The contracts are signed, the treatment is being written and Fox Television plans to fast-track production on a ten- to twelve-hour miniseries based on lefty historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, scheduled to run early next year. With celebrity muscle provided in amply hunky doses by Zinn allies and series co-producers Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, Fox is banking on Page Six sex appeal to sell Zinn’s sobering tales to the tabloid masses.
Skeptical media watchers have been clucking about this project since Rupert Murdoch’s minions first started negotiating with Zinn and company last spring. After many months of wrangling, all parties recently agreed on a six-part dramatization of key sections of Zinn’s book, based around the individual exploits of average Americans caught up in major historical moments.
This unlikely venture finds its genesis in a scene from Damon and Affleck’s 1997 breakthrough film, Good Will Hunting, in which Damon praises Zinn’s book. As it turned out, the Zinn and Damon families were old friends from Newton, Massachusetts. (“I went to his high school plays,” says Zinn.) A producer at Fox, Marci Pool, who had read and enjoyed the award-winning book in college, got her bosses’ OK to negotiate to buy the TV rights, which previously had been held by Globalvision executive producer Danny Schechter. After a couple of marathon sessions in Los Angeles, attended by Zinn, Affleck, Damon, Good Will producer Chris Moore (the “Gang Of Four,” as Zinn calls them) and Fox Television Studios brass, a contract was hammered out late last year. Zinn says he was adamant that the final product adhere to the “class, race and antiwar consciousness” of the book, and the contract contains language to the effect that “the series will be true to the point of view of the book,” says Zinn.
The studio ponied up $50 million for the series, and the Gang of Four quickly hired screenwriter Jeremy Pikser (who’s up for an Oscar for his work on the Fox-produced Bulworth) to produce a treatment. When that’s completed, it goes to Fox for approval. Bob Dylan and Winona Ryder have already signed on–he’s singing, she’s acting–and John Cusack and Danny Glover are negotiating for roles. “That’s a huge help,” says Pool. “To get that level of interest from talent is very unusual and very difficult in television.”
At the time of this writing, the contours of the treatment are taking shape. Zinn reports that some of the storylines being contemplated are a dramatization of the resistance movement in the abolitionist period, as seen through the eyes of a slave, and a section devoted to a deserter (or, at the very least, a dissenter) from the American Revolution. According to screenwriter Jeremy Pikser, “You can’t dramatize a textbook, and you can’t fake a docudrama as a drama, so I’ve invented a whole life story for a dockworker in the Revolution, and his great-granddaughter turns up later as a Lowell millworker. It’s just about the most exciting project I’ve ever worked on.”
Taken individually, these are interesting subjects with populist appeal and built-in gravitas that goes deeper than the surface-skating entertainment generally offered up on the Hitler, er, History Channel. But Zinn is acutely aware that in presenting historical moments as seen through the eyes of just plain folks, he runs the risk of losing the populist forest for the trees. “That’s been a worry from the beginning, and we’re going to work to overcome that, and find a way to make connections and larger points that put the individual episodes into broader contexts.”
You’d think Fox would rather those links not be made. After all, the archconservative Rupert Murdoch isn’t going to sell Zinn the rope the amiable socialist professor would hang him with. Even though Zinn says he hopes his final product “doesn’t pass Murdoch’s political litmus test,” some wonder whether even Matt Damon’s pearly whites will be enough to save A People’s History if it strays too far to the left.
“That’s not the right question, frankly,” says Pool. “Putting a miniseries on the air is a business, and the bottom line is that this is a good project for the network. The book is history as told by people who didn’t win the battles or the wars, and that is something that Fox audiences can identify with. Our audience is young, and they identify with struggle. No one inside the company has said anything to me about the politics–not that they won’t at some point, but I don’t see why they would.” As Zinn observes, “To simply do another history is not going to excite a lot of viewers, and the fact that there’s a controversial set of messages is precisely what might attract a large audience, which is really what Fox cares about.” But, as Pikser points out, “As Fox has made clear, our audience is not the PBS audience. We’ve got to make it play. It has to be an entertaining, interesting story that you’ll want to watch.”
It also must be said that Murdoch has shown some restraint in meddling with his network. He did drop the BBC World Service from his Star TV in China a few years back, claiming it posed a potential threat to his Asian business interests; more recently, he canceled a biopic on Anita Hill because it strayed too far to the “We Believe Anita” side of things. But as Fox sponsors Zinn’s critical look at the unseemly corners of American history, it is also looking ahead to the next epoch with Futurama, the year-3000 Matt Groening cartoon series that debuted in March. With unapologetic doses of Simpsons-style archcynicism, the series typifies the profitable niche Fox has carved for itself. It remains the “little-guy network,” airing programs that are by turns scrappy, hip, craven, pointlessly violent and willfully lowbrow. Everyone loves an underdog, and Fox plays its youthful, rebellious status like a fiddle.
In that sense A People’s History is a perfect fit for Fox: Murdoch is to Zinn what Pat Buchanan is to Jerry Brown–the flip side of the same populist coin. And “coin” is what it’s all about.