’s great about that story is, it’s also a really funny story,” McKay said. “Lee Atwater is just a large American character, an excellent blues-guitar player, a crazy womanizer, and apparently from everyone that knew him, really funny, without any moral center.”
McKay, in that interview, suggested the film will explore Atwater’s role in helping George H.W. Bush defeat Michael Dukakis. “By the time [Dukakis] lost, he lost by eight points, and it was all that Willie Horton stuff, the mental-illness insinuations, all this sleazy win-at-all-costs stuff that just became a sort of road map,” he said.
As for actors to portray Atwater, McKay said in another interview that “a big, powerhouse actor” could fill the role, including someone like Jim Carrey.
“His name came up early on,” McKay said of Carrey. “I thought he was such an interesting choice. He’s got that kinetic energy that Atwater had. I don’t want to handcuff myself. He’s a busy guy.”
Carrey, 48, however, is older than Atwater was during the height of his career. Atwater was in his late thirties when he managed Bush’s presidential campaign.
Another option for the lead, McKay suggested, is actor Ed Norton.
Both McKay, who has written for The Huffington Post, and Ferrell, known for his George W. Bush impression on Saturday Night Live, are liberals. The film will be written by Jesse Armstrong, who wrote the movie, “In the Loop,” a satire about the decision to declare war on Iraq in 2003.