Friday, August 10, 2007


"I think films have gotten better since everything started to go off the rails a few years ago. Suddenly all these people are coming out with things to say."

(Matt) Damon said filmmakers were making smarter movies that grappled with contemporary political issues, including two he had acted in - "Syriana" and "The Good Shepherd."

The historical Hollywood struggle has been a balance between film as art and film as commerce. But these “smarter” movies that Damon applauds strive to be neither art nor commerce, they are more like advocacy. I think what Damon fails to realize that this approach makes movies disposable products locked in their own times. Classics like Gone with the Wind, Casablanca, and Citizen Kane are political, but they aren’t concerned with persuading the audience on a particular point. It makes them timeless in a way that today's "smart" movies won't be.

A few years ago Rod Lurie made a quintessential “contemporary” political film, THE CONTENDER. It was the least subtle dramatic defense for Clinton’s personal shortcomings. If you haven’t seen it, President Jeff Bridges considers nominating Joan Allen to be the new Vice President after the death of the incumbent. We’re introduced to Joan in a pretty lurid sex scene that we later discover was with her husband, but we’re lead to believe that she’s promiscuous. During talk of her nomination, charges of an earlier sexual impropriety surface and they have what looks like photos of a younger Joan Allen involved in an orgy.

A movie like this has a lot of places to go dramatically, but the singular point of the film is that Joan Allen doesn’t have to answer the charges because her private life is private. In fact, she’s willing to lose the nomination simply because she refuses to discuss the issue. Her refusal is treated as some sort of principle, but it lacks motivation when you learn later that it wasn’t her in the photos and the charges were false.

What person anywhere falsely accused of something takes the stance that it’s a personal matter? In the real world only guilty people say such things. Innocent people laugh it off. Once you learn that Allen was simply grandstanding, the character becomes unbelievable. The better dramatic choice is for her to have done the orgy and confront it. She could have said that it was a youthful indiscretion and she regrets it. She could have said that she doesn’t see anything wrong with the behavior and dare people not to judge her. Either way, she is confirmed not for some phony principle, but because she was genuine.

THE CONTENDER had to be about the heroism of avoiding the accusations because then Ken Starr is the bad guy for bringing the matter up. The movie became dated the moment that pet issue died which happened somewhere around the evening that Gore's team told the press of Bush’s 25 year-old DUI charge.

A couple of funny notes. Gary Oldman played the opposing Senator and blasted the movie when it was released as liberal propaganda by Spielberg and Geffen. On the commentary track, Lurie tells us that Oldman didn’t mean it. He just gets so into the characters that he plays that he becomes them and therefore he was just saying what the senator would say. The commentary is also funny because it’s around the time that Christian Slater was arrested for knocking around his girlfriend and Lurie tells us what a sweetheart that Slater is. I don’t know if that is an endorsement of Slater or an endorsement of knocking girls around since Clinton had just recently been accused by Juanita Broderick of knocking her around. The movie was produced too early to have anything to say about pardoning billionaire fat cats like Mark Rich, but I’m holding out hope for the 10th anniversary edition.

Read this quote again:
"I think films have gotten better since everything started to go off the rails a few years ago. Suddenly all these people are coming out with things to say."

Syriana and The Good Shepherd say exactly the same thing, I saw the enemy and the enemy is us, a groundbreaking idea in Hollywood. A bolder idea we haven’t seen since the monks suggested a prayer before dinner.

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