By the end of each election season, the spectre of celebrities holding forth on their political views and stirring up controversy with ill-considered remarks becomes almost as common as lawn signs and Uncle Sam hats.
But stepping into the campaign in support of President Obama’s re-election, actor Edward Norton has tried to venture in exactly the opposite of that well trod path. Teaming up with director Bennett Miller (Moneyball) and @radical.media, he has created an election season documentary with nary a hint of glitz, featuring, of all things, typical Americans from all walks of life talking about the core issues of what America means to them, and how those principles lead them to their Obama vote.
The seven minute film entitled We Hold These Truths, to be released online tonight, was the result of the actor’s attempt to support the campaign without making it “about himself.” Having previously made a HBO documentary, By the People, about the President, Norton remained friends with Obama guru David Axelrod, who called him in July looking to “get some filmmakers to think about creative ways to address the politics of the moment outside of the standard campaign ads and short cycle news media.”
“I was glad to get the call,” Norton said in a telephone interview Thursday. “I had been having a conversation with friends about how frustrating it was to see the conversation reducing politics to a gladatorial wrestling match.” He turned to director Miller, who had shot a series of stark talking heads pieces about the meaning of the filmgoing experience for last year’s Oscarcast; pieces Norton recalled as “best part of the show.” The pair talked about how they could make a short film that stepped away from the noise and got back to real people talking about what really motivates their vote.
The brief piece has a Studs Terkel-like quality of folksy wisdom, featuring a broad cross-section of demographic representatives speaking of their hopes and fears for America. While the tone unmistakably leans left, (the election is described by one as, “a choice to maintain a status quo or for the rich to get richer,”) the campaign and its hot button themes are hardly mentioned and it is not until the final seconds that the President’s name is invoked.
That choice stems out of Norton’s work as an almost anti-celebrity activist, focusing on issues that are often more about using the information age to raise up the voices of individuals, rather than seeking a platform for his own. His major cause has been his Crowdrise website, which gives individuals tools to raise money for their favorite charities.
“I don’t judge anyone else’s choices but for myself, I don’t relate to the idea of leveraging celebrity for its own sake,” he said. “I’m not a believer of do this or pay attention to this because of who I am. Even though I support the President, to me it’s much more interesting to encourage people to engage than to suggest that people should model themselves on me and my views.”
Asked if the team came face to face with any Romney supporters while seeking the wisdom of the people, Norton admits that the notices seeking participants revealed that it was a Democratic effort and thus their participants skewed left. However, he says that some were very critical of the President and the administration, but that the film’s interest was more in basic principles than the minutiae of today’s policy debates and they encouraged people to step back from those specifics.
Having ventured among the populace, wading in their tales was, Norton professes, a faith restoring mission in the intelligence of the electorate.
“It made me feel the polls are a very limited measure of the minds of most people,” he said. “I was blown away that for all the cynicism about the state of the country’s punditry and polarization, all the people we talked to were really well informed, thoughtful and had a lot to say. It made me feel the polls are a very limited measure of the minds of most people. It restored my faith in how much common sense people have.”