THE SHINEBOX: Politics and the silver screen

The films that dominated this year’s Academy Award nominations seem, on the surface, to have very little in common. Gay Western romance, racial tension in America, television journalism, international espionage and oil companies have gotten the star treatment from the Academy, and there were few surprises when the names were unveiled Tuesday morning.

But, in fact, this year’s slate speaks to a growing trend of political and socially relevant filmmaking that has been adopted in just the last few years.

Historically speaking, Academy voters have always tried to tow the lines between art, entertainment, politics and mainstream America. Very few overtly political movies have taken home the Oscar’s top prize, if any prizes at all. Recent Best Picture winners such as “Schindler’s List” and “Forrest Gump” had obvious political undertones, as did 1987’s “The Last Emperor.” But it seems the last person honored for openly political filmmaking was Oliver Stone, who won for both “Platoon” and “Born on the Fourth of July.”

But that was way back in the ’80s. It’s been almost two decades since “Platoon” won it all.

Since then, the award ceremony has become increasingly focused on finding a balance, a middle ground, between artistic value and mainstream acceptance. Just look at the winners over the last few years. “Gladiator,” “Chicago,” “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “A Beautiful Mind,” etc.

Last year’s big winner, “Million Dollar Baby,” was turned into a political spectacle not by the filmmakers themselves, but by reactionary right-wing radio and TV pundits. But this year’s class clearly distinguishes itself from many years of the recent past. Conscious or not, Hollywood has put an added emphasis on political filmmaking, and the Oscar nods confirm and validate that fact.

In a recent roundtable discussion with editors of Newsweek, Steven Spielberg said that the trend is due to the conservatism of the current Bush administration, which many feel has silenced certain points of view in mainstream media outlets.

“I just feel that filmmakers are much more proactive since the second Bush administration,” Spielberg said. “I think that everybody is trying to declare their independence and state their case for the things that we believe in. No one is really representing us, so we’re now representing our own feelings, and we’re trying to strike back.”

But I’m not talking about political cinema in the ham-fisted, Michael Moore sort of way. In fact, the 2005 films to which I’m referring don’t have too much to do with the policies of the Bush White House, at least not directly, but explore a wide array of socially vital issues. “Brokeback Mountain” exists only within itself and never tries to be political, but it has been adopted as a de facto political statement, a rallying cry for issues of acceptance and even gay marriage.

Spielberg’s “Munich” examines the potential futility of violence and war, which is certainly a relevant topic these days. The racial issues brought up in “Crash” are always present, “Good Night, and Good Luck.” speaks directly to our current state in many ways-the push toward info-tainment rather than news, government propaganda and the ways in which that government can assume power over its people through fear. And the other Clooney project, Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana,” is the most obviously political project of the year.

The content in such films as these has gone down rather well with the American public. I don’t know, maybe it’s a bit easier when it comes from someone such as Clooney, a liberal but accessible filmmaker who has broad appeal and whom just about everyone seems to like.

But that’s the way it’s going these days, and it could very well be for the exact reasons Spielberg delineated. It’s as if filmmakers are saying, “if modern journalists and those in the media continue to make political discourse shallow and obsolete, we will pick up the slack ourselves.”

Of course, that’s not always a good thing. There are plenty of folks in La-La Land who aren’t nearly as smart or politically savvy as they think they are, and there’s always the chance for misinformation and misrepresentation. The written word is almost always the more effective one for in-depth social debate, rather than an artistic and subjective medium like film.

Still, with the way sociopolitical debate is going these days, people such as Spielberg and Clooney are at least trying to do something about it, and that’s a significant contribution in and of itself.

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