This year, several prominent pictures tread what has always been one of the finest filmic lines of demarcation: raising social and political awareness while avoiding the soapbox. Movies like Frank Darabont’s “The Green Mile,” David O. Russell’s “Three Kings,” Norman Jewison’s “The Hurricane” and James Mangold’s “Girl, Interrupted,” to name a few, seek to enlighten while engaging the audience dramatically.
“I find ideas more thrilling than great dialogue,” says Darabont, who, like writer-directors Russell and Mangold, adopted the source material from which his death-row drama is based. “‘The Green Mile’ had so many themes — the nature of compassion, spirituality, cruelty. The message is about looking past appearances and seeing how we”e all touched by God.”
Putting his focus seemingly a world away on the battlefields of Iraq and Kuwait, Russell says he saw “hree Kings”as a chance to chart the unexplored morality of the Gulf War. Although “ourage Under Fire”(1996) raised the issue of honor in battle during that same conflict, “Kings” takes a look at the issues behind the war.
“Most audiences didn’t know what was going on with the Shi’a and the Kurds and the civil uprisings,” Russell says. Neither, in fact, did the soldiers in his “Three Kings.” “It’s an idea-driven movie, not character driven. And morally, the war wasn’t quite clear to them. These guys were so far removed — some dubbed this the ‘Silicon Chip War’ — that I wanted to put a face on the enemy. This sense that ‘We didn’t see any action but, hell, I’ll take the medal’ is gnawing at them.”
Russell says he was inspired by Robert Stone novels like “Dog Soldiers” and “Flag for Sunrise,” which he describes as “pulpy journeys that have philosophical meditation in them” — in short, the organizing principle of “Three Kings.”
In the service of that thinking, Russell highlights what he thinks is one of the more illuminating scenes in the picture: the interrogation of POW Troy Barlow, played by Mark Wahlberg. “What’s the problem with Michael Jackson?” demands an Iraqi guard out of the blue to a dazed Wahlberg. While the question may appear initially to be a non sequitur, its pop-culture reference is consistent with the way U.S. soldiers are taught to disorient prisoners. “It totally throws (Wahlberg’s character),” Russell notes. “We trained their army, armed them, and now he’s being interrogated using his own Army’s techniques.”
But the question also has racial undertones — “the ‘Michael Jackson’ of it all,” Russell explains, “is that we’ve exported this bleached-out black man (Jackson), and this guard says we dropped bombs on his family because they are black.”
The director reapplies the irony later, when Barlow is tortured by being forced to swallow some of what his country was thirsting for all along in the Gulf War — a pint of light, sweet crude.
Negotiating the line between heartbreaking truth and over-the-top schmaltz is all the more difficult when the story aims to be entirely factual, as is the case with Jewison’s racial tinderbox, “The Hurricane.” The picture, which chronicles 20 years in the wrongful imprisonment of prizefighter Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, has been lauded by critics as passionate and heartfelt, qualities that in inexpert hands could easily have turned saccharine.
“There are so many times when you throw up your hands and say, ‘How could anyone survive it?'” says Jewison, no stranger to exploring issues of race and injustice in such films as “In the Heat of the Night” and “A Soldier’s Story.”
Defining moments in character are revealed in disturbing, even alarming ways. After refusing to wear “the clothes of a guilty man” Carter (Denzel Washington) is sent to 90 days of solitary confinement in his splendid hand-tailored finery — which will soon morph into filthy rags.
“It’s the best part of the picture for me, the solitary,” says Jewison, who in preparation had himself locked up in Trenton State Prison, and by his own admission, “lasted only 20 minutes.”
The pitfalls of prison films, frequently shot in drab and dank places, are as prone to depressing one’s spirit as to overreaching for moral certitude, both of which Jewison sought to avoid. Moments before hearing the verdict of his final appeal in federal court, Carter tells his young pupil and friend, Lesra (Vicellous Reon Shannon), “Hate put us in here, and love’s gonna bust us out.” Lesra responds, “Yeah, well, just in case it don’t, I’m a’ bust you outta here myself.” Says Jewison, “We thought it was important to throw in a little laughter to lighten the moment.”
If the inside of a prison isn’t challenge enough to set an entertainment, consider the plight of filmmaker James Mangold, whose “Girl, Interrupted” takes place in a mental institution. Mangold says he knew any movie set there would instantly invite comparisons to 1975’s best pic winner “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest.” And despite the different approaches to their subject, “Girl” and “Cuckoo’s Nest” both grapple with questions of what constitutes mental illness and how it should be treated.
“That’s why it was so important that “Girl” be character-driven, rather than (by the) setting,” Mangold says. “When you make a Western, you can’t sit there and think ‘High Noon.'” The institution in “Girl,” notes Mangold, “is not populated with Nurse Ractheds and incompetent shrinks.”
Nevertheless, Mangold thought it important to establish a sense of place, to the point where the institution becomes “almost the third lead in the movie” while not taking the focus from the characters.
“The magic of the place was central,” he adds. “It was important that when (Winona Ryder’s) character is introduced to the ward, that there be a sense of wonder, not doom. I didn’t want the inmates stuttering and twitching.”
Mangold, says he drew his inspiration for “Girl” from the 1947 masterpiece “Black Narcissus,” directed by the “Red Shoes” team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. That pic, about nuns trying to establish a mission in a remote Himalayan outpost amid formidable emotional challenges, formed the basis for many of the institutional relationships in “Girl.”
Mangold says “Girl” avoids proselytizing by not pretending to offer any easy explanations. “Preachy means you have answers,” he says. “Maybe having no answer saved us from that.
“Every movie I’d seen about a troubled character had a third-act confession of a repressed memory. Here, there is no sudden revelation. If we keep our eyes on the ambiguous, it isn’t because we don’t have the ability to come up with an answer — but rather that we see there isn’t one.”