Filmmakers' topical contenders reflect tumultuous times

The next national election may be a long way off, but Hollywood’s campaigning is in high gear, with some of the prime candidates stirring up heated controversies, which could win some Oscar gold.

With issue-oriented films ranging from “Syriana” and “Munich” to “Good Night, and Good Luck,” “The Constant Gardener” and “Crash,” it’s beginning to look a lot like 1969 all over again, when movies like “Easy Rider,” “Medium Cool” and “Z” were burning up the theaters and the Academy Awards with hot-button political topics.

But why has this kudos year seen more films likely to polarize red-state and blue-state sensibilities than in some time?

“It’s probably, I would guess, an expression to some extent of cultural resentment and frustration at the way debate closed down for the better part of the Bush years,” says Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington. “Now, just as people in the political process are opening up more, the same kinds of ideas and attitudes filter into the movies, which usually tend to be a little later in picking up trends but now interestingly seem to be in sync.”

A post-9/11 environment could also be a factor, but even a more subtle lightning rod like “Brokeback Mountain” is doing good box office in certain markets and winning prizes for its bravado on an almost weekly basis. Director Ang Lee likes to think it’s because his film strikes a chord as a “universal love story.” Others says there is more to it than that.

“I would argue that ‘Brokeback Mountain’ is a very political film in a different way. I think it’s intended to have a political effect on the culture, and I would praise it for that intention. It’s a movie that wants to be a humanizing force,” Wilmington says.

Certainly some newspaper editorial pages and shows like “The O’Reilly Factor” have been taking Hollywood to task for favoring a liberal viewpoint. Could that backfire and cause the Academy to embrace them even more?

“Hollywood has always done political movies, and they’ve always been left wing,” says conservative producer Lionel Chetwynd (“Ike,” “Kissinger and Nixon”). “The difference now is that something has fundamentally changed in the way people see America portrayed in films. Rather than having your typical American good guy like Jimmy Stewart or Gary Cooper to ‘right’ things and restore the natural order of a good and decent America, now you have a lot of films showing America as the one who is really evil.”

According to Wilmington, there has almost never been a time in motion picture history where the politics expressed in films haven’t been usually left of center because that’s where artists generally tend to be.

“If you’re right wing, you should just tend to grin and bear it and try to make some money off of it,” he says.

How these films will fare with the older-skewing Academy is anybody’s guess, and discussions with random members elicited mixed responses.

“For me, ‘Crash’ is now the litmus test against which I judge all other pictures,” says one enthusiastic member of the Acad’s Board of Governors.

“‘Munich’ is for Zionists what ‘Passion of the Christ’ is for Christians,” says former TV Acad prexy Todd Leavitt, a supporter of Spielberg’s film.

But says one fed-up longtime Academy voter: “‘Munich’ is like a GI Joe action movie — I can’t even start on it. No one ever makes the Israeli case for Israel. It’s always the Upper Westside liberal Jewish case. For (‘Munich’ screenwriter) Tony Kushner, history apparently began on his birthday.”

A multiple Oscar winner who has made political films says: “I happen to like all these movies. You pray they do business.”

Indeed, box office results are just as mixed as the opinions. Early limited returns on “Brokeback” are encouraging, but the whole middle of the country is still somewhat a question mark. “Syriana” has been struggling, considering it features the box office bait of Clooney and Matt Damon; “The Constant Gardener” and “Good Night” can be called successes against expectations; “Munich” is playing well beneath what Spielberg is generally accustomed to doing; but the low-budget “Crash” has been a hit in theaters and DVD.

And there is more to come. At least two 9/11-oriented films, including one from Oliver Stone as well as the delayed remake of “All The King’s Men,” are already set for release in 2006. But whether this is just a fickle trend or here to stay remains to be seen. WGA-nominated “Syriana” writer-director Stephen Gaghan, who won a screenplay Oscar for “Traffic,” says he, for one, doesn’t really set out to write issue movies.

“I started to do something new recently, and it was gonna be this fun single narrative, and it started to turn into union politics and pension-fund reform. So I could say I’m never doing another political film as long as I live, yet this is turning into one!”

Follow @Variety on Twitter for breaking news, reviews and more