MARIETTA, Ga., March 17, 2014–Seventy-five years ago, an elite Hollywood outfit—helmed by the illustrious Frank Capra—took a chance on a story that indicted the political haut monde in ways that no other mainstream film had theretofore dared to explore. Mr. Smith Goes to Washington examined the corruption of Congress and the complicity of the press through the eyes of an innocent, endearing outsider, quickly becoming both a critical lightning rod and a box-office windfall.
In the many decades since its release, each rising generation has attempted to interpret and apply lessons from this perennial cautionary tale to operations in the titular city, with relatively little lasting success. Pandemic disapproval of conduct on Capitol Hill remains a well-touted talking point that, for all of its bipartisan potency, has inspired few to pursue lasting reform.
Today, over two thousand miles from Tinseltown, a businessman-turned-conservative-activist has quietly begun the early stages of planning for a film project that will attempt to put a modern frame around Mr. Smith’s essential wisdom. Rob Cunningham is the movie’s maestro, driving efforts to raise capital, write the screenplay, and put real distribution power behind the final product. A newcomer to the entertainment business, Cunningham believes his venture could have a true transformative effect on public discourse.
Georgia will serve as the staging base for the forthcoming cine, tentatively titled Washington’s Axe. “It’s a great time to be in the business in the state of Georgia,” Cunningham stated, adding that the Peach State ranks third in the size of its movie production industry and tops the list of fastest-growing cinema states in the country.
Unlike many political activists who jump into filmmaking in order to create content that argues their partisan views, Cunningham was pulled into the business when he stumbled upon a book that lit a fire in him. “[The book] was so powerful that, when I closed it, I told my wife…that I wanted to tell this story,” he explains.
Local Atlanta author Mark Rogers penned the simply-titled tome, Smeared, in his fifth go as an author. His story weaves thoughtfully muted satire throughout the fictional tale of Thomas, a loveable amnesiac who finds himself at the center of modern political reckoning.
After deciding that Smeared deserved to light up the silver screen, Cunningham approached Rogers and secured the rights to the book. He then formed a partnership with a local Covington movie studio, Triple Horse, in order to couple real production resources with his idea. “Triple Horse is a vertically integrated media enterprise that uses its brands to develop, produce and market relevant values-based entertainment to a global audience,” the studio’s website reads. According to Cunningham, one of Triple Horse’s founders once aided with the development of Turner Broadcasting System and served as an executive at CNN, while the other helped run In Touch Ministries with Charles Stanley for a number of years.
Washington’s Axe has a slated budget of $3.5 million—a sum that has yet to appear in the project’s coffers. As screenwriters adapt the story to fit a feature, Cunningham et al are hitting the pavement in search of investors of all shapes and sizes. Cunningham expressed optimism about the fundraising phase, admitting that it could drag on if the capital came in piecemeal checks but remaining hopeful that a large infusion could kick-start the project at any time.
“It’s a story I feel like every generation needs to hear and learn,” Cunningham said of his film. “It’s unique in the way in which it details the American story.”
What first resonated with him and the team he has since built, Cunningham explains, was the story’s depiction of how truth is received in the nation’s capitol. The fable’s protagonist, Thomas, appears in Washington à-la-Bourne Identity: devoid of any recollection of who he is or what events brought him hence, armed only with a highly specialized knowledge set of unknown origin. But instead of discovering a wicked affinity for guns and street-fighting, Thomas displays a deep understanding of early American history.
An “inside-the-beltway power couple” quickly takes the story’s hero under their collective wing. With their guidance, Thomas begins to observe the current state of politics through the lens of constitutional expertise—and is appalled at what he sees. An academic historian steeped in United States history, Thomas’ gen has become untainted by modernity after an accident wipes away every other memory he possesses.
As Thomas picks his way around the Hill, naively but brilliantly, he amasses a public following and draws the attention of Washington elites who want to exploit his popularity for personal gain. The narrative ultimately brings him to the well of the House of Representatives, where he addresses millions in a game-changing speech.
“He dares speak the truth, and then he becomes enemy number one,” Cunningham explains. Pursued by the powers-that-be for his perceived radicalism, the central character must then defend the couple who sheltered him, the masses who support him, and the constitutional values he espouses.
Cunningham insists that the film will hew to the center despite his own deeply-held conservative ideology. Instead of creating yet another partisan missive, the filmmaker aims to inspire a dialogue among all political factions by including “something for everybody”—from comedy to romance to drama—and by avoiding any overt reference to current Washington stalwarts. That means that no Hillary Clintons, Barack Obamas, or Sean Hannitys will grace the screen; Cunningham wants to keep his account apolitical by focusing on trends, not pointing fingers.
“I am not looking to get everybody that already agrees with me to agree with me,” he says. “All I want to do is tell the story of America and America’s founding and who we are as a country in a way that is straight, right down the middle, let the chips fall where they may. We’re not carrying water for Fox News and we’re not bashing MSNBC. We’re telling a story with fidelity to the truth. There are those on the left who will not like that.”
Washington’s Axe will steer clear of the policy weeds as well. While it will touch on current debates in order to establish a dichotomy between what the Founding Fathers intended and what unfolds on Politico every day, the film will omit specifics. For example, the issue of education and the federal government’s role in directing it will fall under the microscope, but current controversial reforms on the table such as Common Core—a policy whose eradication is near and dear to Cunningham’s heart—will end up on the cutting room floor.
Distribution logistics remain unclear, though Cunningham hinted that a 300-screen deal could be in the offing. The team hopes that locking down a robust opening weekend could attract high caliber talent; Cunningham claims that “a Gary Sinisse or a Jon Voigt” would be ideal to fill the leads and that such celebrity wattage could help the film appeal to a wider audience.
Ultimately, Washington’s Axe wants nothing more than to heal the self-inflicted wounds of today’s sharp political division. “Our goal is to bring about a level of understanding; not necessarily agreement and not necessarily affirmation, but understanding,” says Cunningham. “I want the left to understand the right without demonizing them and vice versa.” He describes his vision for the film as one that allows viewers of all political stripes to sit down at Starbucks and talk about what they saw. Engaging children remains a particularly important, if lofty, goal of the film. Cunningham mentioned his desire to one day build teaching materials to accompany the film in grade school classrooms, where students can watch and respond to the story in a constructive environment.
The mere fact that such a project exists—and has gained so much momentum—is a bellwether of the sentiment in the grassroots of America. Five years after the Tea Party swept through Middle America with gale force, people still clamor for a bottom-up solution to the corruption of the government and the dilution of constitutional values. With the reigns of a populist-flavored political flick solely in the hands of a D.C. outsider, Washington’s Axe could truly prove to be the enduring breath of fresh air it purports to blow.