Events in 2008 moved at such a fast clip that even news media had trouble keeping up. So when a movie — with its lengthy pre-release production schedule — resonates in the here and now, it makes you take notice.
Such was the case with “The Dark Knight,” the biggest box office hit of the year, one of the more critically acclaimed pics from the past 12 months and, for some political and pop-culture observers, a film that spoke to them on different levels.
“It would have been a lot harder to make a movie five years ago that suggested that someone doing good, with the best of intentions, could unintentionally provoke unforeseen results,” says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Institute of Politics at USC.
“In the early stages of the Iraq war and the war on terror, it would have been a much more difficult message for audiences to digest,” Schnur adds. “But five years later, as they saw some of the unanticipated results of a well-intentioned series of military actions, ‘Dark Knight’ was able to resonate to a much greater degree.”
Roy Sekoff, founding editor of the Huffington Post, thinks “Knight” was an interesting character study. “It was a powerful meditation on what is good, what is evil and how we have both of those things inside of us,” he says.
“Knight” had been a highly anticipated release even before the January passing of the movie’s Joker, Heath Ledger — an event that tapped into another of America’s fascinations.
“People were so shocked, I had students crying over him,” says Montana Miller, a pop-culture professor at Bowling Green State U. in Ohio. “People’s obsession with the whole thing — Heath Ledger, the investigation into his death, the movie — made it a huge phenomenon.”
“Knight” wasn’t alone at the intersection of real and reel life. Here are some other avenues where the two met:
As the financial world collapsed and unemployment claims soared, tough times were captured by an unlikely source: “Zack and Miri Make a Porno.” Seth Rogen and Elizabeth Banks starred as longtime platonic friends and roommates who were deep in debt and desperate to find a way out of their financial situation. With the electricity and water shut off, they huddled together on a chilly Thanksgiving eve and tried to keep warm by burning their bills in a trash can.
“One of the most famous movie scenes of depravation was Charlie Chaplin eating his shoe. It was funny, but incredibly painful,” Sekoff says. “In the same way, the scene with Zack and Miri was done in a funny way, but it resonated. If I had seen that movie six months before, probably when Kevin Smith shot it, it wouldn’t have had that same resonance.”
And if there was a movie that showed those who were fortunate enough to be living without money worries, it was “Sex and the City.”
“With the movie’s big focus on buying expensive shoes, it was almost insultingly opposite of what was going on in the lives of most people,” Miller says.
Environment: A cartoon robot had moviegoers plugged into the green movement — and more.
“As a geek, I loved ‘Wall-E’ both from a technological innovation standpoint, and also because it had that very clear message about where we’re headed as a civilization if we don’t change course,” says Eli Pariser, executive director of Moveon.org. “It was the best kind of thoughtful, meaningful entertainment.
“I like kids’ movies that are not dumbed down or hide issues, but actually talk about those issues in a serious way, while at the same time have engaging characters and everything else.”
However, some of the movie’s environmental message may have been negated by the marketing, observes Mother Jones senior editor Dave Gilson.
“I thought ‘Wall-E’ was a very cool, funny, clever movie like all of the Pixar movies, but then you come out into the light of day and see all of the toys (and other landfill-bound promotional items) based on it,” he says, “it’s hard not to find that amusing.”
Illegal immigration: Compared with 2000 and ’04, the issue took a backseat during last year’s presidential campaign, but was confronted head-on in “The Visitor.”
“Richard Jenkins’ character really captured the isolation that economic hard times can bring, and also the salvation found in the multicultural dynamic,” Sekoff says. “It resonated with me in a deeper place — not in an intellectual place. It was all very subtextual.
“The movie also spoke to the cultural stereotypes and the lack of understanding that were evoked during the most heated days of the campaign. Similarly, the outcome of the election, especially the way young people voted, produced more hope for me that those days are behind us.”
Politics: Before the economy imploded, the year’s biggest news story easily was the presidential campaign and the election of Barack Obama as the country’s new leader. Intense voter interest in the campaign overshadowed the reception for the Kevin Costner starrer “Swing Vote” and Oliver Stone’s “W.”
“It really was one of the most dramatic elections in memory — not in the sense it was nail-biting, but in the narrative play that was involved,” Sekoff says. “In spite of it all, or maybe because of it, the year’s most overtly political movies didn’t do very well. The drama in Hollywood couldn’t match the drama being played out every day on the (campaign trail).”
And movies played into politics beyond the presidential election. Approval of the marriage initiative by California voters, coming shortly before the December release of “Milk,” added a new perspective to director Gus Van Sant’s pic.
“Many conservative members of the media used the passage of Proposition 8 as a cause celebre to argue that America is still a right-of-center nation,” says Ben Fishel of Media Matters for America. ” ‘Milk’ was a fresh reminder of how far the gay rights movement has come in America.”
War: Moviegoers continue to show battle fatigue and largely ignored “Stop-Loss,” about the titular controversial military policy, and the satirical “War, Inc.”
“One of the reasons that movies that are overtly about Iraq have had such difficulty is that those events are still a little bit too close in the real world for people to be ready to see on a movie screen,” Schnur says. “The best Vietnam movies — ‘Full Metal Jacket,’ ‘Apocalypse Now,’ ‘The Deer Hunter’ — didn’t come out until after that war was over.”