In December 2001, the original production of Tony Kushner’s globe-trotting drama “Homebody/Kabul” opened at a small New York theater. Kushner, author of “Angels In America” and the script for Steven Spielberg’s heralded epic “Lincoln,” had written the play several months before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and the subsequent U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
Yet the themes of “Homebody/Kabul” — global politics, human upheaval and the historically tortured relationship between Afghanistan and the West — were so timely that it seemed as if Kushner had been gazing into a crystal ball or the collected writings of Nostradamus. Later, the playwright joked that “Homebody/Kabul” was described so often as “eerily prescient” that his husband suggested Kushner should adopt it as a drag name: Eara Lee Prescient.
“I’m not psychic,” Kushner wrote in an afterword to the play’s 2004 paperback edition. “If you choose to write about current events there’s a good chance you will find the events you’ve written about to be … well, current.”
But Kushner’s witty aperçu doesn’t fully account for why some books, movies, plays and TV series resonate with pundits, politicians and/or the public and others don’t. Or why the works that reverberate loudest, inside the pop-culture echo chamber, aren’t necessarily the ones that resound longest once their topicality has waned.
As another Oscar season draws nigh, a number of this year’s prize-contending films — some already released, others soon to be — have prompted the usual spate of political commentaries and incendiary blog posts. Among the films drawing both praise -- and in some cases fiery condemnations -- for pushing hot-button topics are the already-released films “Lincoln,” “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “Argo” and such upcoming films as “Zero Dark Thirty” and “Promised Land.”
But will a film like Kathryn Bigelow’s “Zero Dark Thirty,” about a specific, recent event — the killing of Osama bin Laden — resonate in the same way that her previous, fictional movie about the Iraq war, “The Hurt Locker,” did with its fearless main character channeling our deepest fears about the price of that misbegotten war? Two of the great films about the Vietnam War, “Apocalypse Now” (1979) and “The Deer Hunter” (1978), provided devastating commentaries about American involvement there without ever directly confronting the morality of the war itself.
Being timely isn’t the same as being timeless. Often movies that end up best encapsulating their eras — the ominous, angst-ridden German Expressionist cinema of the Weimar Republic period, the Raging Bulls and Easy Riders that rampaged across movie screens in the tempestuous ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s — seldom speak to the issues of the day in literal-minded ways.
The TV listings and cineplexes are full of ripped-from-the-headlines stories and biopics of the rich and famous that have the shelf life of last week’s newspaper. Movies often find long-term durability by coming to their subjects from more oblique angles, like a jazz riff hitting an unexpected chord. They picked up something inchoate in the atmosphere, then somehow managed to verbalize and visualize it.
Jean-Luc Godard’s “Breathless” (1960) became a curtain-raiser on ‘60s youth rebellion several years before anyone heard of Beatlemania. George C. Scott’s Oscar-winning performance in “Patton” (1970) was so perfectly balanced that conservatives (including Richard Nixon) saluted the biopic as a patriotic homage to the blood-and-guts World War II general, while liberals saw it as a brilliant satire of a warmongering lunatic. From either viewpoint, the film brilliantly assimilated the national tensions wrought by the Vietnam conflict.
Examples abound of how cinematic indirection can produce movies with longer shelf lives than films with more explicit topical agendas. Ang Lee’s “Brokeback Mountain” (2005) indirectly struck a blow against homophobia through relating the tragic story of two closeted love-struck cowboys. By comparison, Gus Van Sant’s “Milk” (2008), about the life and times of San Francisco activist-politician Harvey Milk, pushed an upfront gay-rights message in a period when the United States was embracing same-sex partnerships as never before.
Yet despite the movie’s impressive achievements and Sean Penn’s standout title performance, “Milk” hasn’t acquired “Brokeback Mountain’s” enduring status as a harbinger of shifting popular attitudes about homosexuality. Like “Crash,” Paul Haggis’ drama about racial tension and redemption in contemporary L.A., which beat “Brokeback Mountain” for best picture, the sprawling, ambitious “Milk” may lose its freshness faster than Lee’s intimate, poetic allegory.
Another recent film, “The Social Network” showed how a real-life event — Mark Zuckerberg’s founding of Facebook — could be turned into withering social commentary. Screenwriter Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher transformed Zuckerberg’s unlikely path to becoming a billionaire into a darkly humorous tale about the birth of social media and the brave new digital world.
Few films can be as uncannily oracular as “The China Syndrome.” The thriller about a near-disastrous nuclear power plant meltdown seemed prophetic when it opened in March 1979, 12 days before a similar accident at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania. It went on to garner Oscar nominations for stars Jack Lemmon and Jane Fonda, and its memory was inevitably invoked when worse nuclear calamities struck Chernobyl in 1986 and Japan’s northeast coast last year.
Clint Eastwood’s renegade-cop drama “Dirty Harry” (1971) channeled the fear gripping America’s declining, crime-ridden cities and the desire among some members of the “silent majority” for frontier justice. Later knockoffs like “Death Wish” (1974), with Charles Bronson on the urban-vigilante trail, tried to exploit the same fears with blunt-object obviousness.
Then there are those films with no clear topical intentions that somehow take on serendipitous significance through a combination of great storytelling and shrewd marketing. Ads for “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers,” which opened the year after the twin towers fell in Lower Manhattan, used phrases and imagery (“All will be lost unless all unite against evil”) that reminded moviegoers of the real drama unfolding outside the cineplex.
Of the current batch of films, “Argo,” about a largely forgotten episode of the 1979 U.S. hostage crisis in Iran, may be the most au courant in that it depicts a political facedown between a Western superpower and a defiant Islamic theocracy that continues today. What it surprisingly fails to do is humanize the Iranians, who are almost uniformly presented as howling fanatics — the same stereotype that has prevailed in U.S. pop culture for the last three decades.
“Beasts,” about as different a movie from “Argo” as a Fred Astaire musical is from a slasher flick, is a fantasia about a Louisiana bayou community trying to survive a monster storm that could be the consequence of global warming. But it’s more an uplifting children’s fable than a cautionary tale for adults.
“Lincoln” speaks more clearly to our own time, although it’s set in the uncertain winter of 1865, as America’s 16th president labors to bring the Civil War to a close and muster congressional support to pass the 13th Amendment. The story of the Rail Splitter’s heroic leadership in breaking the ferocious partisan gridlock surrounding slavery should make Spielberg’s movie relevant as long as there are obstructionists and knaves in Congress.
Then there’s “Promised Land,” Van Sant’s anti-fracking drama, in which Matt Damon and Frances McDormand star as representatives of a natural gas company that wants to drill, baby, drill in a sylvan farming community, after buying off local opposition with get-rich-quick sales pitches. Although the movie isn’t due in theaters until Dec. 28, it’s already being drawn and quartered by conservative fact-checker websites and pro-drilling advocates who contend that the movie is riddled with anti-business, liberal bias. (“Matt Damon’s Anti-Fracking Movie Financed by Oil-Rich Arab Nation,” one website headline screams.)
Also guaranteed to set off bickering at the holiday dinner table in red-blue households across America: “Zero Dark Thirty,” a dramatization of the Navy SEAL raid that killed Osama bin Laden, directed by Bigelow and written by Mark Boal, the team behind “The Hurt Locker,” the 2009 Oscar best picture winner. Months before its release, “Zero Dark Thirty” already was stirring allegations that its authors’ research had imperiled national security by gaining access to classified information.
Another likely awards contender, “Les Miserables” is an example of a film based on older material — the novel by Victor Hugo that became the megasuccessful stage musical — that can be linked to current issues in our own time. The brave souls manning the Paris barricades during the 19th century uprisings could be seen as stand-ins for the Occupy movement of 2011 in American cities, and their song, “Do You Hear the People Sing,” could be the anthem of the 99%-ers battling Wall Street and social inequality.
It’s uncertain whether any of the current Oscar hopefuls will resonate in the memories of people watching them this fall and winter. “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,” Lincoln observed at Gettysburg, although he never actually utters those immortal words in “Lincoln.”
But when a movie speaks to the people, for the people, in a way that resonates now and in the years to come, it may stand a chance of not perishing from the earth.