Films caught in political cross-fire

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."

George Clooney, who's become something of a pinata for Hollywood's conservative detractors, made the argument to me last week that films have always talked about issues. "What do you think 'Mr. Smith Goes to Washington' was about? Of all the right wing's ridiculous arguments, the worst one is that we liberals somehow lead the way. 'Easy Rider' didn't create the counter culture. 'Guess Who's Coming to Dinner' didn't launch the civil rights movement. All that was going on before those films were made.

"We've had a lot of political films this past year because of what's going on in the culture. When there is a tumultuous time, movies simply reflect that. And for the first time since Watergate, people are talking about political issues. For years our culture was asleep. But after those two towers fell on 9/11, it scared us and it hurt us and the movies you're seeing came out of filmmakers reacting to the impact of that event."

But conservatives say that the new political films not only betray a naivete about history, but are classic examples of La-La-Land preachiness. "No one has a problem with filmmakers tackling issues when they let you draw your own conclusions about complex characters," says Boot, who cites "The Day of the Jackal," "Zulu" and the original "Manchurian Candidate" as well-made films about war and politics. "But I wish they'd at least make movies that were on the American side of the war we're fighting today. Too many of the films think they've made a great moral statement when they're just showing their ignorance."

Conservatives also argue that Hollywood's box-office woes are closely linked to its liberal politics, pointing to the modest grosses for most of the films. "Let's face it, nobody's going to see these films," says Jason Apuzzo, co-founder of the Liberty Film Festival and editor of the Libertas website. "Hollywood has lost the trust of a lot of people who are turned off by its leftist politics and lifestyle propaganda. Look at the Golden Globes, which celebrated all kinds of gay-themed movies. People in Hollywood may have all been patting themselves on the back, but that kind of material is going to turn off middle America."

Apuzzo is not imagining this backlash. I'm constantly bombarded with e-mail from people who are boycotting films that star political activists such as Clooney or Susan Sarandon. (Clooney has a novelty deck of cards on his desk called the "Deck of Traitors," which features him as the queen of hearts.) But from my informal surveys, these people, like most gay bashers, are older than 40. The younger generation, though not necessarily politically liberal, is far more tolerant about personal expression and sexual choice. They want to see movies that are daring and original, whether it's a social drama like "Brokeback Mountain" or a sexy thriller like "Mr. & Mrs. Smith."

For me, many of these complaints are based on irritation. Conservatives not only rule Washington, but are dominant voices on cable news and talk radio. But Hollywood, the biggest pop-culture megaphone, remains a thorn in their side, full of artists who've battled the conservative tide sweeping across much of the land. Out of frustration the right has tried to discredit movies by attacking the filmmaker's personal politics, attacking "Munich" by citing anti-Israel statements by co-screenwriter Tony Kushner or calling "Constant Gardener" director Fernando Meirelles a "radical" for making an al-Qaeda joke in an interview.

In fact, filmmakers' politics are a notoriously unreliable barometer for their movies. Don Siegel, a Hollywood liberal, made "Dirty Harry," a pro-cop vigilante fantasy. Elia Kazan informed on his old lefty friends, but continued to make socially conscious liberal films. Artists are unruly creatures -- they don't always hew to party lines. When the world is in upheaval, their natural instinct is to give voice to that tumult.

"We're supposed to capture what's in the air and give a form to it," Meirelles told me the other day. "The artist is like an antenna, always searching for new ideas and ways to express them."

You may not always agree with the way today's filmmakers present these ideas -- or interpret them. But you can't ignore film's history as a medium for dramatizing social issues. Sometimes the message is silly, sometimes profound, but when it captures the spirit of an age, it's just as exhilarating as a moonlight kiss, a roof-top gun battle or a custard pie in the face.

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"The Big Picture" runs each Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism, e-mail them to patrick.goldstein@latimes.com.

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