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Political anger finds ‘Homecoming’ on TV

IMPASSIONED DEBATE has wafted around “Syriana,” from its labyrinthine plot to its oil-centric take on Middle Eastern geopolitics. Whatever side you choose, it’s not the sort of dialogue readily inspired by a movie like “Racing Stripes.”

Uncertain, perilous times can foster awkward Thanksgiving dinner conversations when politically incompatible relatives collide, but they have a salutary influence on art. Movies historically respond to tumult with memorable fare, from “Fail-Safe” and “Dr. Strangelove” during the Cold War to the Vietnam-era films of the 1960s and ’70s.

These days, however, events move faster, which helps explain why television, with its rapid turnaround time, has largely supplanted film as a vehicle for tackling current events.

As evidence, it would be difficult to find a more subversive hour than this weekend’s installment of “Masters of Horror” — Showtime’s anthology series featuring a dozen different horror luminaries — which caused a stir when previewed at the Torino Film Festival.

Directed by Joe Dante, “Homecoming” is a full-frontal assault on the Bush administration, and about as subtle — and bracing — as a punch to the jaw.

Adapted by Sam Hamm from Dale Bailey’s short story “Death and Suffrage” — but also vaguely reminiscent of Irwin Shaw’s 1936 anti-war play “Bury the Dead” — Dante’s hour darkly satirizes zombie movie conventions, as dead soldiers arise to vote against the politicians who shipped them off to war. Meanwhile, a Karl Rove-like presidential adviser and Ann Coulter-like pundit (the names have been changed, but just barely) manipulate a talk circuit where gaseous windbags presume to speak for the military’s fallen.

When exec producer John Hyde told the Associated Press the goal was to allow the filmmakers to operate “with no restrictions, no second-guessing,” he wasn’t kidding — though in this case, that freedom allows for a bare-knuckled political statement, not buckets of zombie blood.

EVEN NETWORK DRAMAS react to issues in a manner nearly impossible for films, including Sunday’s “Law & Order: Criminal Intent,” which delves into the efficacy of torture. Yet just as major studios shied away from “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “The Passion of the Christ,” pay cable has more latitude to engage in such provocation — looking past sex and violence to tackle material that advertiser-supported nets generally would consider too hot to handle.

So where ABC tired of battles over Bill Maher’s latenight show, HBO embraces it — just as the pay channel gave a standup pulpit to George Carlin, whose broadsides against the U.S. government have grown angrier with age.

These barbed explorations of Bush administration policy are cropping up as hard-line conservatives continue driving themselves apoplectic over “liberal Hollywood,” beyond all reason and proportion. Culture warriors can’t resist the oversized target offered by left-leaning stars, despite minimal evidence that even beloved figures such as Bruce Springsteen can swing support toward candidates or causes.

THE LATEST EXERCISE in over-reaction to the point of self-immolation involves former Corp. for Public Broadcasting chairman Kenneth Tomlinson, who became so obsessed with imposing ideological “balance” upon PBS that he ran roughshod over its bylaws. Never mind that public TV is barely worth the effort these days — a tiny hamlet whose voice is muted by commercial media’s frenetic din.

President Bush’s team certainly hasn’t improved the mainstream news media’s reputation, where administration image-control efforts have led to shooting the messengers, freezing them out or, worse yet, getting their biggest names hauled in front of grand juries.

In the long run, though, those tactics, coupled with the press’ living-dead act, appear to have invigorated filmmakers. In that respect, the president may leave his own unintended legacy as a patron of the arts.

* * *

GOOD “NIGHTLINE,” AND GOOD LUCK: The revamped “Nightline” made its debut Monday, and while any conclusions would be premature, the show got off to a shaky start — literally.

Doubtless seeking that “edgy” feel, the camera kept swaying during Terry Moran’s segment from Iraq. Either that, or the cameraman was drunk.

Cynthia McFadden followed with an interview about the Vatican’s new doctrine on gay priests, which, by eschewing any set-up, surely left confusion regarding what the policy actually states. Martin Bashir closed with a feel-good piece about a deaf football team.

In his final broadcast, Ted Koppel asked viewers to give the new kids a chance, lest ABC replace “Nightline” with a comedy. At times Monday, I feared that the network already had.

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