He might have been responsible for creating three of Hollywood’s biggest, still-running franchises (and weathered some of its most notorious bombs), but in nine days, John McTiernan, the big-budget auteur behind “Predator,” “Die Hard” and “The Hunt for Red October,” will start a year-long stint in federal prison. A surprisingly spirited movement has started online, thanks largely to a dedicated Facebook page called Free John McTiernan, and it has garnered the support of “The Incredibles” director Brad Bird (who recently wrote a piece for Rolling Stone about the significance of the original “Die Hard“), Samuel L. Jackson, Joe Carnahan, Clint Mansell, Monte Hellman, Gareth Evans, Robert Davi (who played one of the Johnson FBI Agents in “Die Hard”), Mark Millar and a whole host of French intellectuals, filmmakers, and critics (including, most recently, Thierry Fremaux, the general delegate of the Cannes Film Festival). Free John McTiernan, indeed.
McTiernan’s troubles stem from his involvement with infamous Hollywood private eye Anthony Pellicano, who McTiernan had hired to spy on his “Rollerball” producer, Charles Roven (who would later shepherd Christopher Nolan‘s Batman trilogy). McTiernan became increasingly suspicious of Roven trying to take the movie away from him, something that had happened to the filmmaker before, and his mood took a more conspiratorial pallor after a portion of the “Rollerball” set mysteriously burned down during production.
When the FBI confronted him with questions about Pellicano (who was in heavy demand in Hollywood – a Vanity Fair report from a few years ago recounted how Chris Rock used the investigator to keep track of a woman Rock had allegedly had an affair with, and who was now claiming fathered her child), McTiernan was charged with lying to federal agents. Since then (back in 2006), the legal proceedings have taken on a labyrinthine complexity – basically, he faces two consecutive charges as well as a perjury charge (since he tried to go back on a guilty plea he had issued). It went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, who denied his request to reverse his guilty plea. (Pellicano is currently serving a 15-year prison sentence that began in 2008, when he was convicted of 78 felonies in two parallel trials).
The Free John McTiernan Twitter and Facebook pages were set up earlier this year by a pair of French journalists, as a way to try and mobilize his fans to voice their concerns about his imprisonment and celebrate the man who has given cinema so much over the years. So far most of the media coverage about McTiernan and the movement has come from French outlets (including newspapers like Le Monde and Allocine, the largest French movie site), since they very much consider him an “auteur” while in America he is largely deemed a “craftsman.”
Others who have voiced their support, either on Facebook or Twitter, include Carl Weathers, “Desire” director Laurent Bouhnik, “Last Action Hero” and “13th Warrior” actor Sven-Olen Thorsen (who showed his support via a weird poem), “Doberman” director Jan Kounen, “Hostage” director Florent-Emilio Siri, “Miracle Mile” director Steve de Jarnatt and the French Cinematheque.
The main area of contention with the McTiernan case is how he is seemingly the only Hollywood player to face any kind of significant penalization (Tom Cruise, accused of hiring Pellicano to spy on former Bold magazine editor Michael Davis Sapir, recently shimmied out of a similar legal shit show). Many in the community feel like McTiernan is being “made an example of” (keep in mind that, after Pellicano failed to produce any viable material, he was promptly fired by McTiernan after a few days work). Of course, his year-long imprisonment will undoubtedly kill what’s left of his career, after the case made him uninsurable as a director for the past decade (despite the Facebook page claiming that he is quietly working on an airplane adventure called “Warbirds“).
While the Free John McTiernan movement doesn’t have the steam of, say, raising millions of dollars for the cinematic incarnation of a marginal, barely-watched cult television series, it’s still great to see filmmakers and stars, who have either worked with the director or were inspired by his artistry, showing their support. The John McTiernan story is a long and thorny one, and it’s far from over. Yippe-ki-yay, motherfucker.