Topical heat wave

Battalion of filmmakers unleashes volley of feisty, issue-heavy pix

Television — a clear-eyed Edward R. Murrow declares at the end of “Good Night, and Good Luck,” George Clooney’s film of the CBS reporter’s showdown with Sen. Joseph McCarthy — is an instrument that “can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire.”

But, it can do so only if people “use it to those ends. Otherwise, it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

Murrow might have been defeated years ago in his larger fight to save television’s integrity, but as his image flickers on movie screens nationwide, it is clear that, at least in another medium, his words’ meaning has not been lost.

Suddenly this year, a battalion of film directors, actors, writers and producers seem bent on using their instrument to illuminate and, yes, even inspire.

Along with the usual harvest of mindless amusements, Hollywood is producing a hardy crop of films with a political charge including “Good Night,” “The Constant Gardener,” “Syriana,” “Munich,” “North Country” and “Crash,” to name a few. These are dark films, feisty films and well-meaning films, movies that are meant to educate, pose big questions and provoke debate. These are the works of Murrow’s cinematic children, arriving just in time for the awards season.

With “Good Night, and Good Luck,” Clooney gives audiences a civics lesson — and ruffles feathers by drawing comparisons between McCarthy’s communist witch hunts and how dissenting views get muffled in today’s political climate.

“Crash,” released in May, was an early tremor of the coming seriousness. Paul Haggis’ film took acerbic aim at racism in L.A., showing that despite the fact that we live and drive side by side — and even watch the same interracial cop-buddy movies at the multiplex — race relations in America are far from a dead issue.

This year, few causes are being left behind. “The Constant Gardener” examined the dark side of the international pharmaceutical industry, while “North Country” delves into a landmark sexual-harassment case and “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” looks at the Border Patrol and the shooting death of a Mexican man.

Hot-button topics

“I think that everybody is becoming more political, that you have to care,” says Fernando Meirelles, who directed “Constant Gardener” and 2002’s “City of God,” which looked at desperation, violence and drugs in Brazilian slums. “People are talking about the war, the administration and international policies.”

Several new films, fueled by the war in Iraq and anxieties over terrorism, are sure to feed the continuing debate about the Middle East conflict.

Sam Mendes’ “Jarhead,” which arrives in November from Universal, takes a dark look at the daily life of Marines during the Persian Gulf War. Mendes has described “Jarhead,” based on a 2003 memoir by Anthony Swofford, as a hymn to Marines’ resiliency, not an antiwar film. But in today’s political climate, a war movie haunted by brutality, ambivalence and disillusionment is guaranteed to generate controversy.

Where “Jarhead” looks backward, Stephen Gaghan’s upcoming “Syriana” takes the present head-on. Starring Clooney and Matt Damon, movie paints a web of corruption in the Middle East that ties together the CIA, greedy oil companies, would-be suicide bombers and oppressive Persian Gulf states.

“Syriana,” Clooney says, “makes ‘Good Night, and Good Luck’ look like Disney.”

Even Steven Spielberg, post-“War of the Worlds,” is wading into controversial waters with December’s “Munich.” The movie follows the Mossad hit squad tracking down and assassinating the Palestinian terrorists who murdered Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. In the movie, the Mossad agents come to doubt their mission, one of the more nettlesome chapters in Israeli history. Spielberg has said he was partly inspired to make the film by witnessing America’s response to 9/11.

Déjà vu

Some film scholars say American screens haven’t seen so many charged movies since the 1970s, when Hollywood caught the nation’s darkened mood with films like “The Deer Hunter,” “All the President’s Men” and “The Conversation,” a disturbing look at electronic invasion of privacy.

“There also was a feeling that the country was in trouble, and it got through to the films,” says author and film historian David Thomson.

Since then, Thomson says, there have been years of movies with no resemblance to what’s going on in the world. “I think there’s some reason for feeling we are awake again now,” he adds, “but it could be a very brief thing.”

Professor Jonathan Kuntz, who teaches film history at UCLA, says that while Hollywood traditionally avoids controversial material, “The rules got thrown away in the past year with ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’ and ‘The Passion of the Christ.'”

The pair — often viewed as liberal and conservative foils — proved “fabulously controversial” and “wildly successful” as they resonated beyond the usual mass audience of teens and young men, he notes.

” ‘Fahrenheit 9/11’s’ impact on Hollywood should not be underestimated,” says Ian Scott, author of “American Politics in Hollywood.” “Whatever reservations one might have about his films, (Moore) has introduced a keener political awareness in the Academy in particular, and Hollywood in general.”

Scott also credits a show like “The West Wing” with reviving a taste for Capra-style political drama and for fostering a belief in Hollywood that “engaged, thoughtful and politicized” films and TV programs can draw large audiences.

One force behind three of this year’s virtuous films — “Good Night,” “North Country” and “Syriana” — is eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll. Last year, he started Participant Prods. to make films that educate and promote activism.

Ignorance reversed

“Ever since I was a kid, it struck me that a lot of the problems of the world derive from ignorance,” Skoll told Daily Variety earlier this year, alluding to how movies can communicate issues in a more populist way than the news media or the classroom. “If people knew this kind of stuff was happening and that it could ultimately affect their lives, then they might try to stop it.”

Still, even high-minded films have to tell stories, and in doing so writers and directors must trim context, streamline complexities and shrink broad issues to an individual scale.

In “Brokeback Mountain,” Ang Lee treats a contemporary issue — sexual tolerance — in the form of a Western with two gay protagonists. But the story is set firmly in the past, insulated from today’s rancorous fights over gay marriage.

While a movie always reflects the thinking of its maker, it is also open to interpretation by moviegoers. “Good Night” might encourage audiences to apply lessons from the McCarthy era to, say, debate over the Patriot Act. But some viewers might see the issues in the black-and-white period piece as confined to the past. For some politicized “Star Wars” fans, “Revenge of the Sith” transfigures into a critique of American imperialism.

Casualties of war

Other charged films, including “Jarhead” — one of the season’s anticipated releases — tread familiar terrain. “Three Kings,” a 1999 movie that took a biting look at the Gulf War, showed scenes — including a grunt’s confused killing of an Iraqi soldier who may be surrendering and a somewhat sympathetic torturer for Saddam Hussein — that weren’t controversial at the time but might prove incendiary today.

“I don’t know how it would play,” says Clooney, who co-starred in “Kings.”

“Syriana” — which doesn’t name a specific president but seems to have the current administration squarely in its crosshairs — provides a nuanced glimpse of the climate that creates suicide bombers. It also shows a U.S. government so focused on oil that, at least inadvertently, it helps breed and arm terrorists.

“What we want to do is open up a discussion about things that are going to get us in trouble,” Clooney says.

As topical as “Syriana” is, Clooney says, Hollywood can’t be “the first responder.” Movies take years to write, produce and edit, while TV and, to some extent, documentaries experience a quicker turnaround.

But Haggis, who wrote for TV before switching to movies, says the medium is hindered because, as Murrow found, it is “sponsored by large corporations that have to be sensitive to their images.”

Haggis says he thought “Crash” would never get made. He wanted the film to ask troubling questions — questions that have no easy answers — and address problems “that lie within.” Although the movie drips racial animosity at every turn, Haggis says “Crash” was never intended as a polemic.

“Film is an emotional medium, not an intellectual medium, so you have to move people,” he says. “You can’t just lecture them.”

Meirelles makes a similar point about “Constant Gardener.” He wanted to shed light on “the way pharmaceutical companies use their power.” But in the editing room, he cut documentary-style footage about real drug companies and focused more on the movie’s love story.

“I felt it was too on the nose … like it was my voice preaching to the audience,” he says. “If you go very deep, very political, you turn off part of the audience.”

Nevertheless, Meirelles and Clooney, says author Scott, are part of “an emerging cohort of filmmakers” who are making pics with strong ideological bents and rhetoric “not just at the margins, but increasingly in the mainstream of Hollywood.”

But “Constant Gardener,” and other heavyweight movies this year, have taken hard shots for simplifying and leaving facts out. One reviewer called “Gardener” a “Benetton ad posing as a treatise on world politics.”

Still, even mildly controversial films can be too daring for Hollywood, especially on Oscar night.

“High Noon” (1952), written as an indictment of McCarthyism, got passed over for best picture. Other notable politically minded bridesmaids include “Dr. Strangelove,” edged out by “My Fair Lady”; “All the President’s Men,” KO’d in 1976 by “Rocky”; and 1999’s “The Insider,” about the malfeasance of Big Tobacco, which was no match for “American Beauty.”

There are notable exceptions — 1980’s “Deer Hunter” and 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night,” which looked at racism during the height of civil rights strife.

This year, the Academy will choose among a particularly prickly and well-meaning bunch.

“The bigscreen’s power may be something that people like me are nostalgic about,” says Thomson, adding, “If we’re relying on movies to right our wrongs, that’s a recipe for political disaster.”

Then there’s what Meirelles refers to as the “turn-off” factor. “Unlike Europeans, Americans go to the movies to be entertained, not to be educated — not to go to a cafe afterwards and have a discussion,” says Ernest Giglio, author of “Here’s Looking at You: Hollywood, Film and Politics.”

Whether or not Hollywood’s class of 2005 produces a legacy, for the moment at least, the industry’s special effects and explosions don’t look quite the same.

Consider a disaster scene near the end of “Syriana,” when a bomber delivers his deadly payload. There’s no money shot, no pillars of flame or flying debris. Instead, in a film designed to inspire debate, if not illuminate, the screen simply fades to white. The meaning of what has happened, and what is gone, is left to flicker in the audience’s mind.

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