The 1997 movie Contact, starring Jodie Foster and Matthew McConaughey, proved to be a solid hit for Warner Bros. Directed by Back to the Future helmer Robert Zemeckis, and based on the book by Carl Sagan, the film however resulted in a formal complaint being lodged by Bill Clinton’s White House.
The issue was footage used in the film of President Clinton at a news conferences back in August 1996. Robert Zemeckis took the material, and edited it into Contact. In the actual 1996 new conference, Clinton had been talking about a rock that was believed to have come from Mars. In the film, it was used to talk about the messages that had seemingly come from alien sources.
Among the lines that ended up in the film verbatim 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 fitted the context of the film Contact rather well.
The only problem? The filmmakers apparently hadn’t asked permission to use Clinton’s remarks. While a Warner Bros spokesperson at the time maintained that they felt they’d been “completely frank and upfront with the White House on this issue,” the complaint from the administration nonetheless argued that the use of the pretty much unedited Clinton 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 have it re-edited. Rather, President Clinton’s administration wanted to raise the issue of unauthorized use of his image, presumably to dissuade people from trying something similar in the future.
The scene remains in all copies of the film. And Clinton’s image has never been used in a movie this way since.