Monday, October 10, 2005

REV: About the new crop of films

The Trouble With Films That Try to Think
By CARYN JAMES, The New York Times, October 11, 2005

Sexual harassment with Charlize Theron, political corruption with Sean Penn and blood for oil with George Clooney - these are a few of the weighty, star-driven themes to appear as Hollywood heads into Oscar-bait season. And this year, more than ever, Oscar time is also the season of Big Ideas. "Good Night, and Good Luck" (which opened Friday), Mr. Clooney's hero-worshipping film about Edward R. Murrow's stand against Senator Joseph McCarthy, is only the beginning of months of high-profile dramas tackling substantive social issues.

Ms. Theron plays the woman who brought the first class-action sexual harassment suit, in "North Country" (opening on Oct. 21). Mr. Penn is the power-hungry governor Willie Stark in a new version of "All the King's Men" (opening Dec. 16). And Mr. Clooney and Matt Damon are the stars of "Syriana" (opening Nov. 23), a thriller about the C.I.A., the global oil industry and the exploitation of Middle East chaos. It's as if Hollywood is finally catching up with a country at war and a world in turmoil, reflecting a cultural mood less about post-9/11 terror than about a general, persistent sense of social crisis.

The studios (and their artier specialty divisions) back these films for the same reason celebrities double as political pundits: producers and studio heads like to be taken seriously, too. What's whispered, yet rarely said out loud, is that Hollywood producers know that most of what they churn out is junk, and they are happy to seize an opportunity - especially if it's cost-efficient and Oscar-ready - to prove they are people who think.

Because these movies are Hollywood products, though, they need to navigate between inoffensively pleasing a mainstream audience and actually saying something. What results is a genre of timid films with portentous-sounding themes, works that offer prepackaged schoolroom lessons or canned debates. Hollywood may be drawn to Big Ideas, but it is always more comfortable with sound-bite-size thoughts.

A symptom of this timidity is that most of the season's issue-driven movies are set in the past, making their points by indirection and off-screen connections to the present. "Good Night, and Good Luck" takes place in the 50's, and "All the King's Men" in the 40's and 50's. "Brokeback Mountain" (opening Dec. 9), with Jake Gyllenhaal and Heath Ledger as gay cowboys, begins in 1963, and "North Country" in 1989; those gaps are a lifetime in the history of sexual equality.

Even "A History of Violence," David Cronenberg's current film in which murderers invade a small town, is so deliberately hyperreal in its picture-postcard setting that it might as well be a fable.

The indirection often fails because the historical parallels don't hold up. "Good Night, and Good Luck" exemplifies the Big Thought movie, in which powerful filmmaking masks a pedantry just below the surface. Murrow is the crusading hero, McCarthy the red-baiting villain, and the film a potted history lesson about their showdown. The contemporary resonance is spurred by Mr. Clooney's off-screen remarks as the film's director and co-writer. "I thought it was a good time to raise the idea of using fear to stifle political debate," he said at the New York Film Festival news conference, an idea he echoed in other interviews.

But that comparison ignores the differences between politics then, at the dawn of the media age when both Murrow and McCarthy were just learning how to exploit television's power, and now, when politics is driven by 24/7 media- and image-spinning strategists. When Murrow and his CBS colleagues take on the powerful senator, the event may be emblematic, but that emblem is too simple and nostalgic to apply to reporters reluctant - especially post-9/11 and pre-Katrina - to cross the Bush administration. Wholesale reverence, like the film's toward Murrow, is always the antithesis of complex thought.

And the film's beautiful direction and acting deflects attention from its lack of context. Why did McCarthy and his scare tactics about Communists have such power? What was the sense of the country outside the film's hermetic CBS newsroom?

Such historical pieces come with built-in safety valves. Willie Stark in "All King's Men" (written and directed by Steve Zaillian, who wrote the screenplay for "Schindler's List") is the template for generations of manipulative political masterminds. Viewers who choose to see parallels to contemporary issues like the Florida recount or indicted members of Congress certainly can. But the film's subject is self-contained, easily dismissed by anyone who chooses to leave the story in the past.

And while "North Country" (directed by Niki Caro, who made "Whale Rider") seems to be a film with a cause, it refights a battle that took place long ago. As one of the few women working in a mine, Ms. Theron faces insults and discrimination in a role that seems conceived with the Oscar campaign in mind. Women still suffer in jobs that have traditionally belonged to men, but the blatant discrimination her character faces - her boss flat-out says she has no right to take a job away from a man - has no vital connection to the present. A truly provocative film would deal with the backlash against sexual harassment laws, the contemporary sense that political correctness has gone too far. The sitcom "The Office" (both the British and American versions), with its troglodyte boss and a human resources department that stages seminars on appropriate behavior, says more about harassment today.

A contemporary setting is no guarantee of depth, though. "A History of Violence" is most gripping in its early scenes when Tom Stall, the small-town family man played by Viggo Mortensen, defends himself against killers. As the film goes on, a new question emerges: Is Tom who he says he is, or is he a onetime criminal? This twist undermines the more intriguing issue of what happens when violence visits ordinary people. As broadly drawn as the graphic novel on which is it based, "A History of Violence" suggests that violence is everywhere and in everyone. That's not a thoughtful probing of the question, but a spurious and facile statement not up to the level of Mr. Cronenberg's bravura filmmaking.

Canned debates whose outcomes are never in doubt are nothing new, of course. In 1947 Gregory Peck fought anti-Semitism in "Gentleman's Agreement"; in 1993 Tom Hanks captured the humanity of a gay AIDS patient in "Philadelphia"; and in 2000 Julia Roberts cleaned up toxic water in "Erin Brockovich." All these message movies won major Oscars.

But the wave has never been as large or as reflective of a nation ill at ease, with many more issue-driven films in the works, including Paul Weitz's political satire "American Dreamz" and Richard Linklater's "Fast Food Nation." You could almost see this coming when "Million Dollar Baby" won the Oscar for best picture last year, proving what a star like Clint Eastwood could do to make a tough subject like euthanasia palatable.

There may be no tougher subject than the Middle East right now. And the most hopeful sign that there is depth in Hollywood comes from films that at least approach that volatile issue. Steven Spielberg's "Munich" (opening Dec. 23) may be about the assassination of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics, but it has already set off sparks about that still-fraught issue, a reverberation that can't be accidental. Sam Mendes's "Jarhead" (opening Nov. 4) is set during the first gulf war, but everything about that conflict resonates with the war in Iraq today. And Stephen Gaghan's "Syriana" actually has a contemporary setting. Mr. Clooney is also a producer of the film, and you have to admire him for making it and "Good Night, and Good Luck." More than any other actor, he is using his clout to edge Hollywood toward movies that think, even if they rarely come through with Deep Thoughts.


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