Matt Damon enters the Coconut Grove recording studio with a smile of obvious relief, notwithstanding the fact that in moments he will have to pronounce words like Kangerdlugssuaq. (You know, the glacier in Greenland.) Narrating a PBS show about the environment, no matter how tongue-torturous, is an easier gig than the one he just left, debating the moral implications of Santa Claus mythology with his 10-year-old daughter.
“We don’t allow lying under any circumstances,” Damon explains ruefully, “and we’ve always taught her that. But now she’s found out the real story on Santa Claus. ‘So you were lying!’ she says. ‘But it’s like a great cultural lie,’ we tell her. No. ‘It’s everyone,’ we tell her. No. ‘It’s a fun lie.’ No ... The argument is just not going well.”
Public policy and Santa Claus are not necessarily intertwined in most American households. But for Damon, a fiercely liberal activist who was one of Barack Obama’s first and loudest Hollywood supporters (he compared Sarah Palin’s vice presidential candidacy to “a really bad Disney movie” and suggested President Bush’s twin daughters be packed off to Iraq), politics colors nearly everything.
“What we liked about Matt is that he’s Harvard educated, so he’s a very smart guy,” says Hal Weiner, who with his wife Marilyn produces “Journey to the Planet Earth,” the PBS series Damon has narrated for the past eight years and was working on last week. “But he’s also a little political.”
The Weiners discovered just how political when Damon started arguing with them about some lines he was supposed to read in one episode, which said rising Chinese soybean consumption was leading to slash-and-burn farming in the Brazilian Amazon.
“He really objected,” Hal Weiner recalls. “He wanted to make sure we were not just bashing China. We had to bring in some scientists to talk to him before he’d do it.”
A lot of producers would have simply snapped that Damon was being paid to read lines, not write them, but the Weiners - not exactly apolitical themselves - were delighted. “I really loved it that he wasn’t willing to just say something without it being confirmed,” says a laughing Marilyn Weiner.
Damon’s intensely political take on life and art was on full view in the Cineart Group studio last week as he taped an episode of “Journey to the Planet Earth” for telecast on March 18. No chit-chat about cars or makeup or agents, and the only sexual discussion concerned the rampant promiscuity of the slutty fish lurking in the reefs off Belize. (Less weird than it sounds; the show was about the health of oceans.)
Instead, the small talk - if that’s the right phrase - ranged from which New York Times columnist is the worst (outgoing conservative William Kristol, according to Damon: “He’s an idiot - he wrote that we should be grateful to George Bush because he won the Iraq war. We! Won! The! War!”) to the proper place of torture in American foreign policy.
“Look, the best line about torture I’ve heard came from (retired CIA officer turned war-on-terrorism critic) Milt Beardon,” Damon says. “He said, ‘If a guy knows where a dirty bomb is hidden that’s going to go off in a Marriott, put me in a room with him and I’ll find out. But don’t codify that. Just let me break the law.’
“Which I think is right. You can’t legalize torture. But anybody would do it in that situation. You’d do it to me in that situation; you’d pull out my fingernails if you thought I knew something like that.”
Damon met Beardon when he was working as a technical advisor on the grim Cold War spy film “The Good Shepherd,” in which Damon played a fictionalized version of legendary CIA counterintelligence chief James Angleton. Damon has acted in several spy movies, including three as discarded CIA superassassin Jason Bourne, and he has developed some very strong opinions on the subject. Do not, for instance, compare that unctuous James Bond fellow to the misguided but moral Bourne.
“They could never make a James Bond movie like any of the Bourne films,” Damon says scornfully. “Because Bond is an imperialist, misogynist sociopath who goes around bedding women and swilling martinis and killing people. He’s repulsive.
“Steve (Soderbergh, who produced yet another of Damon’s spy movies, “Syriana”) told me that years ago he was offered a Bond movie. He told them he’d do it if they gave him creative control. Absolutely not, they said. They have a formula, they stick to it, and it makes them a lot of money. They know what they’re doing, and they’re going to keep doing it.”
The Bourne movies haven’t done too shabbily at the box office themselves, pulling in something over half a billion dollars in ticket sales among them, and another is in the works. Says Damon, who just finished an expensive and probably risky film called “The Green Zone,” based on a harshly critical nonfiction book about the search for WMDs in Iraq: “When you make a $125 million Iraq movie, you kind of owe them a Bourne movie.”
Not, he hastily adds, that it’s quite as chillingly calculated as that.
“Some people do it like a mathematical equation: ‘One for them, one for me,’” says Damon. “I’m less conscious of it than that. But you’re always aware of how much leverage you have to do what you want to do. You want to maintain that. It helps that I like the Bourne movies. I’ve never felt like I’m slumming.”
The cerebral “Good Shepherd,” though far less successful at the box office, may get a sequel or two as well, this time with a little more bang-and-boom. “Bob (De Niro, who directed it) has just become fascinated with the world of intelligence,” Damon reveals. “He went crazy over the stories he heard from a former CIA guy who was one of the technical advisors on ‘The Good Shepherd.’
“The guy was a specialist in black-bag jobs, breaking into embassies and places like that all over the world. He did it for 40 years without getting caught. The first thing they’d do when they broke in was to photograph everything, so it could all be put back exactly in place when they were ready to leave. I think the next film would focus a little more on that, have a little more suspense, which you need to get the wider audience.
“Bob, I think, sees ‘The Good Shepherd’ as a trilogy about the history of the CIA. The first one ended around the Bay of Pigs, the second one would go from Vietnam to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the third would be everything since then, Iraq and Afghanistan and all that ... That’s if they come up with the money. Who knows? We could barely get the first one finished because we kept running out of money. We were in the Dominican Republic shooting toward the end, and they even asked me for money to keep it going.”
With all this talk about politics, the question inevitably arose: Why was Damon at home in South Florida (he, wife Luciana and their three daughters live in Miami Beach) instead of in Washington to see Obama’s inauguration last week? After all, Damon campaigned hard for Obama, throughout the primaries and into the fall election.
“Luciana and I decided we wanted to go,” he admits. “But when I called my contacts from the campaign, they just started laughing: ‘We worked on the campaign for 2 ½ years, and we’re not going. Forget it.’ But then they called me back the next day and said, ‘Hey, we’ve got two tickets for you, in the bleachers, and you’ll actually be able to see Obama take the oath. Just $25,000 apiece.’ So I’m going to watch. From my couch.”