Axe Files: Remembering the time of 30 minute TV ads

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The Axe Files, featuring David Axelrod, is a podcast distributed by CNN and produced at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The author works at the institute.

LOS ANGELES– What do Hollywood and Washington have in common? Academy Award-winning director Davis Guggenheim, who has spent a great deal of time in both towns, says a lot.

Guggenheim, a documentarian who won an Oscar for his film “An Inconvenient Truth,” believes that the culture of ambition and networking pervades both.

“I also think that — not always the case, but often the case — there has to be something broken in you to want to be successful in Hollywood,” Guggenheim argued. “And that brokenness, the itch that you can’t scratch or that thing that you need to fix about yourself becomes that drive that you see all that extreme behavior in Hollywood, you see it in actors and directors all the time.”

For politicians, the weight of celebrity has slightly different consequences. “Sometimes in politics, being a good leader, you have to lose. You have to say, ‘I’m willing to lose.’ And I think less and less that’s happening,” Guggenheim said.

His father, Charles Guggenheim, was himself an Academy Award-winning documentarian who directed ads for Robert F. Kennedy’s Senate and presidential campaigns. Guggenheim said the landscape of political media has drastically changed since then.

“What he made as a political piece of, quote, ‘advertising,’ was a thirty-minute film that played on all three networks uninterrupted,” Guggenheim recalled. “That sounds quaint, but imagine what you can get across in thirty minutes.”

But, Guggenheim said of his father, “as the system changed, and as it became very quickly a system where it became 30-second ads, he became disenchanted. Because the more it became about thirty-second ads, the more those ads became expensive, it was much easier to be negative, and much more effective to be negative. And he hated that. He wouldn’t make a negative ad. Never did.”

Guggenheim also developed a relationship with former Vice President Al Gore while the two worked together on “Inconvenient Truth,” a documentary that chronicled Gore’s public lectures to raise awareness and foment action around climate change. Both men recalled the shared experience of working under the shadow of fathers who were very successful in the professions the sons chose to pursue. “[My father] won four Academy Awards,” Guggenheim said. “And out of college, I was thinking…how can I get outside of his shadow?”

The difference, he says, was his father “wanted me to do whatever I wanted to make me happy. I think Al was — his father was pushing him very hard not just to be in politics but to be president.”

To hear the whole conversation with Guggenheim, which covered his storied career as a documentarian and filmmaker, click on To get “The Axe Files” podcast every week, subscribe at

By Zane Maxwell

University of Chicago Institute of Politics