'Milk,' 'Frost/Nixon,' 'Wall-E' capture the zeitgeist

It’s hardly an accident that Focus Features’ ad campaign for “Milk” highlights this key line of dialogue uttered by Sean Penn as the film’s grassroots activist hero, Harvey Milk: “You gotta give them hope.”

Barack Obama’s own campaign message — a virtual logo titled simply, in all caps, HOPE — and his stated strategy of reversing “trickle-down” thinking into “bottom-up” economic reform triumphed in November at exactly the moment that “Milk” appeared, and Focus’ canny, equally victorious Oscar push has multiplied the bandwagon effect.

This sort of zeitgeist timing is exceptional in American movies, especially during presidential election years, and to find an equivalent to 2008, one must gaze as far back as 1976 — when Jimmy Carter was elected to the highest U.S. office — to find a similar link between Oscar-nominated films and the electoral/political mood of the day.

Best picture contenders as varied as “All the President’s Men,” “Taxi Driver” and “Network” all spoke to the country’s deeply unsettled mood after Watergate and Vietnam. For “All the President’s Men,” director Alan J. Pakula and screenwriter William Goldman crafted a virtually perfect dramatization of Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s dogged pursuit of the facts behind Richard Nixon’s cover-up of the Watergate burglary. Martin Scorsese infused “Taxi Driver” with the gnawing angst of American political assassination via Vietnam (among the film’s many angsts). And writer Paddy Chayefsky’s “Network,” directed by Sidney Lumet, loomed large as a rather blunt cri de coeur against the dumbing-down of media and the commercialization of news, before 24/7 cable yakking took over the airwaves. Its burnt-out news anchor’s public cry of desperation, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take this anymore!” seems no less timely in the twilight of 43′s administration as it was during Gerald Ford’s waning days.

Movies often take far too long to make for them to ever match the mood of the moment they’re finally released into the world; and for a work to combine great timing with Oscar nominations is something close to winning the lottery. Thus the rarity of films like “Milk,” which hit a double, not only with the Obama Hope train but also with the anger sparked by California voters’ passage of Proposition 8 to repeal gay marriage, a cause for which Harvey Milk would have surely led the charge.

The case of “Frost/Nixon” is also particularly telling. Beyond the fact that scribe Peter Morgan’s widely liked stage version laid the ground for Ron Howard’s film, “Frost/Nixon” can be viewed as a substitute take on George W. Bush’s eight years in the White House, of which Oliver Stone’s “W.” served as an all-too-literal interpretation. Putting aside the Nixonian psychological-political complex brilliantly expressed by Frank Langella in a nonimpersonation performance, Nixon’s insistence (on camera, to David Frost’s face) on extra-legal executive power and privilege taps the audience’s awareness of the nearly identical position taken by the just-departed Bush cabal.

If nobody came to see “W.,” it’s perhaps because, like the recent Iraq-themed movies that failed to catch fire at the box office, it picks at wounds barely healed in the national psyche.

The wide and deep support for “Wall-E” — among the year’s most successful films (after “Dark Knight”) with audiences, critics and the Academy alike — isn’t only for the Pixar team’s undeniable technical prowess, or its cheeky and rather odd retelling of Kubrick’s “2001,” but for its thorough embrace of the idea that global warming would force humanity to leave the planet.

Conservative critics and global-warming skeptics weren’t off base (as some on the left accused them of last summer) in pointing to “Wall-E” as a green movement call-to-arms.

Of course, one can’t divine the tea leaves too seriously, given that “Rocky” won best pic in 1976. Either that or the notion that in a time of crisis, or healing, feel-good movies in which the underdog triumphs — whether it be a washed-up boxer, a Georgia peanut farmer elected to high office or a dirt-poor kid from the slums of Mumbai — might have a leg up on the competition.

In a so-called “year of change,” Hollywood didn’t change its age-old tradition of packaging political ideas inside of entertainments. The difference this time is that the voters, with one propositional exception that would have made Milk boil over, sided with Hollywood.

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