Karl Rove origin story ‘College Republicans’ -- will it make a compelling movie?

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The announcement earlier this week that the best script in Hollywood, as voted on by industry machers in the annual Black List survey, is the Karl Rove origin story ‘College Republicans,’ prompts a few questions. Can something this quirky and charged actually become a film? And what would it look like if it did?

Wes Jones’ screenplay, as you might have read, is a before-they-were-kingmakers tale centered on a 1973 road trip taken by twentysomethings Rove and the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater as Rove drums up support for his candidacy for the chairmanship of the College Republican National Committee. (The two did actually take that trip, though Jones obviously invents many of the episodes along the way.)


The screenplay is quick-witted, briskly paced and offers plenty of insight into the two men’s personalities -- Atwater is the freewheeling troublemaker, Rove the tightly-wound pragmatist. ‘The script uses our 30-year experience of Karl Rove as a public figure and boils it down and encapsulates it in one journey,’ says Greg Shephard, one of Jones’ managers.

It also offers a kind of origin story about the modern political campaign. ‘You just figure out whatever it is that gets people most riled up and you hang it around the other guy’s neck,’ is how Atwater describes his electoral philosophy to Rove, who’s startled, as most people would be in those less-mudslingy days, that a tactic so brutal could also be so effective.

As it seeks financing and a director, the current incarnation of the movie has Shia LaBeouf playing Atwater and Paul Dano as Rove. (The independent project is with Anonymous Content, which also stewarded the tricky Black List script ‘The Beaver’ to the screen). LaBeouf’s attachment presents a timing problem -- the actor, one of the few young stars who could get an eccentric project like this made, is booked this spring with a period movie about bootleggers called ‘The Wettest County in the World’ and, possibly, another ‘Transformers’ installment down the road.

But the larger obstacle might be the subject matter itself.

While ‘College Republicans’ doesn’t come with the same thorny legal issues that plagued last year’s Black List topper ‘The Muppet Man,’ a subversive story in which Kermit the Frog appears as a drinker and smoker, it is something of a tricky commercial prospect. The script’s protagonists are, after all, real-world people, one of whom is still very much on the scene and continues to elicit both adoration and hate. That’s the stuff of great drama, but not necessarily great box office.

A studio would inevitably take pains to portray a film as being above ideology, but it’s far from a sure thing that the large number of Americans who consider themselves Republicans would embrace a Hollywood take on Karl Rove.

Jones’ script also reads as both a serious exploration of electoral politics in the manner of ‘The Candidate’ and a lighter-hearted buddy comedy, and a finished film could well have to settle on one of those two approaches.

Those who helped make the script a phenomenon say they feel these disparate elements can be blended. ‘At its core this is a road-trip comedy,’ said Ken Freimann, Jones’ other manager. ‘And as a bonus we learn things that have had a profound effect on our country.’

Karl Rove turns 60 on Christmas Day. His departure from the White House hasn’t slowed him down or stopped him from mixing it up (earlier this year, for instance, he became an advisor to the Republican-candidate strategy group American Crossroads). It’s all but certain he’ll be a fixture on the electoral scene in the coming years. Whether Hollywood in that time can pull off a movie about him is less clear.

-- Steven Zeitchik


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