It was a Washington DC lawyer’s dream come true, a Hollywood premiere for a film based on the novel he wrote in his spare time. But when The Revenant, the highly anticipated new film adapted from Michael Punke’s book, had its big opening in LA – the evening featured Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy and Oscar-winning director Alejandro González Iñárritu – the author was nowhere to be seen. He was 10,000 miles away in Nairobi, finalising an international agreement enacting a $1.3tr (£873bn) trade deal covering GPS devices, semiconductors and touch screens.
Mr Punke, 51, may be having the literary moment of a lifetime – more than a decade after his novel was released – but as the deputy US trade representative and ambassador to the World Trade Organisation in Switzerland, he’s missing out on a lot of the fun. In fact, he wasn’t even allowed to talk about The Revenant – released in the UK next month – for this article. Federal ethics rules prohibit him from doing any side work that might enrich him and potentially abuse his high-ranking office in the process.
“Oh, he wishes he could talk about it,” said Tim Punke, who in addition to working for a Seattle lumber company has become his brother’s de facto spokesman. “Can you imagine having your book turned into a movie; having Leonardo DiCaprio in it?”
Of course, Mr Punke is allowed to cash the cheques for any book sales. He just can’t do anything to push it along.
“It’s kind of bittersweet,” said Traci Punke, Michael’s wife, who flew to the premiere with their two kids from their home in Geneva. “He’s so grateful that it just happened, that it came to the big screen, that he can’t complain. But he’s obviously disappointed.”
Granted, Mr Punke has nothing much to complain about. It’s not as if he’s been mauled by a bear, left for dead by his compatriots and sent traipsing through hostile country like Hugh Glass, the early-19th-century protagonist of The Revenant.
Reading on an airplane one day, he came across a squib of an idea about the frontier fur trapper Mr Glass and his incredible story of survival. He started waking before dawn, heading to the law office early to write in the hours before his co-workers arrived. At home in Bethesda, Maryland, he did research by building lean-tos and setting up hunting traps with his kids. The book was published in 2002, and Mr Punke managed to sell the movie rights, though it was never certain that a film would get made.
Mr Punke left his law firm and moved the family to Missoula, Montana, where he became an adjunct professor at the University of Montana. But when Ron Kirk, the former mayor of Dallas, was appointed as President Obama’s first US trade representative, one name kept coming up for the WTO job: Michael Punke.
From Switzerland, Mr Punke has travelled the world to talk tariffs, stipulate subsidies and think through trade disputes. In Nairobi earlier this month, while his wife and kids partied with film stars in Hollywood, Punke stayed up late into the night negotiating agricultural subsidies and completing a deal on the biggest tariff cut that the WTO has negotiated in 18 years.
“Maybe Leonardo DiCaprio will do a PSA [Public Service Announcement] about the agreement,” said Christopher Wenk, executive director for international policy at the US Chamber of Commerce. “It would only be fair, since Michael can’t talk about the movie.”
For Mr Punke’s colleagues, there were always a few clues that he had another life. “We were in Japan at a trade event sitting around a table eating lunch when someone looked at the ID badge Michael was wearing and demanded to know where the photo was from,” said Carol Guthrie, a former colleague in the US trade representative’s office. “His ID had a very serious black-and-white photo of him in a turtleneck – a classic book-jacket photo. He was completely mortified. We were thrilled.”
“He’s got a little bit of John Wayne in him,” said John Neuffer, who has worked with Mr Punke for years. “He’s quiet, confident and formidable.”
During the Nairobi trade talks, “there have been seriously dark hours trying to negotiate this last agreement,” Mr Neuffer said. “And Michael has always had a way forward; a way to inspire the group even when there seemed to be no way to move ahead.”
© Washington Post
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