Big Mad John: An Interview With John Cusack on War, Inc.

Actor John Cusack War Inc screenshot

John Cusack was an out-and-out nerd in the 1980s, a freaky puppeteer in the 1990s, and a mixed up romantic in the early 2000s.

Then, Bush took the country to war. And something snapped.

Like many of Hollywood’s elite stars, John started blogging about politics for The Huffington Post. He soon defined the Bush administration as “depressing, corrupt, unlawful and tragically absurd.” He became friends with anti-globalization journalist Naomi Klein, and he raged about the Blackwater military corruption scandal.

The change is reflected in John’s work. Last year, he starred in the largely unseen drama Grace Is Gone, about a father struggling to explain to his daughters that their mother has been killed while serving in Iraq. Now he offers up War, 20&l=as2&o=1&a=B0015XHQVC&camp=217145&creative=399349, in which he acts as a hit man who suppresses his emotions by gulping down hot sauce.

Despite the sauce, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny.

John co-wrote and produced the dark political satire, which is partly inspired by Klein’s 2004 article “Baghdad Year Zero.” It will probably not do well at the box office. But, as John said during our phone interview, he just doesn’t care.

Have you seen a picture of him lately? Look at his eyes. They look different. They look colder. John’s affected. And, for better or for worse, he wants you to be, too:

Rob Capriccioso: What do you think about people who criticize actors who speak out on their political views?

John Cusack: Well, I think you have to consider the source. You know, usually the source is not very credible. I mean, I’m a filmmaker and an actor and a producer and a writer, and whatever else I am, I’m a citizen. So the people who criticize—they spend their time reading, writing, and hopefully talking to interesting people...they work in front of the camera sometimes, sometimes other people write their lines, and they wear make-up, and sometimes they go on television. So, what is the difference between their opinion and mine—between what they do and what I do? It’s kind of a joke. They communicate, and I communicate. They deal in ideas, and I deal in ideas. I don’t even understand the question.

RC: Well, so many people make a point of bashing actors—

JC: —I haven’t heard anybody make that sort of criticism about me in a long time, actually. You do have the right-wing guys who will say bad things about George Clooney or Barbara Streisand...I can understand what they’re doing because they’re trying to put people in their little boxes and diminish people who have opinions. But I’m not cowed by those sorts of fools.

RC: Do you tune in to the chatter of how pundits have handicapped the election so far?

JC: Yeah, I do. I mean, I’m always grateful for the journalists who are keeping real issues on the table. These horse race issues, I sort of find to be much less interesting. I found it interesting that on the day when the President of the United States admitted to meeting about what he called ‘expanding interrogation techniques’—that’s the sort of feel-good symbiotic of torture, right—he said that he had these meetings in the White House. I saw no follow-up questions from the national press, and we went right back into the latest recapping of Hillary Clinton and putting Barack Obama in his box as a gun-hating elitist—right back to the horse race questions. These are disturbing trends, so I just look for the journalists who keep these issues on the table…

RC: What political issues are on your mind most?

JC: I would love for someone to say, ‘Hey, what are we going to do with the troops?’ There’s 140,000 troops and 180,000 contractors [in Iraq], and I believe Sen. Obama and maybe Clinton said that we can’t take out the contractors because the troops are too dependent on them. That’s sort of a backdoor draft, right? Or it’s part of a pattern. And I think it’s the duty of the people—the Internet and the press—to make the Democratic candidates talk about this because, obviously, the Republicans are not going to talk about it. This has been their game. Their game has been to privatize the entire essence of what it means to be a state—from military to disaster relief. They want these unaccountable elements. They want to turn everything that it means to be a state into a for-profit enterprise, including outsourcing the advanced interrogation techniques, which is torture.

RC: So, you don’t like Republicans?

JC: If you want torture to be a for-profit enterprise, which it is right now, then we should continue on with the Republicans’ agenda. Or force the Democrats to bring these issues up. I mean, that’s what I think—that’s what the movie’s about. What I’m happy about, given what’s going on on the Internet, is that people have been so interested in the movie. I think they’re interested in the ideas, and I think they’re interested in using it as a springboard to talk about the ideas. That’s really gratifying.

RC: War, Inc. is a pretty dark project, John.

JC: You’re talking about compared to sketch-comedy satire… Yeah, it’s not Wedding Crashers... In a sense, it has darkly comic imperatives. That’s what we aspire to, but it will be up to you and anyone else to decide how well we succeeded…if there’s a progenitor, or the film’s descendant, it might be of the sort of the aesthetic of radicalism of the '60s, which spoke to the inhumanity and problems of entire systems, rather than kind of regretfully weeping over the supposed bad policy choices that dominate political discussion. This [film] is talking about the entire new economy of what, I guess, Naomi Klein called the ‘disaster capitalism complex.’ And attacking a whole economy and trying to look at the whole ideology behind this, which has been a maybe 25-year-old campaign—not a conspiracy in any sense, but a real campaign to destroy the New Deal and to turn government into basically an ATM card for the corporations, so they can get right to our tax dollars...

RC: Would you describe yourself as bitter?

JC: Um, no, I mean, I think that given the controversy over [Obama’s] bitter remark, I can see how that would be something that you could sort of run with, but I think the essence here is that I’m certainly not running for office. So, we’re going to try to express our feeling and process this into symbols to put it up on the screen. The movie has a core of outrage in it, but I think it also has a spirit of rebellion and a spirit of defiance and a spirit of subversion. I think all of those things are also fun.

RC: Darkly fun.

JC: Yeah, I mean, it’s fun to sort of tell the truth and it’s fun to not be cowed by an administration that tells people to watch what they say...

RC: Do you worry that conservatives are either not going to like the movie or not like you as a result of the topic the movie covers?

JC: Actually, no, because the Republican Party that I’m talking about is a radical, radical version of this, and I think there are well-meaning Republicans, Libertarians and Democrats who are all outraged about this. I’m not interested in making a partisan, pro-Democrat movie... Anybody who wants a version of the country where these corporations can have private mercenary armies doing their bidding, when they invade a country to try to strip mine it and sell off all the rights of the country while it’s still burning, and they think that it’s okay to use war and basically murder as an extension of economic policy...if that’s okay, then I don’t care who is offended by that...This is not a movie for the Democrat Party, and this is not a movie designed to change the GOP...

RC: Do you think President Bush would like the film?

JC: I don’t think he would like it because it’s basically a condemnation of the very core essence of his administration and the worldview of his advisers and the people who have taken the country down this ruinous path. I think it hopefully exposes it as a wanton, protectionist, criminal enterprise...I think saying they’re an ideologue gives them too much credit. These guys talk about wanting to reduce the size of government, keep government off your backs, protect your Libertarian instincts—but then, at any moment, when they have a chance to make a profit, violating any of their principles, they do it...

RC: Will we see more politically-motivated pictures from you, John?

JC: I’ve always thought, as an artist, that you do what you think is right, you do what inspires you. And you just let the chips fall where they may.

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