Pondering power at a distance

Contenders thrive tackling today's issues indirectly

Outrage over power and its limits has been a big part of the public debate over the last several years. “Lions for Lambs,” “Redacted,” “Rendition,” “W.” and other films have tackled current political issues head-on, but failed to catch fire with audiences or critics.

Yet the movies that come at these issues indirectly seem to be getting a warmer reception.

“Frost/Nixon” deals with the accountability of a president, but it’s a president from 35 years ago. “Changeling” looks at the dangers of absolute power, but through police abuses of 1920s Los Angeles. “The Dark Knight” is a fantasy about a vigilante driven to his limits — and beyond the limits of the law — as he fights a terrorist mastermind.

Even “Doubt,” set in the sometimes-hermetic world of a 1964 convent and church school, depends on the flow of power within the church, and in doing so has much to say about the present day.

“I think it goes to the idea that you have to go to Paris to write about Illinois,” says “Doubt” writer-director John Patrick Shanley. “The same is also true of cultures. Sometimes you have to get some distance.”

But that remove doesn’t limit the passion of the writing — or the writer.

“Changeling” scribe J. Michael Straczynski is absolutely direct about the parallels between the Los Angeles Police Dept. of the 1920s, which set out to clean up crime but locked up its critics in a madhouse, and the Bush administration, which created Guantanamo prison after 9/11.

“The most striking (parallel) is how power without limits leads to abuse. Whether it’s Christine Collins being put away in the asylum without a warrant and held vs. someone being sent to Guantanamo Bay and being held without a warrant, the motivating factors are the same. The police did what they did to Christine because they could. The Bush administration did what they did because they could.”

A strong script must find humanity in every character, including the abusers, no matter how the writer may feel about them. “Frost/Nixon” scribe Peter Morgan observes, “Ruling is so fundamentally at odds with our humanity. As human beings, we’re walking shortcomings, walking wounds. But the execution of power requires calmness, distance, lack of emotionality. … It requires almost superhumanness, and we’re none of us superhuman.

“Nixon’s failings were human failings, and those in the highest offices — that push and pull — is really what interests me.”

Where the LAPD and Richard Nixon were government officials going beyond the law, one of the year’s most controversial portraits of power features a protagonist who is entirely outside the law: Batman.

While some interpreted Batman as a metaphor, either in a positive or negative way, for George Bush in the war on terror, co-scripter Jonathan Nolan rejects such direct analogies. He observes that while Batman is a powerful figure, his ambivalent relationship with the law and society means that (unlike the LAPD of “Changeling”) he questions everything he does.

“All the best versions of that character have that battle being waged within himself: How far is too far? Does the end justify the means? What does he ultimately stand for?”

Batman’s constant questioning of his actions helps make him a sympathetic character, even if he is an outcast and vigilante.

Yet another black-clad crusader in one of this year’s contenders seems to harbor no such qualms.

Sister Aloysius, the school principal of “Doubt,” attempts to expose a priest who may be a pedophile, armed with little more than her certainty.

She appears to be the tyrannical nun of Catholic school nightmares but turns out to be something of an underdog, because in her world the priests hold all the power.

“She had to, in other words, function obliquely when she went into combat against a priest,” explains Shanley, noting she must invent a pretext to even summon the suspect priest to her office. “Subterfuge is one of the necessary tools of the weaker group in order to bring down the superior group, and that was certainly true in the Catholic Church.”

Shanley says “Doubt” speaks to today because 1964 resembles 2008 in ways never spelled out in the film.

“‘Doubt’ is about change, a time of change. Again we’re living in another time when the ground is shifting. People’s certainty about many things is being called into question. Within themselves, they’re questioning what they’ve valued and what they’ve not valued, and I think that’s going to continue to grow and change in the next couple of years.”

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