“History,” Sting sings, “will teach us nothing.” Obviously, he hasn’t been to the movies lately. From ancient Mayan civilization to the events of Sept. 11, 2001, Hollywood has been on a history bender in 2006, using events from the past to offer us lessons about the present.
Only one dramatic film released this year, Irwin Winkler’s “Home of the Brave,” tackles America’s war in Iraq head-on. But a host of films have plenty to say about current crises via a historical lens, whether the ravages of war (“Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “The Good German”), the corruption or short-sightedness of the powerful (“The Queen,” “The Last King of Scotland,” “Marie Antoinette,” “Apocalypto”), or terrorism, both past (“Catch a Fire”) and more recent (“United 93,” “World Trade Center”).
Of course, it takes time to get a movie up and running, which often creates a lag between current events and eventual release dates. Still, filmmakers say it’s more than just practical matters that are driving Hollywood’s recent dip into the history books for today’s issue-driven cinema.
“My own personal need to try to make sense of the world through historical drama might have something to do with feeling so disconnected with the politics and powerlessness of my own period,” says Peter Morgan, who wrote both “The Queen,” and adapted “Last King of Scotland.”
Morgan says it’s all too soon to get a grip on contemporary events. “I think you need time for the dust to settle,” he explains. “Apart from ‘United 93,’ which is a recording of what happens — a transcription of recorded conversations — I think you have to wait 10 years to have a perspective, just like the best films about Vietnam were all made about 10 to 15 years later.”
Like Morgan, “Last King of Scotland” director Kevin Macdonald says he’s been reading a lot of scripts about Iraq lately, but he finds them “too blunt and too direct. … To actually approach something in a metaphorical way can have a bigger effect, because you’re making people think about an issue in a deeper way,” he says. “It’s not force-fed.”
“Catch a Fire” producer Robyn Slovo, whose parents were directly involved in the antiapartheid struggle depicted in the film, agrees that potent political drama takes “time and perspective.”
While “Catch a Fire” was primarily made to tell “a good story” and “not to preach to anyone,” Slovo acknowledges the film has modern relevance. “If you remove people’s basic civil rights, like the apartheid regime did, you create the thing that you fear the most,” she says. “And if people take that from the film, it would be a good thing, because that needs to be discussed.”
Robert Lorenz, who produced Clint Eastwood’s dual World War II tales “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” says they never planned to make a statement about current events — fellow producer Steven Spielberg had been interested in the project back in 2000 when DreamWorks purchased the rights. But he says that doesn’t mean that the movies don’t have lessons to impart.
“Neither film makes a statement about that particular war or about the war that we’re involved in right now,” says Lorenz. “It’s just war, in general, and by depicting the battle from both angles, it’s really about the impact on the people involved.”
Film historian David Bordwell explains that it may be “safer” for filmmakers to tackle contemporary realities through indirect ways, because, he says, it “inoculates them against criticisms of being too over-emphatic,” and avoiding the “the risk,” he adds, “of polarizing the public and making certain sectors feel that Hollywood is critical of the mainstream.”
When dealing with hot-button topics, whether our current cultural, religious or political conflicts, “Apocalypto” co-producer and co-writer Farhad Safinia agrees.
“It’s almost impossible to reach everybody, because all these issues are so insanely divisive, but if you take the same topics and place them 500 years ago, suddenly, you’re able to reach a wider audience,” he says. “You are allowing the audience to engage with the subjects more easily and not feel slighted or offended. That is a strong benefit to making films in a historical context. The last thing you want to do is tell people the way we live our lives is wrong.”
Classical Hollywood, says Bordwell, rarely attempted to make such thinly veiled assaults on the political realities of the day. “If there was some resonance with contemporary events, in most cases, I suspect it was accidental,” he says. As the classic studio system gave way to renegade mavericks like Robert Altman and Arthur Penn, pictures like “MASH” and “Little Big Man” emerged as similarly implicit attacks on current events, such as the Vietnam War.
After Sept. 11 and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, filmmakers say they are experiencing a similar resurgence in topical cinema, even if it’s set in the past.
“In terms of America, I do think it has to do with 9/11,” Slovo says. “It could have gone the other way, with everyone wanting movies to make them feel better, but it seems to me that the American people became interested in learning more. There is an enormous appetite for history in a way that there didn’t used to be,” she continues. “It used to be the kiss of death. Now when you bring a real story to a financier, they’re very interested.”
“It’s the same question I always got about why documentaries are so popular,” says Macdonald, who won a docu Oscar for “One Day in September.” “It’s partly because true life can be more interesting and extraordinary than anything you can make up.”