Cusack slams corporate media, talks up new movie 'War, Inc.' in wide-ranging interview
Larisa Alexandrovna
Published: Wednesday May 7, 2008

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Want to attend a screening of War, Inc. for free with two Raw Story writers? Want John Cusack to see your talent as a limerick writer? See details at the end of the interview.

Actor, writer, director John Cusack has a lot to say about the Iraq war and the current state of US politics. Although he frequently uses such forums as the Huffington Post to express his criticism of the Bush administration, in his new film, War Inc., he really pulls out all the stops to shine a damningly aggressive light on the privatization of war.

Cusack sat down with Raw Story's Larisa Alexandrovna to discuss the film, his political views and his take on the state of mainstream media, which he feels has failed in its role as the public watchdog.

"I think in a way you can almost respect the criminals more than the enablers in some sick way -- I mean, I think what the Bush administration has done is criminal, should be treated as a crime, but the idea that people who call themselves journalists let these lies go on unchecked and endorsed them time and time again is [unpardonable]," Cusack said. "Don't get me wrong, I think great journalism is heroic, I am in awe of great journalists."

The journalists Cusack goes on to praise are a small contingent -- including the legendary Bill Moyers, Naomi Klein, Sy Hersh and Keith Olbermann. Cusack also credits alternative press outlets like Raw Story and blogs like Crooks and Liars with keeping the public informed.

War, Inc. is not subtle as far as satire goes, but it is precisely the sledgehammer hit -- the "shock" of the totally outlandish and suffocating all-over-the-place bombing of the viewer's senses -- that makes the film a truly onomatopoeic visual to the audacious crimes it is ridiculing on screen.

The plot revolves around a corporate hit-man, Brand Hauser (Cusack), who is hired by a corrupt US defense contractor called Tamerlane to assassinate the oil minister of the fictional Middle Eastern country of Turaqistan, which has been invaded by the United States. Tamerlane's CEO is a former United States Vice President, played brilliantly by Dan Aykroyd and obviously based on the current real life Vice President and former Halliburton CEO, Dick Cheney.

Asked what Cusack would say to Vice President Dick Cheney if he had the opportunity, Cusack wisecracks, "You have the right to remain silent."

Cusack is far more serious on the topic of torture and violations of the Geneva Conventions by Bush administration officials.

"You know, Nuremberg [the post World War II Nuremberg trials of the leaders and enablers of Nazi Germany] said that an illegal invasion of a sovereign country in a war of aggression is a supreme war crime."

Cusack wonders why no one in the press has made this a bigger issue and why Democrats in Congress have not made it a priority.

A clip from the movie appears below, followed by RAW STORY's exclusive interview.

Raw Story’s Larisa Alexandrovna: So what made you want to make a film? I mean what possessed you to wake up one day and say to yourself "I want to make a dark comedy about the Iraq war and corporate greed"?

John Cusack: Well, I think there is like a great tradition of satire or absurdist comedy that mocks and tries to take down power elites and orthodoxies whether it’s the church or the aristocracy or the state. It is not really a new idea … for example the carnival, or the Marx Brothers, Preston Sturges, Terry Southern, [Bertolt] Brecht… are all obviously great influences …

RS: Is Terry Gilliam an influence here? Because stylistically War Inc., resembles that sort of gritty visual that combines a WWII-era setting, that is actually taking place in some detached and random future where technology has advanced significantly, but society is still set in the past, like in his classic Brazil

JC: Oh yes, absolutely and even [Franz] Kafka. There is so much… I would even say the incendiary political cartoons of George Grosz or the writings of Hunter S. Thompson… there are so many influences and traditions of this type of thought, satire with teeth or comedy as serious business to escape and laugh at things that are not supposed to be funny. It is supposed to make you think but not overtly. You are not sure if you should be laughing or what it means to laugh.

RS: Yes, of course. The rebellion-in-a-safe-setting-type thing. But what prompted you – John Cusack – to say I am going to make a black comedy about the Iraq war?

JC: Yes, a very long winded answer…

RS: No, I really like it because it provides insight and because I particularly like this genre ...

JC: Well I am going to meander because I have been talking non-stop for a week…

RS: That is fine, I tend to meander as a matter of course, so go right ahead.

JC: (laughs) Okay. I think in the kind of postmodern way, the aristocracy today – where it used to be the Bishop, the popes, the royals, etc. – is now the corporate aristocracy…

RS: The gilded age…

JC: Right and so what made me do it [make the film] was what I thought was behind the Iraqi invasion, a kind of corporatist ideology that has been trying to take over and engulf the great things about America and the American dream… you know?

RS: Yes. The first fully privatized war with non-privatized casualties.

Reality Plus – the Film

JC: I think so. In fact, it is really taking trends to their logical conclusions and there has been a movement in the last 35 years I think, a corporate revolution to replace the state. If you read The Shock Doctrine [by Naomi Klein] plus other books about this stuff, and there is a lot out there, you can see this trend. Although Naomi is on the vanguard as a journalist, reporter, and thinker and she puts it together in a ground-breaking way.

RS: Is this based on The Shock Doctrine? I mean you putting the screenplay together around the time she was writing it?

JC: No actually, we were working on the film and her piece "Baghdad Year Zero" came out in Harper’s, and it inspired us to dig deeper. And as we were making the film, we sent her the script – I was lucky enough to become friends with her – and so we sent her the script and we asked her what she thought and she was totally on-board, as a friend. She was not an official collaborator or anything, but she was very supportive.

RS: The book is amazing. I have read it twice already. As you say the ideas are not new, but the distillation of those ideas and those histories into a single, measurable cause-effect narrative is indeed groundbreaking. By the way, I really enjoyed your interview with her as well.

JC: Oh, thanks. Yeah, she has been really supportive of the film. She calls it “Reality Plus”…

RS: I was actually thinking of it having the sub-title "Entitlement Capitalism"… I mean, is that right essentially? The idea that is? For example your character’s name, Brand Hauser seems to be a play on words. Because I was thinking that Hauser could be based on the foundling Kasper Hauser and then the Brand together could easily translate into Entitlement Capitalism…is the character based on Kasper Hauser? I am reading way too much into it aren’t I?

JC: I think you are half right. I think Hauser sounds like Howitzer. But yeah, when you think of something funny to say and it is in the back of your mind, like this little secret… and I was aware of Kasper Hauser, so it may have translated… and I was aware of the language of films and having genres and trying to subvert genres through language. Just like the right-wing uses the aesthetics of authoritarianism, it’s kind of American patriotism is the cover for what they do. They use a sort of frontier model where George Bush plays cowboy and so the idea of branding of images is all connected in this way with the character.

RS: Right and there is also the whole double entendre of branding – as in cattle, the ownership society. But your character, does he represent something more than what we see? That is to say, outside of the obvious branding concept and him being a hit-man, does he represent something more internal? For example – does he represent a struggle between the person’s choice to do a thing and their feelings ultimately about that choice? Again, I may be reading far too much into it, so just humor me…

JC: I think there is this element, you know, when you are playing around with archetypes and we do try to keep the emotions of characters vital as they shift from the surreal to seriousness to dark comedy to melodrama…so within that you are working with a lot of archetypes and I think Hauser is kind of like a full-spectrum Samurai, you know?

Samurai are these warriors with a code and they are sort of left really wandering around as guns for hire. So they are mercenaries and they have been corrupted and then they leave a corrupt situation and try to on their own make an allegiance in a corrupt world. Wandering around a fallen world, that type of archetype. We thought of that, and plus the assassin metaphor is a particularly good one of our foreign policy, because Hauser does not necessarily equate who he is with what he does.

RS: And the mask or the will to go on to do what he does is located in this drink you have him constantly imbibing in the film, “Donny Loo's Fever Juice”. Is that the point of the drink, as a transformative device?

JC: We thought it would be really funny that he has this thing that he takes that blocks out but also gives him a kick start. It’s a public show, a test too. Remember [Watergate burglar] G. Gordon Liddy used to put a flame to his arm, to burn his flesh to prove that he still had the discipline kind of thing…

RS: At parties no less…

JC: Really?

RS:: Yeah, he would stand around at parties and put his hand over a candle, holding it there without flinching. Or at least that is what Deep Throat tells us in All the President’s Men [Pulitzer Prize winning book about Watergate by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein]. Yes, it is one hell of a party trick for a sociopath.

JC: [laughs] So this is our G. Gordon Liddy party trick. I mean it was for him, Hauser, that he does it and it is this mixture of jet propulsion and self flagellation…

RS: Ah, so there is an element of guilt, no?

JC: Yeah, I think so. Or there is an element of trying to drown out his past.

RS: Did you actually make some sort of concoction to drink as a prop? What was in there anyway?

JC: I mixed up some tomato juice.

RS: That’s it?

JC: Well tomato juice and tobacco.

RS: And speaking of hit-men, this is your second one, no?

JC: Um… yeah, it is actually.

RS: [Laughs] So how do you actually get ready for roles like this. Do you go out and sniff out hit-men from somewhere, or do you locate some random retired CIA guy to talk to, or do you just wing it?

JC: I know a lot about that sort of thing. You know ultimately I was more worried trying to get the film together.

RS: So are we going to see another hit-man?

JC: [Laughs] I don’t know…

RS: Now how did you and Josh Seftel agree on who would do what? Did you sit down together and decide who would do what and who would be cast in what role?

JC: We worked together real close. It was very collaborative. But you know, we did not have a lot of time or money so we had to come in and shoot fast…

RS: So wait, were you guys having a hard time getting a distributor for the film?

Political Censorship is on the March

JC: Oh yeah, it was really hard to get a break for it…

RS: Why?

JC: Because it’s crazy…

RS: Well crazy or not, look at the line-up for Christ’s sake…

JC:: Yeah, but that’s not how they think. You have to understand the time it was made. I mean the statue [of Saddam Hussein] had just fallen. Bush was strutting around like a conquering hero and they were standing up on podiums saying “these people better watch what they say,” queuing all these McCarthyism threats… so there wasn’t anybody rushing to take on the neo-con agenda and how it is destroying this country and the whole corporatist war, this cancer devouring our society. I don’t think the financiers wanted to take the risk. They did not understand it.

RS: But you finally did get it made and it is finally coming out. Are you now finding it easier to get it into theaters?

JC: I think everyone has been really surprised. People thought that because it is so controversial and structurally totally a little experimental – you know telling someone you want to do a film that is essentially an incendiary political cartoon, part Telemundo soap opera, part George Grosz – and yeah, they will say “okay!” (laughs)… let’s release it…

RS:: Yeah, where do I sign up for this extravaganza type-thing…

JC: Yeah, but as people have seen it, there has been a rush to use it as a springboard in the media to talk about these ideas [behind the film], and ultimately they [the studios and distributors] are seeing now that people are getting it, more than they thought would get it.

RS: You mean people in the political…

The Grassroots and Blogs Drive Exposure for the Film

JC: People like you. People who are interested in it and they/you want to do stories about it, write about it. So we have gotten way more media interest in it that anyone ever thought we would.

RS: And probably broader interest because, for example, I don’t usually do movie reviews – despite being a cinema buff. So if you have me coming out to write about the film as opposed to just quietly enjoying it, then it is indicative of the broader interest of the public in the underlying issues behind the film.

JC:: Yeah, so we have all these reporters, journalists, people who do who don’t regularly write about movies wanting to write about it…

RS: Right…I see this doing extremely well and across all levels of interest. Even if people don’t get the issues driving this film, the style will get them into theaters. For me anyway, this whole genre from Terry Gilliam to the much darker side of it with David Cronenberg is breathtaking anyway. So I think it will do very well. And once people who initially go to the film for stylistic reasons actually get into the theater, they are invited in, the rest translates for them.

JC: I hope so. First Look, the studio, has a very limited budget. But we have so much national press coming in from so many quarters that if they can sell out to the limited theaters we have now, they will expand it nationally. And the thing is, it is a total grass-roots vibe. Like it has not come top down… we have not gotten any big corporate support. It’s all coming from political writers and journalists who do not even write about movies, like Raw Story, and from the progressive blogs like Crooks and Liars. All those types of people have been kind of swarming around it. So now, some of the bigger corporate media are like “oh, what’s that movie?” or “what’s everybody talking about?”...

RS: The movie they had initially passed on, which First Look had the balls to take on…

JC: Oh, absolutely. A lot of them would not even touch it even five months ago. When we put out word [asking people in the press to cover it] they were like “oh I don’t know if I see the world that way,” and now it has totally shifted.

“Corporate press” propaganda

RS: See, I don’t even know if the whole public -shift thing has happened or, rather, I never believed in this whole pendulum of shifting public opinions. I just think what has happened now is that more and more of the public understands that what they are being sold they never wanted to buy. They just don’t want to participate anymore and are turning to alternative resources for information, news, etc. Once you understand how we got into the Iraq war to begin with… actually, this brings me to my next question sort of organically. Do you think the corporate press is as much responsible for how we are in Iraq as is the Bush administration?

JC: I think in a way you can almost respect the criminals more than the enablers in some sick way…I mean, I think what the Bush administration has done is criminal, should be treated as a crime, but the idea that people who call themselves journalists let these lies go on unchecked and endorsed them time and time again is [unpardonable]… Don’t get me wrong, I think great journalism is heroic, I am in awe of great journalists. But the criminals… Like the other day it was on TV that Bush had admitted to approving meetings in the White House about enhanced interrogation techniques…

RS: You mean torture…

JC: Well yes, that is where I was going…

RS: [Laughs] Sure, sure.

JC: Those are the semiotics…

RS: State sanctioned even…

JC: Right. And so here you have the President of the United States admitting on television that he not only authorized torture but has made it a for-profit industry. So at least he, these people, have the courage to be the criminals that they are. The media, the journalists… nothing, no follow-up questions. You can see them going, “Oh let’s just go back to talking about Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama” and considering how to knee-cap them both, or talking about how Obama is or is not an elitist. Don’t get me wrong, I am not making a blanket condemnation of all journalists…

RS: Yes, well thank you.

JC:: No, no… I am in awe of great journalism. But these people, the corporate press… I mean how many times does Dick Cheney go on Meet the Press and just get softballs from Tim Russert? That is what I mean and yeah, I think the corporate press is absolutely culpable [for the Iraq war].

RS: Or – let’s play spot the propaganda – how about The New York Times and Judith Miller’s pre-Iraq war articles, five articles.

JC: How about when they did the Iraq round-up with all these people [reporters] and nobody talked about how invading a sovereign country in a war of aggression is a war crime. You know, Nuremburg said [the post WWII Nuremburg trials of Nazi-German leaders and enablers] that an illegal invasion of a sovereign country in a war of aggression is a supreme war crime.

RS: Yes, absolutely true. In fact, a former chief prosecutor in the Nuremburg trials, Benjamin Ferencz (he successfully convicted 22 Nazi officers) has recently said that “prima facie case can be made that the United States is guilty of the supreme crime against humanity, that being an illegal war of aggression against a sovereign nation."

JC: Right. You can go back to the Hague and what happened there…

RS: I wish we could go back to the Hague… But I wanted to say regarding your point about the courage of criminals. You are right, we expect criminals to be criminals, so there is no surprise there – perhaps not so overtly audacious – but we expect a criminal to be just what they are. For me, obviously just my own opinion is that I think the corporate press should be held more responsible [for the Iraq war] because the public has put their trust In them to protect them from the government machinations, distortions, lies, especially in matters of life and death.

JC: That is exactly my point. We are in violent agreement…

RS: I prefer violent agreement over violent disagreement.

JC: That is something my father always says, that “we are in violent agreement.” But I also think the same thing could be said of the Democrats, who I have some sympathy for but not much.

RS:: You mean the current Congressional Democrats?

JC:: Yeah. I mean [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi said “impeachment is off the table.” What does that mean? I mean does that mean that someone can commit a crime and it just goes unaccountable until maybe a Democrat can win the White House?

RS: I think it means that Congress has abdicated its duty.

JC: Don’t get me wrong. I don’t mean to make a blanket statement. I am a great fan of [Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, Democrat] John Conyers, of [Democratic Senator] Russ Feingold, of [Democratic Congresswoman] Jan Schakowsky. So I don’t want to make blanket statements, but there are those Democrats in Congress who are compromised, just like many of the mainstream journalists. You know, I don’t think Keith Olbermann has rolled over or Naomi Klein, so I don’t want to make blanket generalizations.

RS: I would throw in – in terms of courageous journalists – Jonathan Landay and Warren Strobel, or what we call them in-house as the McClatchy boys.

JC: Yeah, the McClatchy papers are fantastic…

RS: Sy Hersh…

JC: Yeah and Bill Moyers, who is a life-long hero of mine…

RS: Yep, mine too. But what you are basically pointing to are the investigative journalists, and although not mentioned, I would add the non-corporate or alternative press.

JC: Yes and the alternative press for sure.

RS: One more question, if you could say anything to Dick Cheney, what would you say?

JC: You have the right to remain silent.

RS: [Laughs] So we end our talk with a citizen’s arrest. Good work. Thanks for taking the time to sit down with me.

JC: Thank you, my pleasure.


Enter contest to attend screening with film's writers!

War Inc., is being shown at two screenings on May 19. One screening in New York will be attended by two of the writers on the film, Mark Leyner and Jeremy Pikser. Air America’s Rachel Maddow will be on hand for a Q&A following the screening. And Raw Story’s Larisa Alexandrovna and Lindsay Beyerstein will be attending.

The show starts at 7:30 PM EDT at:

New York Film Academy
100 E. 17th Street
New York, NY 10003

The second screening is in Los Angeles, also on May 19 and starts at 7:30 PM PDT at:

Laemmle Music Hall 3
903t6 Wilshire Blvd
Beverly Hills, CA 90211

Do you want to attend either screening for free?

If you want to attend either of the screenings for free, all you have to do is write a limerick about the Iraq war in the comments section for this interview and indicate which screening you want to attend.

We will pick winners based on their limerick writing abilities only (so no paying off the judges). Be on your best behavior, because John Cusack will be reading your comments (just like the NSA is probably already doing). Good luck!