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Revolutionary ideas are afoot

THE day before the Academy Awards, a swarm of the people behind this year’s amazing crop of politically conscious films were enjoying a warm day in the courtyard of Bob Bookman’s Hancock Park home, scene of the CAA agent’s annual celebration of his agency’s Oscar nominees. In one corner was “Crash” director Paul Haggis, not far away from Grant Heslov, producer of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” while across the way were Tony Kushner and Eric Roth, the screenwriters of “Munich.”

But what really struck me, as I roamed around, was that virtually every filmmaker I stopped to talk with was at work on a socially conscious film -- and these were the other people at the party, not the guys preparing Oscar speeches. Maybe it was the tangy spring air, but it felt as if the ‘70s were back again. For years, film lovers have waxed nostalgic about the heady days of ‘70s cinema, when, inspired by the trauma of Vietnam and Watergate, a seemingly endless array of movies offered a bracing critique of American society.

Suddenly that era doesn’t seem so distant at all. The socially engaged atmosphere that dominated the Oscars this year is not going away. In fact, the next crop of films aren’t low-budget releases bankrolled by indie financiers but, by and large, movies fully financed by major studios, geared to reach a mass audience.

The most intriguing example is “V for Vendetta,” which opens this week, directed by newcomer James McTeigue and co-written by the Wachowski brothers of “Matrix” fame. Warner Bros., which bankrolled “V for Vendetta,” is clearly hoping “V” will capture the young males who were enthralled by the “Matrix” series. But what’s even more telling about this new politically involved era is that Warners has embraced an incendiary film in which the hero -- or terrorist, take your pick -- is a bomb-throwing revolutionary laying siege to a fascist state.

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In the recent past, even if a studio had made such a volatile film, it would’ve been working overtime to invent a soothing marketing message designed to make the story appear less inflammatory. Instead, for one of its ad slogans, Warners has used a line of dialogue that does little to hide the film’s relevance to today’s political debates about secret domestic wiretapping and other hot-button issues: “The people should not be afraid of their government. The government should be afraid of the people.”

Filmmakers have forever told stories that can be read as allegories -- it’s how Russian and Chinese filmmakers have managed to slyly criticize their governments without being tossed into a gulag. “V for Vendetta” is taken from a graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, first published in 1988, that based its futuristic totalitarian state on the conservative Margaret Thatcher regime, which, as Moore put it, was so eager to eradicate labor unions and homosexuality “that one can only speculate as to which minority will be the next legislated against.” The “V” filmmakers have updated the book with topical references to avian flu, articles of allegiance and detention centers. If you’re so inclined, you could argue that “V” evokes an unsettling whiff of today’s America, especially with characters such as Lewis Prothero, the film’s omnipotent media mouthpiece, already inspiring comparisons by some early viewers to Rush Limbaugh.

“To me, that’s why ‘V’ is such a great book, because it’s timeless -- you can read into it what you want,” McTeigue told me during a recent interview. “If you see a detention center today, you think of Guantanamo Bay. But if you saw it when the book first came out, you’d have thought of concentration camps. People in Europe have asked if the movie is about the Bush administration. And I always say, ‘No, it’s about any society where the government stops being a voice for the people and simply becomes a voice for themselves.’ ”

As I said, there is more to come. Next month Universal is releasing “American Dreamz,” a madcap political satire that imagines a bumbling Arab terrorist, ensconced as part of a sleeper cell with an assimilated Arab family in Orange County. He becomes the surprise hit of an “American Idol"-style singing show, just as the newly reelected president -- a ringer for George W -- is persuaded by his White House Svengali that the best way to boost his sagging approval ratings would be by appearing as a guest judge on the final round of the show.

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On April 28, a week after “Dreamz,” Universal will open “United 93,” a dramatic portrait of the courageous struggle aboard one of the planes hijacked on 9/11. There are already films in the works -- some due out later this year -- about the machinations of the CIA, treachery inside the FBI and a tense rescue mission in the rubble of the World Trade Center.

What ties all these movies together, as well as a host of other projects in various stages of production, is that they are being generated by filmmakers who’ve voiced constant frustration, to me as well as others, that the country -- and the media -- have largely avoided a serious discussion of the troubling issues facing the country. As Noah Feldman, a law professor at NYU, put it in a recent essay, “For the last five years, with a Republican-controlled Congress, Americans have not been exposed to serious congressional debate on any major issue.”

So filmmakers have leaped into the breach, forming their own debating society by pursuing films about provocative and timely subjects. “I think we’ve all got tired of ignoring the elephant in the room,” says Paul Weitz, the writer-director of “American Dreamz.” “The Bush administration has done a great job of preventing visceral images of the war in Iraq from being seen by the American public, so as a filmmaker you have to come up with your set of images and ideas. You can’t willfully stick your head in the sand. It would be very strange with all that’s going on in our country if we just kept making romantic comedies and action movies.”

The discussion isn’t just going on in America. Palestinian filmmaker Hany Abu-Assad offers an unsentimental portrait of the politics of extremism in “Paradise Now,” which earned an Oscar nomination for best foreign-language film. “As a filmmaker, if you feel politics is failing to do anything, you have to be a witness when the politicians’ eyes are closed,” Abu-Assad told me. “The artist can step back and allow people to see the world in a different way.”

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Although this new crop of films is viewed in conservative circles as the result of a left-leaning Hollywood studio agenda, they actually are the creations of filmmakers with disparate beliefs. “We don’t generate these ideas -- no one at the studio is saying, ‘Let’s make message-oriented movies,’ ” says Warner Bros. Entertainment President Alan Horn. “These are grass-roots ideas that come organically from writers, producers and filmmakers. We’re simply asking them, ‘What interests you?’ ”

If anything, studio executives remain cautious about controversy. Horn admits that he was especially nervous about a scene in “V” in which the film’s hero blows up Parliament. “I was worried about the message we were sending so I wanted it very clear that the act is announced ahead of time, so no one was in the building. It should be the blowing up of an iconic symbol, not blowing up civilians or soldiers or anyone. Not everyone may agree with that distinction, but it was one that mattered to me.”

It’s hardly a stretch to say that some of the most illuminating discussions about terrorism are coming, not from our political leaders (who engaged in a shameless round of grandstanding over the Dubai ports deal), but from our filmmakers, who have eagerly grappled with complex moral issues. When I asked McTeigue if the hero of his film was a revolutionary or a terrorist, he answered with a question of his own. “Was Nelson Mandela a terrorist or a revolutionary? What about Che Guevara? What about the founding fathers of America? I’m not sure anyone would entirely agree on the answers.”

As free thinkers, artists rarely agree on the right questions, much less the right answers. When I spoke with Abu-Assad, it was especially revealing to hear him discuss “Munich,” Steven Spielberg’s meditation on the haunting cycle of revenge between the Israelis and Palestinians.

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“It is a good movie,” he says. “But its conflict is entirely inside the Mossad, of the hero believing in, and then doubting, his cause. You never see the internal conflict between the Palestinians. They are not all one kind of person. In every country, as in every person, you have the good, the bad and the ugly. And the conflict inside a culture is always more interesting than the conflict between two countries.”

That, of course, is what we have today in America -- a conflict inside our own culture, debating the merits of freedom vs. security and a host of other issues. As the polls are finding, we don’t have much faith in the answers coming from our president or politicians of either party. Perhaps we’re at a moment in history when our artists are better equipped to confront the messy issues of the moment than people who have to run for election for a living. So if filmmakers want to join our big national debate, I say bring it on.

“The Big Picture” runs Tuesday in Calendar. If you have questions or criticism,

e-mail them to patrick.goldstein @latimes.com.

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