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PATRICK GOLDSTEIN THE BIG PICTURE

Films caught in political cross-fire

January 31, 2006|PATRICK GOLDSTEIN

IN Hollywood, if you want to get walloped with a big whupping stick, just go off and make a movie that has something to say. For years, people of all political stripes have loudly complained that Hollywood movies are full of mindless fluff, or even worse, tawdry sex and violence. Why can't you folks use that powerful medium, the refrain goes, to say something timely and important?

Well, no good deed goes unpunished. In the past six months, the movie business has offered an astounding outpouring of provocative, socially relevant films, some of which will be among today's Oscar nominees. In addition to "Brokeback Mountain," the current best picture favorite, the list includes "Munich," "Good Night, and Good Luck," "Syriana," "Crash" and "The Constant Gardener."

But while these films have all enjoyed plaudits from film critics, the response from op-ed writers, bloggers and columnists has been, with rare exception, somewhere between scorn and disgust. The Washington Post's Richard Cohen dismissed "Syriana" as "a cinematic manifesto of the tired and empty cynicism of too many on the left." On our op-ed page, Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow Max Boot blasted "Syriana" and "Munich," saying the two films "are case studies in mindless moral relativism and pathetic pseudo-sophistication."

"The Constant Gardener" was attacked from the left and the right, with AlterNet columnist Anthony Kaufman calling it "just one more movie about white romance in black Africa" while Townhall.com's Megan Basham wrote it off as "a piece of agitprop so thinly disguised as a love story only the most pseudo of intellectuals could take it seriously." The L.A. Weekly's John Powers bashed "Crash" for having "enough coincidences and cheap ironies to make O. Henry commit harakiri." "Good Night, and Good Luck" took a whipping from Slate's Jack Shafer, who called it "Hollywood airbrushing," saying director George Clooney's "simple-minded thesis about Murrow" was the equivalent of "an after-school special."

"Brokeback Mountain" has drawn hoots of derision on Fox News, from Bill O'Reilly (who said the film has earned rave reviews because the media "want to mainstream homosexual conduct"), Cal Thomas ("The thing is a wet kiss to the gay community") and Mr. "War on Christmas" himself, John Gibson, who asked a guest, "Which is harder to watch, the pulling out the fingernails of 'Syriana' or Heath and Jake enamorada in ['Brokeback Mountain']?"

The New York Times' Caryn James pretty much disowned all the films, saying Hollywood had produced "a genre of timid films with portentous-sounding themes.... Hollywood may be drawn to Big Ideas, but it is always more comfortable with sound-bite-sized thoughts."

Though I'm often accused of being too critical of Hollywood, this is one time when I think filmmakers are getting a bum rap. It would be easy to write off some of this grumbling as conservative-driven knee-jerk anti-Hollywood bias, but the criticism has come from both sides of the political spectrum. The right has, as always, been more united, describing the films the way they do liberal Democrats -- as soft on terrorism and riddled with fatuous hand-wringing. The left, as always, is divided, either condemning the films for being intellectually featherweight or (as they often complain about Democratic politicians) oozing hopelessness and futility.

So what's really going on here? The tone is so bitchy that you almost have to think envy is involved, as if all these media mavens were jealous that filmmakers had not only hijacked their favorite hot-button subjects, but were getting a lot more attention, exploring them with the emotional punch of a dramatist instead of the intellectual rigor of a columnist. But I think filmmakers aren't so much poaching on the pundits' turf as reclaiming their own heritage. Everyone, especially the conservatives who've been blaming Hollywood's box-office slump on liberal elitism, seems to have conveniently forgotten that movies have always reflected the social upheaval of their times.

Hollywood's first blockbuster, D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation," was a supremely political film whose portrayal of a heroic Ku Klux Klan has made it a subject of intense controversy from 1915 to this day. Like many filmmakers of his day, Griffith also regularly made films for the first great wave of American moviegoers -- working class immigrants -- that were teeming with condemnations of heartless landlords, bankers and politicians.

In the 1930s, as the Depression wore on, Frank Capra and Jack Warner made films brimming with populist fervor. In the 1950s, Elia Kazan directed socially charged dramas, notably "On the Waterfront" and "Face in the Crowd," that were exposes of corruption and naked ambition. In the 1970s, inspired by Watergate and Vietnam, Hollywood produced a string of paranoia-drenched dramas, including "All the President's Men," "The Parallax View," "The Conversation," "Three Days of the Condor" and "Taxi Driver."

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