‘Duty’ calls Kerry

Doc among several political pix ahead

Drawing on his 40-year association with the presidential hopeful, documaker George Butler is producing and directing “Tour of Duty,” a film on Democratic candidate John Kerry, which will hit theaters during the peak pre-election period.

Based on Douglas Brinkley’s bestselling book of the same name, the film will focus on Kerry’s Navy tour of duty in Vietnam, the years of peace advocacy that followed and how each contributed to shape his political life thereafter.

Butler began work on the project in early 2003 and plans to have the film completed by Labor Day. Long before Arnold Schwarzenegger segued from Terminator to governator, Butler directed “Pumping Iron,” about the then-wannabe actor’s quest for another Mr. Olympia title. More recently, the director scored a hit with “The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition.”

“John Kerry has had the most interesting life of anyone in the presidential arena since Theodore Roosevelt,” Butler told Daily Variety. “His history as a politician is that he’s been underestimated, and that he has enormous willpower, not unlike Arnold Schwarzenegger.”

Butler describes “Tour of Duty” as a cross between the cinema verite style of “Pumping Iron” and the historical material of “Endurance.”

Kerry is fully cooperating with the making of the film, which includes new interviews in addition to extensive archival material. However, the filmmaker said that funding for the project was raised outside the presidential campaign and that the Democratic party has had no creative influence on the film.

Butler first met Kerry in 1964 and has been a close friend of the Democratic leader ever since, working as his press secretary when Kerry ran for Congress on an antiwar ticket in 1969.

The two men collaborated on controversial 1971 book “The New Soldier,” about Vietnam vets. An accomplished photographer, Butler also recently closed a deal for a photo-tome on Kerry to be published by Time Warner imprint Bullfinch Press, culled from some 6,000 of his own shots of the politician.

Butler is holding off on a distribution deal for “Tour of Duty” until the film is completed but hopes to have it in theaters by September.

“There’s been a lot of interest but we’re not in a position to make a commitment yet,” he said. “This could be a terrific film, but the key is always to make that terrific film first and then start crowing about it.”

Butler’s film is one of a number of features with a political agenda expected to hit theaters as the presidential campaign escalates.

Likely to be the most incendiary of those releases is Michael Moore’s docu “Fahrenheit 9/11,” which promises to train an unflattering spotlight on the Bush administration as it examines the period before, during and immediately following the 2001 terrorist attacks. Pic is strongly tipped to premiere at Cannes, where a distribution deal is expected to be sealed in time for an early-fall release.

“The Hunting of the President,” from Regent Releasing, provides an insider view of the smear campaign against Bill Clinton that helped the Republicans regain office. That docu was co-directed by Nickolas Perry and Harry Thomason. Thomason and his wife, Linda Bloodworth Thomason, were two of Clinton’s principal connections to Hollywood.

“Even though we’re a backward-looking film, a lot of the same players are involved this year, so I really think it will stir things up,” said Thomason. “What’s different with all these movies this year is that documentaries have now come into their own. Michael Moore really changed everything with ‘Bowling for Columbine.’ Once that hit, it opened the field both on the liberal and the conservative front.”

Lest anyone think all the political action will be in the docu arena, Newmarket Films will weigh in with an early September release of John Sayles’ neo-noir “Silver City.” Pic shoots satiric arrows at the present state of American democracy and features Chris Cooper as the less-than-erudite scion of a conservative political dynasty fumbling his way to office in a Colorado gubernatorial race.

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