LOS ANGELES — High up in the Heritage Foundation’s headquarters, a conservative “who’s who” gathered last week to screen a movie. Conservative media critic Brent Bozell III, who once called much of Hollywood’s work “clearly out of bounds, offensive and dangerous,” heaped praise on the production and its producer.
The producer was famously liberal, award-winning movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, who has produced some of Hollywood’s most controversial films.
The film is “The Giver” — based on the 1993 Newberry Medal-winning novel by Lois Lowry — which hit big screens Friday. The dystopian story is based on a script shepherded into production by actor Jeff Bridges, a Hollywood liberal icon who some are floating as a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate in Montana. (Bridges has ruled out a run.)
“The Giver,” which stars Bridges and liberal donor and actress Meryl Streep, tells the story of Jonas, a boy living in a seeming utopia without hunger, pain or war who breaks free of the stifling, colorless “sameness” when he learns the true horror of how this idyllic state is achieved — through coercion and memory suppression.
Conservatives like Bozell and Heritage Foundation president and former Sen. Jim DeMint see a not-so-subtle message against overreaching government power. “The Giver” demonstrates how even well-intended government can wind up crushing individual freedoms, turning utopian dreams into dystopian reality.
“It’s refreshing to see Hollywood produce a cautionary tale that demonstrates the danger and sadness inherent in relying on government to protect us from all unpleasantness,” DeMint said.
Weinstein disputes the political message that conservatives like DeMint see at the movie’s core. He said the movie was made “without a political agenda. Lois Lowry’s iconic novel was written to make us all think about the importance of things like free choice, emotions and family, and the movie stays very true to that.”
The film is being co-produced by Weinstein and Walden Media, a company owned by billionaire Phil Anschutz that has previously backed family-values fare like the C.S. Lewis-derived series “Chronicles of Narnia” and pushes “life-affirming” messages in its films. In addition to numerous business interests, Anschutz owns the conservative Weekly Standard magazine.
In contrast to Anschutz’s tame productions, Weinstein has previously backed content like the “Kill Bill” franchise that has pushed boundaries for its ubiquitous violence.
Bozell, who as recently as January feuded with Weinstein over his films’ content, offered praise for “The Giver” and Weinstein’s production.
“The movie is the complete package — a good story, well told. … I tip my hat to (Weinstein). It’s really laudable that he would do this,” Bozell said.
Other prominent cultural conservatives are lining up to praise the film’s message. Catholic Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput dedicated part of his weekly column to the film, saying, “This is a wonderful film. Nothing in the movie version of The Giver will offend a family.”
University of Southern California professor and expert on Hollywood politics Steven Ross chalks up the strange bedfellows behind “The Giver” to money.
“Politics is politics, business is business,” he said. “Hollywood is first and foremost a profit-making industry.”
Ross thinks the partnership results in Weinstein’s group hoping to tap a huge opportunity in the Christian and family values market, while conservative activists “are thrilled to get their message out into the mainstream.”
Bozell agrees that conservatives need to embrace Hollywood’s quality while staying true to their values; that family values and conservative-themed films need to be “more professional” to be effective.
For his part, Weinstein is “thrilled that the movie is getting fans from both conservatives and liberals. It shows how universal ideals apply to both sides of the political aisle alike, and maybe Washington and the world’s leaders can learn something from ‘The Giver.’ ”