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History in the present tense

Why past is prologue

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"The Hunting of the President," Harry Thomason's film documenting right-wing efforts to topple former President Bill Clinton, is being released at about the same time as "Fahrenheit 9/11," Michael Moore's movie dissecting the actions of the Bush administration and the Republican Party from the 2000 election through the current conflict in Iraq. Will Thomason's effort seem less relevant and significant as a result? Gene Lyons, co-author of the best-selling book that provided the framework for "Hunting," does not think so. "If you want to know how we got to where we are, this film is pretty instructive," Lyons said. "When people say this is ancient history, there must be something they don't want you to know." Lyons believes a last-minute addition to the movie will illustrate the significant consequences of the right-wing assault against Clinton. The filmmakers will insert a clip of Clinton addressing the United Nations on Sept. 21, 1998 - the same day that the Starr Report made public the graphic details of Clinton's liaison with Monica Lewinsky. Clinton's U.N. address was about the need to increase efforts to fight international terrorism. Guess which subject got more attention that day? "Here we had a messianic lunatic in the form of Osama bin Laden trying to get his hands on nuclear weapons to kill as many Americans as possible," Lyons notes. "Clinton tries to warn us about it, and the whole national media and the Republican Party are focused like a laser beam on his zipper." Lyons sees a parallel between the inaccurate reporting of the Whitewater case and the current scandal concerning the New York Times coverage about Iraq's supposed stockpile of chemical and biological weapons. "It is the same story with different particulars," Lyons asserts. "A newspaper infatuated with its own self-importance sends reporters to a place they are not familiar with, and gets taken in by a couple of con men." Making the movie Thomason bought the movie rights to the book that Lyons wrote with Joe Conason because he thought it told an intriguing story. "These guys from Little Rock took their political dislikes for each other and moved it to the national level," Thomason says. The film cost $2 million to make, which included not only the production expenses associated with taping interviews and editing footage, but also the purchase of archived news coverage, which can be $100 a second. Lyons and Conason conducted most of the interviews of characters across the political spectrum, from James Carville to Jerry Falwell. Thomason did not have room for all of the interviews in the final cut, but some of the interviews will be included as a bonus on a DVD to be released in the fall. Listed by name in the closing credits are 137 people who refused to talk to the filmmakers, all of whom played prominent roles in the events described by the movie, from Matt Drudge to Ken Starr. When it was time to put the film together, Thomason covered an entire wall of the editing room with index cards to help keep the names and events in order. The first cut was three and a half hours - too long. "With a documentary, if the audience has to sit longer than 90 minutes, you are in trouble," Thomason said. Thomason also saw a need to add to the film, to liven up the serious and sobering material. A friend sent him 10 cassettes of old movie footage, and he spliced some of it into the film. The result is sometimes goofy, with old black-and-white shots of strippers appearing when the subject is sex, or a vaudevillian routine of cops battering down a door when someone mentions being served with a search warrant. Thomason said that older test audiences did not like the device when he initially screened the film, but the enthusiasm of younger viewers convinced him to keep it. Despite these and other artistic indulgences, Lyons believes the film version of "The Hunting of the President" is true to the spirit of his book. "When you write a several-hundred-page book, you autopsy the subject," he said. "By the time you are done, it is inert material. But watching the film made me feel a lot of this stuff again." "The Hunting of the President" is debuting in New York City at an invitation-only event this week, ahead of its Arkansas premiere on June 15. From there the film will be released in large cities like Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles before it is shown in smaller markets. Its eventual overall distribution will depend on its reception in the initial release cities, but a Little Rock run is confirmed to begin at Market Street Cinema on June 18.

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