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The news wave

As headline-ripping films hit theaters with regularity, topicality is becoming the name of the game.

August 01, 2004|Patrick Goldstein | Times Staff Writer

As the November election approaches, it's becoming difficult to tell movie directors from investigative reporters. Spike Lee is fulminating about the Watergate burglary, Jonathan Demme is spouting Dwight Eisenhower's prophetic warning against the perils of the military-industrial complex, and John Sayles seems to know more about where the bodies are buried in Texas politics than anybody but Karl Rove.

Nearly four years after the 2000 election, it's clear that a host of maverick filmmakers saw George W. Bush's disputed electoral victory as a wake-up call -- an alarm that rang louder after we endured a horrific terrorist attack, a series of wrenching corporate scandals, and a bitter debate over whether the country was deceived into going to war against Iraq.

This past week alone moviegoers got a double bill of highly charged films. The big studio entry, "The Manchurian Candidate," stars Denzel Washington in a thriller about a sinister multinational conglomerate's efforts to use political assassination to install its man in the White House. The art-house entry, Spike Lee's "She Hate Me," which opened Wednesday, offers a volatile take on everything from corporate greed and sexual politics to the Watergate burglary.

Coming after a prolonged period in which Hollywood has been almost obsessively preoccupied with comic-book fantasies and teen comedies, these films crackle with topicality, as if the filmmakers had been eavesdropping in corporate boardrooms and campaign strategy meetings. I saw Lee's film, with its satiric take on various corporate scandals, the same week that the papers were full of stories about new developments in the Enron, Adelphia and Martha Stewart cases. Critics were preparing their reviews of "The Manchurian Candidate" just as news surfaced that Halliburton may have violated anti-terror sanctions by operating in Iran while Dick Cheney was the company's chief executive. At one point in the latter film, a liberal senator confronts the vice presidential candidate, who is under the sway of Manchurian Global, the film's stand-in for Halliburton. He says: "Raymond, you're about to become the first fully owned and operated vice president of the United States."

The parallel is almost too close for comfort, even for the filmmakers. "It makes me wince when I hear it," says Demme. "I go, 'We've got that now!' The press says Cheney didn't personally award the Halliburton contracts in Iraq. But he didn't have to. He breathes the same air they do."

Extolling Frank Wills

Lee and his film's co-writer, Michael Genet, did voluminous research before shooting "She Hate Me." Genet's digging resulted in a striking flashback sequence that connects the whistle-blower hero of the film, played by Anthony Mackie, to Frank Wills, the security guard who foiled the infamous Watergate burglary, setting in motion a chain of events that led to Richard Nixon's 1974 resignation.

"Wills is a great American hero," says Lee, whose films, from "Do the Right Thing" to "Malcolm X," have been loaded with political commentary. "He changed history, but he died penniless, while the bad guys went on to make plenty of money."

It's fitting to find a connection to 1974 in one of these new films, perhaps the last time Hollywood was so in sync with the high political drama of the times. In a six-month period in 1974, as the Watergate cover-up was unraveling, moviegoers were seeing dramas and thrillers full of paranoia and corruption in high places, most notably "The Parallax View," "Chinatown," "The Conversation" and "The Godfather Part II."

The prevailing mood was perhaps captured by the latter film, when Michael Corleone says: "If it's one thing we've learned, it's that we can kill anyone." 1974 also saw the release of "Hearts and Minds," a searing documentary about Vietnam that ended up being as controversial as Michael Moore's hotly debated "Fahrenheit 9/11." Dumped by its original distributor, it went on to win the Oscar for best documentary, prompting a furor when producer Bert Schneider, taking the stage to accept the award, read a telegram of congratulations from the Viet Cong delegation at the Paris Peace Talks.

"People felt galvanized then just as we do now -- it galvanizes you to be living through a nightmare," says producer John Calley, who as head of production at Warner Bros. in the 1970s released "Hearts and Minds" as well as the fabled "All the President's Men." "There was a terrible sense of discontent about our society, though I have to say that Watergate was nothing compared to what we have now."

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