Reflections on a year shaped by precarious times

Special to The Times

While it’s become a yearly ritual to lament the decline in quality movies -- and 2002 was no exception -- there was more than meets the eye to this year’s crop of films, as so many managed to capture the vulnerable mood of the nation.

Although they were conceived before the slumping economy, President Bush’s declaration of war on terrorism, the corporate scandals and the Beltway shootings, this year’s films are the products of the collective unconscious that feared the new millennium, which is why they resonate so powerfully.

It was as if filmmakers forced us to come face to face with the sum of all fears: the horrible feeling that we’ve lost control of our lives in an ever-changing, increasingly dangerous world. They showed us that no one is safe or secure for long, and that we should prepare ourselves for some very dramatic, 180-degree shifts in direction, which, in the long run, isn’t so bad because it makes us more focused and resilient.

No wonder “Spider-Man” was such a huge hit with audiences, as Tobey Maguire turns from angst-ridden teenager to liberated superhero all because of a lethal bite.


Strange occurrences kept undermining any sense of stability. A fatal car accident upends the life of Richard Gere’s Washington Post reporter when he loses his wife (Debra Messing) in “The Mothman Prophecies.” Gere suddenly finds himself way out of his league, hunting an urban legend that turns out to be a supernatural boogeyman worthy of “The X-Files.”

Ditto for Mel Gibson’s ex-minister in “Signs,” when his family bands together to fight a horrifying alien. And the reporter played by Naomi Watts has only a week to unravel the mystery of “The Ring” and save her life after watching that killer video.

More emotionally complex confrontations arose as well. The seemingly defenseless Jodie Foster had only one night to fend off Forest Whitaker and company and grow comfortable inside her own skin in “Panic Room.”

Tom Cruise, Al Pacino and George Clooney had to endure to shake the ghosts of their pasts. Thanks to fate and morality conspiring against him, Cruise’s futuristic cop runs for his life when he’s set up as a prime murder suspect in “Minority Report,” forcing him to confront head on his tyrannical profession. As for Pacino’s tainted cop in “Insomnia,” sleep deprivation unleashes a metaphysical paralysis while he plays cat and mouse with Robin Williams’ killer/control freak. And Clooney’s grief-stricken therapist gets a second chance to fall in love with his deceased wife (Natascha McElhone) in “Solaris,” only to find that she’s a manifestation of his memories and that he’s no more in control than he was before.



Tackling anger

Issues of anger management were a vital component of this pervasive sense of life being upended. Denzel Washington tackles the heartless health-care bureaucracy to save his ailing son in “John Q"; Ben Affleck and Samuel L. Jackson go after one another in a passionate test of wills and conscience in “Changing Lanes"; Gere and Diane Lane portray a husband and wife hysterically overcome by desire, betrayal and anger in “Unfaithful.” An explosive Adam Sandler battles his worst instincts to seek acceptance and peace of mind in “Punch-Drunk Love,” while the disillusioned Michael Caine fights not only for his romantic life in “The Quiet American” but also for his very existence. The eponymous protagonist of “An- twone Fisher” (Derek Luke) has a lot of rage and confusion about his abusive childhood to overcome before he can find his way back home.

Fascinating instances of loss of control can be found in such Oscar contenders as “Road to Perdition,” “Adaptation,” “Far From Heaven,” “The Hours” and “The Pianist.” Isn’t it ironic that when Tom Hanks’ mob hit man goes from hunter to hunted in “Road to Perdition,” he’s actually more in control than his boss and surrogate father (played by Paul Newman)? Hanks goes on the lam with his son (Tyler Hoechlin) and has the time of his life robbing banks, outwitting the mob and, most important, becoming a father. Even though Newman is seemingly all-powerful, he’s boxed in with a son he despises (Daniel Craig) and must watch his life unravel.

“Adaptation” could be seen as this year’s rallying cry, telling us that we have to quickly, and passionately, adapt to life’s changes if we are to survive, let alone thrive.

Here, real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman (played by Nicolas Cage) is confronted by a series of bizarre trials and tribulations when trying to adapt an introspective bestseller about orchid poaching in Florida. Kaufman suffers excruciating writer’s block and doesn’t find the dramatic essence of the story until overcoming his own spiritual emptiness. That journey allows him to discover the truth about himself, his dim-witted but contented twin brother (also played by Cage) and the two people he’s trying to write about: the journalist (Meryl Streep) and the poacher (Chris Cooper).

Perhaps the key to “Adaptation” lies in the orchid itself -- which is precious and, well, adaptable, and why Cooper’s character covets the flower in the first place. His positive outlook is derived from this insight, and Kaufman catches the vibe.

There’s a certain liberating quality inherent in “Far From Heaven” and “The Hours,” despite their somber tones. In the former, Julianne Moore’s repressed ‘50s housewife must confront her worst fears about her marriage and identity when she finds her husband (Dennis Quaid) kissing another man. Yet her torment lifts during her all-too-brief romance with the kind and erudite gardener played by Dennis Haysbert. Likewise, Quaid experiences his own torment until he stops suppressing his sexual identity.




Still, you never can tell what effect one will have on others, which is the moving message of “The Hours.” Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman), battling depression sprung from an unstable mind, conjures her first great novel, “Mrs. Dalloway,” while toiling away in the English suburbs in 1923.

Woolf’s novel reaches across time to touch and inspire Moore (playing another tormented ‘50s housewife) and the contemporary incarnation of its uneasy protagonist (Streep), wiping away their feelings of inadequacy and longing.

But nothing could be more inspiring than the real-life odyssey of Polish pianist Wladyslaw Szpilman (Adrien Brody), who miraculously managed to stay alive and reclaim his art amid the devastation of the Nazi-occupied Warsaw ghetto in “The Pianist.” Here was a happy and successful artist who suddenly lost almost everything when World War II broke out in 1939.

Yet through the help of the Polish Underground as well as others who valued his artistry, Szpilman eluded the cattle cars bound for the Treblinka extermination camp and stayed in hiding in the ghetto for three years, observing the harrowing Warsaw uprising and the destruction of everything around him. And when Szpilman is forced to play for his life during one crucial scene, his haunting Chopin arguably becomes the most sublime cinematic moment of the year.

With rare exception, the precarious times that shaped the films of 2002 did not result in movies with the despairing tone of the turbulent ‘70s. In fact, they were filled with optimism. Characters wrestled back control of their lives even when all hope appeared lost, and they moved forward with a greater awareness of their strengths, weaknesses and individual worth.