Can a Hollywood troublemaker play a conservative hero?


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We reported last week that Shia LaBeouf was seriously weighing a role in ‘College Republicans,’ a fictionalized story of the late Republican political consultant Lee Atwater and recent presidential advisor Karl Rove during their campus days.

Earlier this week, LaBeouf’s interest in the part was highlighted with the most unexpected of sightings: outside a Washington cafe, where he was spotted underlining passages in a book about Atwater. (The Atwater part is considered the meatier of the two; the film’s plot centers on Rove running for the head of a college Republican group in the 1970s, with Atwater orchestrating his campaign.)


Whether LaBeouf has the acting chops to pull it off is an open question, one we’re sure commenters will have an opinion on. But it’s hard not to be amused, in a general casting sense, about the possibility of an actor who started out as a Disney Channel star and then became the center of a Hollywood action franchise like ‘Transformers’ now inhabiting the part of the cutthroat strategist responsible for George H.W. Bush’s notorious Willie Horton ad. Certainly playing an ends-justify-the-means type would be a refreshing switch after LaBeouf’’s idealistic turn in ‘Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.’

Yet for those who admire Atwater as a pivotal figure in Reagan-era political blood sport, the part will be scrutinized with a far more ideological lens. LaBeouf would, it’s safe to say, probably not be the first choice to play Atwater among those who hold Republican values dear. Apart from having little known affinity for the GOP, the actor has been known for assorted bad behavior, particularly with a series of arrests several years ago.

It’s almost easy to hear the chorus of exasperation already: The casting of LaBeouf is further proof that Hollywood is intent on telling its own version of history will little regard to accuracy, and with even less favor for ideologies to which it is unsympathetic.

These critics would have some precedents on their side. The big screen is littered with actors who have little or no connection to, or even resentment for, Republican or right-wing causes, yet end up playing famous 20th century members or affiliates of the party. In the upcoming ‘Casino Jack,’ Kevin Spacey, a known friend of President Clinton, stars as disgraced right-ring lobbyist Jack Abramoff. In ‘The Good Shepherd,’ the outspokenly liberal Matt Damon played a role inspired by anti-Communist operatives James Jesus Angleton and Richard Bissell. James Brolin controversially took on Ronald Reagan in a Showtime miniseries, while his son, Josh, a public critic of George W. Bush, played the former commander in chief in the semi-satiric story of his White House in ‘W.’

Of course if Hollywood administered a litmus test before casting right-wing parts, it would have a lot fewer actors to choose from, and Dennis Miller and Kelsey Grammer would get a lot more top-tier roles. And certainly ‘College Republicans’ is not meant to be the go-to video for RNC fund-raisers anyway. It’s more of an ‘Election’-type allegory that happens to blend in some historical names. So debating veracity is kind of beside the point.

But there’s also more historical common ground between LaBeouf and Atwater than skeptics might allow. LaBeouf is known for his brutal candor -- recall his confessional at Cannes this year about botching ‘Indiana Jones’ -- a trait that was shared by Atwater, who once said that one should ‘just keep stirring the pot -- you never know what will come up.’


‘Bad boy’ is actually a fitting descriptor for Atwater; in fact, the Atwater book that LaBeouf was seen reading in D.C. bore exactly those words as its title. And it’s not as though LaBeouf would be playing an unvarnished saint. Atwater isn’t revered, even among many of the Republican faithful, the way Reagan or Richard Nixon is; he’s simply credited with swinging some major elections. (Atwater also had a famous confession of his own, writing shortly before he died of a brain tumor, in 1991, that ‘my illness helped me to see that what was missing in society is what was missing in me: a little heart, a lot of brotherhood.’)

Fans of nuanced performances will certainly be buoyed to see LaBeouf, after ‘Wall Street,’ continuing to take on something more serious (and LaBeouf does radiates a certain Atwater-esque kind of intensity; he nearly acquired a stockbroker’s license as he prepared for his most recent part). Those who’ve studied Atwater might find it even more intriguing.

Of course that still leaves the question of who would play Rove ...

-- Steven Zeitchik

Upper photo: Shia LaBeouf in ‘Transformers.’ Credit: Paramount Pictures

Lower photo: Lee Atwater. Credit: Associated Press



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