Phil Donahue Makes Anti-War Film

Phil Donahue | Will Smith | Robert Altman | Katie Couric

Phil Donahue Makes Anti-War Film

Add the name of Phil Donahue to the list of people who’ve made documentaries about the effects of the Iraq war.

The legendary liberal talk-show host and renowned Ralph Nader supporter showed his film — which he called a work in progress — to a private screening group last week.

The film, “Body of War,” is unfinished but riveting. It should make Tomas Young, its central character, a star on the lecture and possibly talk-show circuit, much the way Mark Zupan got recognition after last year’s “Murderball.”

Young, who was 24 years old, went to Baghdad in April 2004 as a very green solider. He’d enlisted right after Sept. 11, thinking he’d be sent to Afghanistan to hunt down the terrorists who caused the tragedies at the World Trade Center.

Within five days of arriving in Iraq, however, Young was caught in the same battle in Sadr City that killed Casey Sheehan, son of Cindy Sheehan, now a well-known activist. Young was shot through the chest, and the bullet severed his spine, leaving him paralyzed from the chest down.

Donahue, the story goes, met Young on a tour of Walter Reed Army Medical Center with Nader. Right away, he and filmmaker Ellen Spiro saw the potential for a movie based on this young man.

The Sheehan connection is not an important thread of the movie, yet one that Donahue drives home early nonetheless.

“Bush said he wouldn’t meet with Cindy because he’d already met with her in 2004,” Young says. “I figured my life has been severely impacted. So I wanted to hear his excuse about not meeting with me.”

Donahue’s film — like some others of recent vintage — traces Young’s journey from soldier to activist. Throughout, he remains patriotic.

Young, a real Midwesterner from Kansas City, Mo. — started asking questions soon after his release from the hospital. Donahue’s team follows him as he grows as a speaker and a voice for other vets.

And Young becomes politicized, too. By the end of the film he’s meeting with Sen.Robert Byrd, who recalls the 23 other senators who voted against the Iraq war (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, most pointedly, were not in that group).

Byrd, in fact, plays a big part in Donahue’s film. The 88-year-old senator, with 47 years in office, not to mention six more in Congress, is used by Donahue as a Yoda of sorts for in the film and for the war. He’s proud to be the leader of the 23 dissidents, and his scenes with the wheelchair-bound Young are poignant.

“Body of War” works on several levels, too. It’s not just an anti-war tract. Donahue and Spiro, having complete access to Young, graphically record his medical saga as well. Some of this is not for the squeamish, but all of it is for us to see.

Not only does Young come home physically impaired, he then must deal with a basic medical bureaucracy. It’s not like getting shot defending your country earns soldiers any leverage in obtaining proper treatment.

Donahue and Spiro have only just finished filming and have quickly put together a rough cut. I’m told several heavy insiders in the documentary world have seen “Body of War” already. I just hope Donahue and Spiro don’t wait too long to release it. HBO would be the perfect venue to showcase Young’s story.

And Donahue, by the way, says he will donate all the profits to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., a charity close to his wife, Marlo Thomas, and her late father, Danny, for the last several decades.

Will Smith Pursues an Oscar

Don’t look now, but Academy Award front-runner Forest Whitaker has some competition. Even though his performance as Idi Amin in “The Last King of Scotland” is hard to beat, a dark horse candidate is shadowing his steps.

Will Smith has already received an Oscar nomination for “Ali.” But wait until you see him in “The Pursuit of Happyness.” I know that TV ads are already running for this Sony drama, but little prepares you for Smith’s bravura turn as Chris Gardner, a former medical-supplies salesman who was homeless for a while in the early '80s before pulling himself up by his bootstraps and becoming a millionaire.

This is the stuff of Horatio Alger, although most kids today don’t know who that is. A new generation may wind up referring to success sagas as “Chris Gardner” stories once they see this movie.

Of course, for those of us with cold, cynical hearts, Gardner’s story seems unbelievable. The movie, as it were, might appear better suited for Lifetime than the big screen.

But Italian director Gabriele Muccino, working in English for the first time, skips the maudlin sentimentality and keeps Smith to a taut, unflinching performance.

This couldn’t have been as easy as it sounds, since Smith’s real-life little boy Jaden plays his son and gets lots of screen time.

Luckily, the kid also eschews the ham — he’s no "Webster" — and the many tears at the end of “Pursuit" feel earned.

Smith then joins Whitaker, Peter O'Toole (in "Venus") and two other gentlemen in the Best Actor category.

Those last two names remain tantalizing. Most feel that Leonardo DiCaprio will be one of them, either for "Blood Diamond" or "The Departed." The fifth slot may go to Ryan Gosling — I wrote about his dazzling performance in “Half Nelson" last January from Sundance.

The Best Actor category, by the way, is hobbled less by lack of choices this year than lack of imagination on the behalf of studios.

There’s some excellent work from Toby Jones as Truman Capote in "Infamous"; Jude Law in Anthony Minghella’s "Breaking and Entering"; and Matt Damon in "The Good Shepherd." But the campaigns aren’t there so far, and they don’t look like they’re coming at this late date.

Robert Altman's Last Award

The late Robert Altman won’t be getting any awards for "A Prairie Home Companion," although he certainly deserves something for making such a complex, brave little film at age 80.

Altman did have statues on his mantle, however. The very last one, I think, came from the Hamptons International Film Festival in October. It was a lifetime achievement award, and Altman accepted it at Guild Hall in East Hampton in front of a packed house.

He repeated an old story for Peter Travers, who interviewed him that day, of how Elliott Gould and Donald Sutherland tried to get him fired off of “M*A*S*H.”

“Had I known, I would have quit, something Mr. Rumsfeld refuses to do,” said Altman, who never missed a chance to voice his political leanings regardless of the consequences.

That night, Picturehouse Films gave Altman a dinner at Nick and Toni’s, and also celebrated a documentary called “Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?”

Don Hewitt, the man who invented "60 Minutes," was there, as well as artist Eric Fischl and his painter wife, April Gornik; director Robert Benton (“Places in the Heart”); and writer Hannah Pakula, whose late husband Alan directed many classics including “All the President’s Men” and “Sophie’s Choice.”

Lots of other stars came to the Hamptons festival last month, which is great: Alec Baldwin, Joey Pantoliano, Marcia Gay Harden and Billy Bob Thornton were there, and Ellen Burstyn was hawking her autobiography. That’s all good, but it’s somehow nice that Altman’s last award was given here.

Katie Gets Nostalgic; Tunie Produces Cool Tunes

Is Katie Couric feeling lonely? She had lunch on Wednesday before Thanksgiving with ex-partner Matt Lauer at Trattoria Dell'Arte across from Carnegie Hall.

I’m told it was just a friendly catch-up meal, but Katie is feeling some pressure about her “lack-of-news broadcast.”

The solution seems simple, Katie: Give us the war and the economy, and leave the fluff to the morning shows.

Case in point: Dueling promos last night during “60 Minutes” for Katie and for Harry Smith were each about the same topic — "Overweight in America." Get the picture? …

The number of producers on “Spring Awakening,” a hot new Broadway musical poised to usurp “Rent,” is larger than the cast! The show has a catchy score by Duncan Sheik, he of the interminable hit from a decade ago that went “[I Am] Barely Breathing.” Remember that one?

Anyway, the producers list is long but it includes two actors for a change: Tamara Tunie, our talented pal from “Law and Order: SVU” and “As the World Turns”; and Tom Hulce of “Amadeus” fame.