Political Movies: Comeback? Good Night and Good Luck, Munich

If you count the number of jokes in Hollywood’s most significant films, you may end up with five to ten–at most. Indeed, the year that just ended might have been the bleakest and most somber in mainstream Hollywood since the early 1970s, during Vietnam, the anti-war movement, the Watergate scandal, and Nixon’s resignation.

Is it a delayed reaction to the 9/11 terrorists attacks The Iraq War, which broke out the week before the 2003 Oscar telecast Do the new films reflect our increased anxiety”some say paranoia–over security issues, such as wiretapping, extra-checks at the airports and other public places A younger generation of more politicized filmmakers

Artistic tastes and political allegiances aside, most critics agree about one thing, that American movies have become again politically and racially charged, showing that dominant entertainment is more in tune than ever before with the outside political reality and the zeitgeist.

At least a dozen films over the past six months could be described as explicitly political or social-issue movies, the kind of entertainment that stands at the opposite pole of the spectrum from popcorn films like King Kong, War of the Worlds, Batman Begins and other big-budget, special-effects pictures.

The Oscar race”and the Oscar winners”has reflected quite accurately this trend.
All five Best Picture nominees, including Capote, could be described as representatives of political cinema, albeit in different ways and with varying degrees of success. The politicization of Hollywood was expressed in most of the Oscar categories, including writing and acting. Both Supporting Actor winners were honored for an overtly political film: Rachel Weisz for playing a political activist in Africa in Fernando Mereillas’ The Constant Gardener and George Clooney for his CIA agent in Syriana.

Syriana

In Syriana, which was also nominated for Adapted Script writer-director Stephen Gaghan, winner of the Screenplay Oscar for Traffic, has made a political thriller that unfolds against the intrigues and corruption of the global oil industry. From the players brokering back-room deals in Washington to the men toiling in the old fields of the Persian Gulf, the films multiple storylines weave together a complex tale that illuminates the consequences of the pursuit of wealth and power.

Clooney, whos also one of the producers, plays Bob Barnes, a vet CI agent nearing the end of a long, respectable career, with a son headed for college and the possibility of spending the rest of his service in a cushy desk job. Bob, whose character is loosely based on CIA agent Robert Baer and his memoir, See No Evil, has always believed that his work benefits the government, making his country a safer place to live”until he realizes the naivete of his belief system.

In my interview with Clooney, he said: “We saw the potential for Syriana to be made in the fashion of the films of the 1970s that were willing to discuss the failures of the government as if they were failures of all of us, not just a particular party. Our chief intent was to tell a compelling story that also reflected the complexity and ambiguity of our current situation, to explore diverse points of view while not championing any one perspective as “The Truth.”

Clearly the Man of the Year, Clooney is partnered with Soderbergh in the production company Section Eight, which recently produced Good Night, and Good Luck, about the renowned broadcaster Edward R. Murrows legendary on-air confrontations with Senator Joseph McCarthy. Clooney co-wrote, directed, and co-stars in Good Night.

Good Night, and Good Luck

Taking place in the early days of broadcast journalism, 1953-1954, Good Night chronicles the conflict between TV newsman Murrow (David Strathairn) and Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAAC). Morrow is depicted as a pro motivated by the desire to report the facts, as harsh as they are, without much editorializing and with no facile entertainment. Hes surrounded by a dedicated staff, headed by his producer Fred Friendly (George Clooney) and Joe Wershba (Robert Downey Jr.) in the CBS newsroom.

The story centers on Morrows defiance of corporate and sponsorship pressures to pursue his investigation of the lies and scare-mongering tactics perpetrated by McCarthy during his Communist witch-hunt. A public feud develops, when the Senator responds with a counter-attack, accusing the anchor of being a Communist himself. Disregarding the climate of fear, paranoia, and reprisal, the CBS news carries on, and their tenacity eventually pays off, when McCarthy is brought before the Senate, where he is made powerless as his lies and bullying tactics are uncovered.

Clooney is effective in capturing the atmosphere of a place that is a constant hive with secretaries typing, AP and UPI wires clicking away, and the bustling of camera crews. The camaraderie between Murrow and his dedicated staff also comes across vividly. His dedicated, indefatigable crew of reporters includes Don Hewitt (Grant Heslov), Palmer Williams (Tom McCarthy), Jesse Sousmer (Tate Donovan), and John Aaron (Reed Diamond).

The McCarty show airs and Murrows editorial is declared brilliant. The anchor manages to highlight the serious issues involved in the McCarthy hearings: the fine line between investigation and persecution; the notion that dissent in itself does not connote disloyalty; that accusation is not a proof; that conviction should depend upon hard evidence and legit legal procedures. He also makes the point that, as defender of freedom and democracy abroad, the U.S. cannot desert its ideology at home.

At a time when the public is cynical toward TV journalism, Good Night is a fresh and necessary reminder of an era of honest, crusading journalism, and high responsibility, not often found in TV news today. The movie also serves as useful reminder of times in which there was clear distinction between information and entertainment, in contrast to the current trend of infotainment and soft news show preoccupied with celebrities instead of real issues.
Murrows speech on See It Now, broadcast, March 9, 1954, is by now an important historical event. He said: We will not walk in fear, one of another. We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine; and remember that we are not descended from fearful men. Not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate, and to defend causes that were for the moment unpopular. It’s worth remembering Murrows seminal speech because its as relevant today as it was half a century ago.

Munich

Based on the 1972 Munich Olympics massacre and its aftermath, “Munich” is an ambitious, thought-provoking espionage thriller. Though set in 1970s, the film is extremely relevant today. The film is also effective as a morality tale about terrorism and counter-terrorism. While focusing on the group dynamics of a bunch of killers, it’s is also compelling as a harrowing journey of self-discovery. Like “Syriana,” “Munich” deals with Big Issues. With its huge canvas and ensemble (the largest number of parts in any Spielberg movie), “Munich” boasts a superlative cast, headed by Eric Bana and including Aussie Geoffrey Rush (restrained, for a change), Brit Daniel Craig (the new James Bond), and French Mathiew Kassovitz, among others.

In 1972, an unprecedented terrorist attack unfolded live before millions of TV viewers, thus ushering a new world of violence. It occurred during the second week of the Summer Olympics in Munich, where ironically the games were dubbed “The Olympics of Peace and Joy.” An extremist Palestinian group, known as Black September, invaded the Olympic Village, killing two members of the Israeli Olympic team and capturing nine as hostages. The standoff and massacre that ensued played out with unparalleled immediacy on TV. The tragic event ended 24 hours later, when anchorman Jim McKay uttered the words, “They’re all gone,” words that still haunt us 33 years later.

While the Munich terror was seen around the world, the intensely secret aftermath of the event has remained largely unknown. “Munich” deals with the charged mission of retribution that followed the massacre. Known to Israeli Intelligence as “Operation Wrath of God,” the hit squad is one of the boldest, most covert, and aggressive assassination plots in modern history. With it taut and vivid narrative, “Munich” takes the audience into a hidden moment in history that resonates with the same emotions in our lives today as it did back then.

The film’s hero is Avner, an Israeli patriot and intelligence officer still mourning the Munich massacre. Infuriated by its savagery, Avner is approached by a mysterious man named Ephraim (Geoffrey Rush), who asks him to leave behind his pregnant wife, relinquish his identity, and go underground on a mission to kill the Palestinians who had masterminded the murders.

Despite his youth and inexperience, Avner becomes the leader of a team of four diverse yet highly skilled recruits: Steve (Daniel Craig), the brash and tough South-African-born get-away driver; Hans (Hanns Zischler), the German Jew with a flair for forging documents; Robert (Mathieu Kassovitz), the Belgian toy maker-turned explosive-expert; and Carl (Ciaran Hinds), the quiet, methodical man whose job is to “clean up” after the others.

The saga gets more and more emotionally involving and disturbing as Avner begins to lose some of his men and raises doubts about the mission himself. He’s torn between the desire for justice and growing doubts, since it becomes increasingly clear that the longer he remains on the hunt, the more he’s in danger of becoming the hunted.

Spielberg’s strategy is to humanize all the characters in the story. He shows the Munich assault through flashbacks that are inserted into the narrative in crucial moments via Eric’s dreams and nightmares. Drawing on his vision and technical expertise, Spielberg has directed “Munich” with an immediate approach; reportedly, he didn’t use storyboards, instead working in a more spontaneous manner, intuiting the looks and needs of each scene as it unfolded.

“Munich” portrays a painful and tragic chapter of Israel”and the world’s–collective history. Still controversial and debated, “Operation Wrath of God” ultimately killed 13 men without prosecution or trial. It’s a tribute to the film’s power that the more we learn about the harrowing events, the more they haunt us since they raise relevant questions for which there are no easy answers.

Crash

Challenging and disturbing, Crash, Paul Haggis Oscar-winning feature, takes a provocative look at the complexities of racial intolerance in contemporary Los Angeles. The films scope is admirably ambitious, interweaving the stories of a dozen characters over a short yet intense period of time, resulting in a sprawling saga. Diving headlong into the great divide that defines current life in L.A., this drama tracks the volatile intersections of multi-racial characters, struggling to overcome their anxieties as they careen in and out of one anothers lives.

The characters include a white Brentwood couple of a housewife and her DA husband, a Persian storeowner and his family, two police detectives who are also lovers, an African-American TV director and his wife, a Mexican locksmith and his family, two black carjackers, a couple of cops (one vet, the other rookie), a middle-aged Korean couple.

As multi-racial as New York or Chicago are, they are different from L.A. In N.Y., people are forced to live with one another by the nature of the city. In L.A., people get in their cars, drive to work, and then drive home. There’s no “need” to spend time with anyone else. Hence the apt title: Crash is L.A., because Crash is cars; we protect ourselves in our cars.

The films view is dire and pessimistic. Occasionally, theres a ray of hope, but one achieved at a heavy price, through levity, heartbreak, and tragedy. Haggis claims that his ideas crystallized after 9/11, when he understood that his movie was not just about race but also about fear of any kind of strangers or foreigners. Crash touches deep chords with the audience. We have all witnessed subtle, and not so subtle, racial and class warfare, routine situations in which we discriminate and then find ways to rationalize and excuse it. The movie is about how we all hate to be judged yet seeing no contradiction in judging others. We organize our lives so that we dont have to deal with racial problems, even deny or pretend that they exist.

Crash depicts people who live in an ambience of fear and paranoia, where the Bush administration, as Michael Moore showed in Fahrenheit 9/11, abuses that fear in order to control us. Those fears resonate and distort how we perceive the world around us. The film serves as a reminder of how insulated and detached life in L.A. could be; it sometimes requires a catastrophic event to make us feel what’s going on.

The specific reactions of viewers to Crash will depend on their personal experience. Hopefully, the film will result in a more informed self-inspection, conversation, and perhaps even action. The gallery of individuals is diverse enough to allow most viewers to find a character to relate to. Crash is about people like us, who think they know who they are, but only when tested, they realize how ignorant they are about their feelings and prejudices.

Haggis contests stereotypes and preconceptions that modern life force us to make when we meet people different from us. To his credit, none of the characters escape unscathed, and everybody gets their due, from the black to the white to the Asian to the Latino communities. The dark, fractured portrait that emerges in Crash should not turn off viewers; it’s a sampler of that rare breed, polemical cinema.

Perhaps Clooney has expressed it best, when he talked about his goals: “We are not trying to preach to anyone. Movies at their best can initiate discussions about world dependency on oil, corruption, the CIA, about any number of things. You want people to be standing around the water cooler the next day talking about these movies, like saying, ‘heres what I agree with or where theyre wrong.’ We need that discussion.”

Amen.