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Gingrich films sketch worldview

Last modified: 10/2/2011 12:00:00 AM
A New York City firefighter comes into focus on screen. A shaky camera pans left just in time to capture American Airlines Flight 11 slamming into the North Tower of World Trade Center.

United Airlines Flight 175 flies through the South Tower of the World Trade Center. Dozens of people stand trapped in the windows of the burning buildings. Two unidentified, dark-skinned men smile and clap in a video whose source is not identified. Men jump to their deaths. Firefighters walk in rubble.

Screen fades to black.

This is Chapter Two of Newt Gingrich's 2010 movie, America at Risk: The War With No Name.

"These are difficult times," Gingrich says near the end of the 82-minute film, his voice playing over the image of an American soldier in a helicopter. "It requires us to tell the truth."

It is the culminating appearance by Gingrich and his wife, Callista, in the film, one of seven historical and public policy documentaries the couple has produced and appeared in.

Gingrich, the former speaker of the U.S. House and now a Republican presidential candidate, has remained a household name since he resigned in 1999, appearing on cable news and lecturing at various think tanks. At last count, he has co-authored 23 books, which span decades. But for the past few years, Gingrich has been promoting his beliefs in a medium that can reach more people in a more powerful way: movies.

"You're suddenly in the scene, you're suddenly experiencing it," Gingrich said. "And that's a different level of intensity for most people than reading a book."

Gingrich said he read a book about directing movies when he was in the fourth grade and that he has always loved movies, which he said are a "wonderful way to tell stories."

"There's an entire article to be written someday about movies that have shaped my life," he said, "because I'm a very movie-centric person."

Gingrich says he gets "absorbed" by the music, the photography, the action of movies.

"I'll get home, and I'll just collapse on the couch," he said "I'll turn on the TV and flip channels, and I watch almost anything that moves."

He cites John Wayne's Sands of Iwo Jima and Hondo among his favorites. He has 25 movie channels, TiVo and Netflix. He loves to "just randomly watch 20 minutes" of The Magnificent Seven.

"I think I could probably reconstruct every scene from memory," he said of the 1960 Western classic.

The Gingriches have also seen The Hangover - a comedy about buddies at a Las Vegas bachelor party who lose the groom - seven times.

"It's totally stupid, but we can't help ourselves," Gingrich said.

Gingrich's own movies explore topics such as Ronald Reagan's "rendezvous with destiny," Islamic extremism, alternative energy and the role of religion in the roots of the United States and the Polish Solidarity movement.

"Our films are designed as part of a cultural effort to reassert a vision of the world and a vision of America," he said.

In most of his movies, Gingrich builds arguments as well as tells stories. He accomplishes this through interviews with an array of scholars and pundits, including theologian George Weigel, classicist Victor Davis Hanson, columnist Charles Krauthammer, TV personality Donald Trump, U.S. House Speaker John Boehner and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

"They're didactic movies, but hopefully they're also entertaining and interesting," Gingrich said. "If you walk out of the screening, and you think, 'Gee, that's some stuff I want to think about,' then we've succeeded."

The films expound on some of the same things Gingrich hammers at on the campaign trail: Americans are exceptional. Religion fosters the virtue necessary for a free, representative government. Radical Islam poses a grave threat to the United States. America's dependence on foreign oil undermines our liberty.

If you don't have the chance to get to screenings of the seven movies and don't want to order them from Amazon.com, here's a look at what Gingrich the filmmaker has to say.

 At war with radical Islam


It has been a decade since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Gingrich says in America at Risk: The War with No Name, "but Washington is still refusing to tell the truth about the war we are fighting."

"Before more Americans are killed, we must acquire the courage to tell the truth and to act on that truth," Callista Gingrich says in the film.

The truth is that we are war with an ideological wing of Islam that is determined to see the worldwide implementation of Sharia, religious law that dictates many aspects of Muslim life, the Gingriches say.

"It is imperative to continually stress that this is not a battle with the majority of Muslims, who are peaceful," Callista says.

But the Obama administration and other liberals won't even use an accurate vocabulary to address the problem, the Gingriches say.

President Obama now refers to the "war on terror" as "overseas contingencies operations." He has removed the word "jihad" from national security strategic documents and granted certain captives the right of habeas corpus, thus undermining American security, they argue.

America At Risk was made in 2010, before Osama bin Laden was captured and killed. It was also before Anwar al-Awlaki - the American-born Muslim cleric credited with inspiring U.S. Army Major Nidal Hasan to open fire at Fort Hood - was killed in a drone attack last week. But in the film, Gingrich argues that Obama's drone program would undermine America's goals in the war on terrorism.

"Under President Obama, not a single high-value terrorist has been captured," Gingrich says. "The administration has ramped up drone attacks, but drone attacks do not produce actionable intelligence."

In an interview last week, Gingrich said the Obama administration's approach of killing high-level targets has been successful, but he questions its larger effectiveness.

"I think it's been a very particular response," Gingrich said of this year's killings. "I don't know that it's in any way turning the tide of the war, but it has been effective."

In the films, the Gingriches argue that Muslims who love liberty need to speak up to undermine those who advocate extremism or violence in their religious communities.

"The need for American Muslim voices in fighting this war is critical," Callista says in America At Risk.

"But many of the leading Muslim organizations in the United States have been silent on these issues," Newt says.

Debra Burlingame is also interviewed in the movie. She is on the board of "Keep America Safe," a group that advocates for vigilance in national security matters. Her brother was a pilot killed on Sept. 11. She, too, argues that moderate Muslims play a crucial role in the battle against Islamic extremism.

"Secular Muslims here have a very difficult problem," Burlingame says.

"If they come out, they're basically outing themselves to the Muslim world as apostates. . . . I wondered, where are the moderate voices? Why aren't they coming out and denouncing violent jihad? I understand now that it takes a great deal of courage for them to do that. There are some who have, and they're very, very brave."

 Energy independence


The nation must end its dependence on foreign oil, the Gingriches argue in their movies.

In America at Risk, for instance, they interview Michael Scheuer, a former officer with the Central Intelligence Agency, who says, "I think the most painful sense for Americans is that when a parent who has a child in the service . . . when that parent goes and fills his gas tank at the local gas station, some portion of that is going to help kill his son or daughter in Iraq or Afghanistan."

He continues, "To me, once you say that, there should be no impediment to the U.S. doing something about their dependence on that oil."

To do that, the nation must embrace everything from drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska, commonly referred to as ANWR, to wind, nuclear and solar energies, the Gingriches say.

"It's imperative that Congress make solar power tax credit permanent," Callista says in We Have the Power: Making America Energy Efficient.

"That will give solar power entrepreneurs the financial incentive to build the solar industry we so desperately need," she says.

In the end, though, it is America's economy and form of government that will win the war against Islamic extremism, America at Risk implies.

"How do you solve this problem of Islamic extremism? And is democracy the answer?" conservative commentator Reihan Salam asks in the film.

"Democracy is just one of many things that might work over a really long period of time. But . . . I think that capitalism is a much more promising avenue, because capitalism is a great teacher. You start seeing what works and what doesn't work, and the power of the market economy, the appeal of our way of life," Salam says. "I think that is something that the Islamists are terrified of, and that's really something they can't beat."

 America is exceptional


You hear Ronald Reagan before you see him, speaking over footage of a brook gurgling past maple trees ablaze with red, gold and orange leaves in Gingrich's A City Upon a Hill: The Spirit of American Exceptionalism.

"I believe that God put this land between the two great oceans," Reagan says, "to be found by special people from every corner of the world who have that extra love of freedom that prompted them to leave their homeland and come to this land to make it a brilliant light beam of freedom to the world."

The film takes its title from the Pilgrim John Winthrop's famous sermon aboard the Arbella in 1630, in which he told the settlers to be a "city upon a hill," a model of behavior to others. "The eyes of all people are upon us," Winthrop said.

President-elect John F. Kennedy expanded on the theme in 1961 in his farewell address to the Massachusetts legislature, footage of which Gingrich uses in "A City Upon a Hill." "To whom much is given, much is required," Kennedy says.

And it is a point the Gingriches hammer over and over again in their movies.

"Our best leaders have reminded us that we have a moral obligation to the cause of freedom and that the cause of freedom is the cause of all mankind," Gingrich says in A City Upon a Hill.

The good America can do was on full display during Ronald Reagan's administration, the Gingriches argue in many of their films.

Reagan's strategic alliances, combined with an unapologetic dedication to liberty, is what led to the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, Gingrich argues through interviews with historians and human rights figures such as Lech Walesa, a founder of the Polish Solidarity movement.

Take, for example, Reagan's decision to call the Soviet Union an "evil empire."

"He could not have helped us better than by using this term," Walesa says in Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny.

"He defined our enemy in a very precise way. I don't think any missiles or any army would have been more effective than this," Walesa said.

If the United States adopts European, socialist policies, the Gingriches argue, then the virtues that made America great and expanded freedom around the world will erode.

Former attorney general Edwin Meese elaborates on that point in the film: "I believe that one of the greatest threats to American exceptionalism is that idea that some, particularly on the Left, who feel that somehow that there should be a redistribution of wealth," he says.

The country is in danger, the Gingriches say, but we should not despair. The American people are as great as they ever were, but they need better leadership.

"Each of us must be prepared to meet great challenges to ensure that we remain a safe, free and prosperous nation," Gingrich says at the conclusion of A City Upon a Hill.

 Religion is key


For representative government to work, religion has to be part of the public square, the Gingriches argue.

Gingrich converted to Catholicism when he married his third wife, Callista, and said his religious faith has had a "very profound" impact on his life.

"Even in periods of my life when I have not been doing as well as I would like to, I found myself praying, and I found myself turning to God," Gingrich told the Monitor.

In his movies, Gingrich puts on display the religious beliefs of many world leaders, but one man and one nation get an entire film: Pope John Paul II and his homeland, Poland.

A series of economic, political and social factors helped undermine Communism in Eastern Europe, the Gingriches say in Nine Days that Changed the World, but it was the faith of the Polish people that set Communism on its final destination.

"When the pope visited, he just lit the fuse that just exploded in this reconnection with the Polish spirit and nationalism that gave them the courage to go up against the Soviets," director Kevin Knoblock said in the "behind the scenes" portion of the film.

The pope's message of faith and freedom is not limited to 1980s Poland, the Gingriches argue in the movie. Father Wojciech Giertych, a Vatican theologian, is interviewed in the film about John Paul II: "His message is much deeper, and it is applicable in other contexts in other countries," Giertych says.

Freedom comes with challenges, Gingrich says in the film, and John Paul II had thoughts on some of those, too.

"If democracy is built not on truth . . . it will crash," Giertych explains of the pope's beliefs in Nine Days that Changed the World. "Because democracy can only function where people live up to the convictions that they have."

It is a warning Americans need to heed as well, Gingrich says in several of his movies.

Just as a free Poland was founded because of religious conviction, so too was the United States. Just as the pope warned Europeans not to abandon their religious convictions, so too does Gingrich warn Americans of the same danger in Rediscovering God in America.

"There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the relentless effort to drive God out of America's public square," Gingrich says in the film.

Those who fought for America's foundation believed self-governance would work only if the people behave virtuously, Gingrich argues.

In Rediscovering God in America, for instance, an actor portraying John Adams says, "Our Constitution was made for moral and religious people," as Aaron Copland's "Variation on a Shaker Theme" plays underneath.

"It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other," Adams says.

The Founding Fathers also believed that their victories over the British were won with the blessings of Providence, the Gingriches argue.

"It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that almighty hand which has been so frequently and singly extended to our relief in the critical stages of the Revolution," James Madison, principal author of the U.S. Constitution, is quoted saying in the film.

Religion is important not just for the governed, but for those governing, the Gingriches argue. "(Reagan) had a very deep love of spiritual values," says Linda Chavez, a conservative commentator and former White House staffer, in Ronald Reagan: Rendezvous with Destiny. "He was a man who was deeply religious."

So, too, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who during the Normandy invasion led the nation in a prayer asking the Lord to protect the men storming the beach. He also asked God to receive into Heaven those who would not survive the invasion, Gingrich points out in Rediscovering God in America.

"The Founding Fathers believed deeply, and I think correctly, that fostering a sense of being subordinate to God is really important," Gingrich told the Monitor.

 The next step


To date, the Gingriches' movies have been geared to adults, but the star of their next film could be an elephant named Ellis.

In her book, Sweet Land of Liberty Callista tells the story of a young elephant who takes a trip down America's memory lane - stops include the first Thanksgiving and the Boston Tea Party.

A Hollywood producer approached the couple last week, Newt told the Monitor, about making a movie about Ellis.

While Newt already has a strong group of followers who look forward to his upcoming novels, it's quite possible, Gingrich said, that Ellis could inspire an even stronger following.

"My hunch is that Ellis will have a book a year or more, with little kids, 'When do I get my next Ellis book?' " Gingrich said.

"I think if Ellis comes out as an animated character, that that probably would be our first venture with a DVD in Best Buy or Target or Costco or Walmart," Gingrich said.

"But that's a different world."

(Molly A.K. Connors can be reached at 369-3319 or mconnors@cmonitor.com.)


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