Why the Film Contact Annoyed Bill Clinton

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by Simon Brew

The 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, proved to be a solid hit for Warner Bros. However, the film—directed by Back to the Future helmer Robert Zemeckis, and based on the book by Carl Sagan—resulted in a formal complaint being lodged by Bill Clinton's White House.

The issue surrounded some footage of President Bill Clinton at a 1996 press conference, in which the then-POTUS was talking about a rock that was believed to have come from Mars. In the film, Zemeckis edited the footage to make it seem as if Clinton was talking about the messages that had seemingly come from alien sources.

Amongst the (verbatim) lines that ended up in the film were:

"If this discovery is confirmed, it will surely be one of the most stunning insights into our universe that science has ever uncovered. Its implications are as far-reaching and awe-inspiring as can be imagined. Even as it promises answers to some of our oldest questions, it poses still others even more fundamental. We will continue to listen closely to what it has to say as we continue the search for answers and for knowledge that is as old as humanity itself but essential to our people's future."

Which all fit the context of Contact—in which a scientist believes she has confirmed the existence of intelligent extraterrestrial life, and attempts to make first contact—rather well.

The only problem? The filmmakers apparently hadn't asked permission to use Clinton's remarks. While a spokesperson for Warner Bros. maintained that the studio believed that it had been "completely frank and upfront with The White House on this issue," the complaint from the administration argued that the use of the almost-unedited material was "inappropriate."

In specific relation to the argument that use of the footage was protected as parody and satire under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Clinton's press secretary at the time, Mike McCurry, argued, "there is a difference when the President's image, which is his alone to control, is used in a way that would lead the viewer to believe he has said something he really didn't say."

Warner Bros. did concede that it had no formal sign-off on using the footage. Furthermore, The White House did not seek to pull the film, or even have it re-edited. Rather, President Clinton's administration wanted to raise the issue of unauthorized use of his image—presumably to dissuade others from trying something similar in the future.

The scene remains intact in all copies of the film. Yet Clinton's image has never been used in a movie this way since. Nor any subsequent U.S. President, for that matter.

Did you know that author Carl Sagan had plans for a Contact video game adaptation back in 1983? Find out about that and more by heading to our Carl Sagan biography