No escaping politics in movies


Sometimes, in the weeks proceeding a presidential election, you wake up screaming under the impression that you're receiving paid political advertisements through your fillings.

That may have to do with the oppressive ubiquity of media: They are, truly, everywhere, even in your dreams. It may also have to do with the oppressive ubiquity of politics to the artistic mind-set and the subsequent way political values slip into entertainment. Politics is everywhere, even in the movies we see.

This really should be no surprise: Creative people live political inner lives just as richly as anybody: These politics, being a part of their lives, become a part of their works in the same way. Thus, when we are sensitive to it, as we tend to be this time of the electoral cycle, movies can often seem like paid political advertisements themselves.

I'm not talking about those few films -- "Advise and Consent" (1962), "The Best Man" (1964), "The Candidate" (1972), even "Billy Jack Goes to Washington" -- that take place in the political process. Rather, I'm talking about the subtle agendas or value systems that underlie nominally nonpolitical films and nudge us gently toward embracing a position without letting us know we ** are being nudged.

Such things happen regularly. Both liberals and conservatives have held sway in Hollywood, depending on the times and the cycles of such things. Liberal films were big in the '30s, then again in the '60s, periods of internal turmoil; the '40s, '50s and the '80s, periods of profound national self-satisfaction, were big for conservative films. Today, with an economy going nowhere, we seem to be in another period of liberal ascendancy.

But what is a liberal film or a conservative film? The answer can only be given in the broadest of strokes. Liberal films tend to be about empowerment and reform, while conservative films tend to be about authority and the restoration of order. Liberal films tend to celebrate a pluralistic culture and, at their worst, make a clumsy racial identification of whiteness as evil (as in "Bebe's Kids"). Conservative films tend to celebrate the institutions of society -- the police and the military, for example -- and at their worst tend to celebrate obedience bordering on fascism. Each has its own rigid brand of political correctness.

The most profound conservative film remains troubling close to 80 years after it was made. This is D. W. Griffith's "Birth of a Nation," a melodrama set during and after the Civil War. Griffith pretty much invented the grammar and vocabulary of modern movie making; he understood principles of cross-cutting, the relationship between master shot, mid shot and close-up that has become the staple of all narrative filmmaking; but he was racist scum. Perhaps it is understandable, given that he was raised in the South himself after the Civil War and that there was little that could qualify as racial enlightenment in those days.

Still, "Birth of a Nation" is a profound enigma to all who study it today: a moving, powerful, sweeping story in which the heroes of the Ku Klux Klan save the South from Yankee carpetbaggers and hordes of freed black men hellbent on subjecting the flower of Southern womanhood to degradation. In "Birth," the burning cross is a symbol of regeneration, not hatred; Griffith could not begin to imagine that black people were human beings.

Conservative westerns

But not all conservative films are shameful, just as not all liberal films are morally correct. The core of conservative films is probably the great series of late '40s westerns made by John Ford about the 7th Cavalry, starring John Wayne. Ford was by that time a veteran of considerable action in the Pacific -- he'd headed a documentary unit that photographed many of the great battles of the war -- so he knew that "patriotism" and "duty," though easy chords to sound in the vacuum of innocence, had far more troubling meanings in the sand and dust of a brutal campaign.

Thus his 7th Cavalry movies -- "She Wore a Yellow Ribbon," "Fort Apache" and "Rio Grande" -- are about the cost of duty, or (if you will) the cost of empire. John Wayne is the perfect emblem in this quest: excessively masculine, uncomfortable with feelings, sublimely focused, a little shy and most happy in exclusively masculine company. The movies tend to be about the wisdom of the institution: In this case, the 7th Cavalry stands for the American government, which in its raggedy way is trying to establish order over the unruly plains.

It's not exactly WASP-land: Hordes of cantankerous Irishmen form a sort of prole's chorus in the enlisted and noncommissioned ranks. Moreover, leadership isn't necessarily above human flaw, as demonstrated in Henry Fonda's turn as Col. Owen Thursby in "Fort Apache," the greatest of the three movies, as a sort of Custer clone, who rides to ironic glory out of his own stubborn stupidity.

Ford was the poet laureate of the professional officer caste, and he revered the traditions of the service and the bravery of the troops. Basically his ethic was unit discipline: A man might be rebellious in the early going, but sooner or later he had to reach rapprochement with authority. He had to join the team and prove himself worthy, something that usually happened in battle. Ford was never enthusiastic about violence; he never glorified it and always treated it with tragic regret as the hardest part of a soldier's job.

During the Red hunt days of the early '50s, Hollywood conservatism evinced itself in a series of anti-Red films of which "I Led Three Lives" was the most famous; at the same time, Howard Hawks was making the xenophobic sci-fi film "The Thing," in which weenie liberals tried to make peace with an invader from above and got gutted like hogs on butcher day for their trouble. Only a strong military leader and team play could get this microcosm of society through the night, and the movie closed with an anthem that could have been the battle cry of much outward-looking conservatism: "Watch the skies!"

The most notorious "conservative" film of the past 20 years was the Don Siegel-Clint Eastwood collaboration "Dirty Harry." By this time (1972), authority is no longer wise; it has been eroded from within by liberal reformers, most particularly a Supreme Court that pays more attention to the rights of criminals than to the rights of victims. Eastwood's Harry Callahan, a no-nonsense homicide detective, is an unregenerate believer in the old code of authority: Shoot first, ask questions later. "My policy is to shoot the bastards," he boasts, which of course irritates his sniveling, spineless superiors. When a particularly malevolent serial killer brutally turns the system's weakness against itself, only a tough guy like Harry has the guts to stand up to him -- by

trampling on his constitutional rights, and, in one scene, trampling on him (he tortures the suspect to gain information.) The flaw is that the movie illustrates a clear worst-case scenario, and public policy can't be made on a worst-case basis; by that, if someone shot himself after seeing a movie, one could ban both (( guns and movies. Pauline Kael, an ardently liberal film critic, denounced the movie as a fascist work of art; it was hated by elitists and loved by the mob.

Programmatic patriot

Currently, the most "conservative" film in release is Phillip Noyce's version of the Tom Clancy novel "Patriot Games." It's so programmatic it could almost have been written by recipe. Jack Ryan is a self-imposed CIA exile; when he becomes the target of terrorists, he must return to the folds of Mother Agency and seek its wisdom and its protection. It returns this favor by making his survival its highest priority; there's a kind of smarmy, in-group subtext to the film that's coldly repellent, as if the government only exists to protect its favorite sons. But once again, the integrity of the institution and the wisdom of leadership are taken for granted.

Liberal films run a gamut almost as wide. Early pictures were reformist, such as the great "I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang," with Paul Muni as an innocent man unjustly imprisoned in a Georgia penal work gang. Ironically, the most majestic of all protest movies was directed by the same man whom most critics regard as the profound conservative, John Ford. This was his epic and still moving "The Grapes of Wrath," from John Steinbeck's impassioned, progressive best seller, a movie that characterized the flight of the Okies from the dust bowl to California as the great American tragic epic.

Indeed, "liberal" movies have always championed progressive causes. "The Defiant Ones" argued for racial equality in the late '50s, "Compulsion" argued against the death penalty, "High Noon" and "The Crucible" against the pressures to conform to McCarthyism, and so forth.

But there is a dark side to liberal movies as well. Of course the Red hunters of the '50s proclaimed many movies "soft on communism" until the very words themselves took on a mantra of repressiveness. Nevertheless, some progressive film made during the high-water mark of Hollywood progressivism were soft on communism; at any rate, they took an extremely tolerant position on Stalinist Russia, one of the most grotesque and murderous totalitarian societies in the history of the world, and this long after the show trials had revealed the nature of the regime. It was hard for many liberals, enflamed with Camelot-like fantasies of a classless society that the Soviet Union seemed to promise, to face what was in reality just another tin pot megalomaniac killer in the form of Stalin. Both "North Star" and "Mission to Moscow" were ludicrously intemperate in their worship of a dictatorship.

A pernicious liberalism

"Bonnie and Clyde" (1969) is perhaps the most pernicious "liberal" movie: Made during the height of national outrage, during the Vietnam war, it romanticized two murderous outlaws as "rebels" fighting against injustice and actually went so far as to characterize the police officer hunting them -- the legendary Texas Ranger Frank Hamer -- as some kind of puritan monster who wouldn't respond in the spirit of light banter when Bonnie (Faye Dunaway) goofs with him. It treats their death as "tragic," as if they just wanted to live their lives in a world they never made and that the heartless, corrupt authorities gunned them down for their integrity, rather than the violence that they themselves chose to unleash.

A common thread in the worst of liberal pictures is lack of responsibility. We see it in "Under Fire," an account of journalists covering the war in Nicaragua. Two of them agree to fake a photo in order to help the Sandinista cause, and the movie views this abrogation of professional ethics as somehow "heroic." That theme is sounded again in "Thelma & Louise," another wretched excess that some how excuses manifestly criminal activity as a legitimate response to vaguely defined "oppression." Thelma and Louise were oppressed only if marriage and work are slavery; and if so, there are two things known as divorce and quitting that would go a long way toward relieving those states of oppression. But the movie labors clumsily to illustrate how nothing is their fault: When they become criminals, their subsequent "empowerment," much celebrated by liberal critics, is really just the power of the gun; pick it up and point it at somebody and you can make him or her dance to any tune you want. It doesn't matter if you're a housewife or a housebreaker or in the White House: the gun has the power, not you.

America's most aggressive liberal filmmaker is the in-your-face bully boy, Oliver Stone. More of a propagandist than an artist, Stone has brought a seething left-wing indignation to everything he's done. To argue that he's ruined his work by making it ideological is to miss the point; like many a great pamphleteer, the message is the point, not the story.

Stone's seething caldron

Since his own time in Vietnam, Stone has evidently believed that America is a seething caldron of corruption. "Platoon" viewed infantry service as a kind of corrosive hell, under the leadership of psychos and cowards in pursuit of fascist goals. "Born on the Fourth of July" ignored the fact that its hero was, as a two-enlistment Marine noncommissioned officer, an enthusiastic participant in that same system. Ron Kovic was "Platoon's" Sergeant Barnes, not its Sergeant Elias. The movie reached its point of utmost absurdity not in fictionalized accounts of Kovic being gassed at a peace rally (never happened), but in the way Stone contrasted participants in the Republican and Democratic national conventions strictly by cheap visualizations: The Republicans were virtually young SS men, uptight crew-cut and page-boyed blonds, blue-eyed and rigid as little right-wing robots; the young Democrats, of course, were a multihued bunch of healers and nurturers. The argument is just as pernicious as the "Morning-in-America" TV spots for Reagan: it asserts that beauty is virtue, ipso facto.

On the other hand, "Dances With Wolves" is the most ardent recent liberal masterpiece. Taking a conservative genre, the western, Kevin Costner spun a generally convincing revisionist fable about an unconventional cavalry officer on the Plains of the 1860s who saw through his own biases until he himself became a Sioux. It has all the hallmarks of the high liberal movie: It insists that authority is corrupt, and it insists on romanticizing authority's official victims, in this case American Indians, as a child-like tribe of eco-correct martyrs. It believes in "higher authority," arguing that Costner's sell-out is justified morally, and it sees his secular superior officers as bigots and fascists. That he has committed treason by any fair standard of military ethics has no meaning in the film; it's not even acknowledged.

Yet the movie transcends these rigid little orthodoxies: Its love of the Plains Indians is utterly persuasive, as is its love of the Western landscapes. Moreover, the performances, far from being strident and preachy, have a genuine likability to them, particularly those by the American-Indian actors. It seems to be politically correct in spite of itself, or incidentally, as if Costner was pursuing his version almost innocent of its deeper meanings. Sometimes it's better to be lucky than smart, I suppose.

The best liberal films are humanistic and inspiring; the worst liberal films are pious and bigoted. The best conservative films are heroic and inspiring; the worst are totalitarian and bigoted. The bigotry is a common element: Each sensibility, of course, feels as if it's been especially granted the franchise on righteousness and that the other's position is utterly without redeeming value. Of course the terror of both is that such rigidity precludes cooperation and progress.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad