Used to be, going to the movies was a way to escape the bustle and stress of the real world for a couple of hours.
Lately, the multiplex has become a more tumultuous place. Choose the wrong picture, and you might find yourself under relentless attack - even mocked - for the beliefs you hold dearest.
Bill Maher, Andrew Newberg, John Westcott, Sen. Mark Pryor, José Luis de Jesús Miranda, Steve Berg, Ken Ham, Jeremiah Cummings, Mohammad Hourani, Rabbi Dovid Weiss, Propa-Gandhi, Ray Suarez, Geert Wilders, Fatima Elatik, Father George Coyne
Body of Lies
Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani, Oscar Isaac, Ali Suliman, Alon Aboutboul
Josh Brolin, Elizabeth Banks, James Cromwell, Ellen Burstyn, Ioan Gruffudd, Richard Dreyfuss, Thandie Newton, Scott Glenn, Jeffrey Wright, Jason Ritter, Toby Jones
In the weeks leading up to the election, a number of Hollywood movies and smaller independent productions have invaded theaters, arguing their points with the ferocious bias of Ann Coulter or Keith Olbermann. And viewers who disagree with the message of these zero-tolerance films may feel more accosted than challenged.
In one theater, for example, you might encounter Bill Maher in “Religulous” looking down at the camera while saying “Religion is detrimental to humanity” and admonishing followers of any faith to “grow up or die.”
In another auditorium, the shotgun-comedy silliness of director Jerry (“Airplane!”) Zucker’s “An American Carol” comes to a sudden halt when the ghost of George Washington (played by Jon Voight) takes an America-hating, Michael Moore-ish documentary filmmaker (Kevin Farley) to the smoking ruins of the World Trade Center and browbeats him for abusing his freedom of speech.
Next door, you could stumble upon a scene in Oliver Stone’s “W.” in which President George W. Bush plans an invasion into Iraq - and divides a map of the Middle East into territories for the United States to conquer.
And although Ridley Scott’s espionage thriller “Body of Lies” begins with a CIA hotshot (Russell Crowe) laying out a non-partisan stance - “Do we belong (in Iraq)? Do we not? It doesn’t really matter how you answer that question, because we are there.” By the film’s end, he is saying that anyone who doesn’t support the overseas war, despite its ballooning number of collateral-damage victims, is turning his back on America.
For all the timeliness and supposed relevance, though, these films are being largely ignored by the mainstream, reaching only a core of like-minded viewers who already agree with their conceits. On its opening weekend, for example, the $70 million “Body of Lies” was outgrossed at the box office by a Disney picture about a talking Chihuahua.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that ‘Body of Lies’ is a better movie than ‘Beverly Hills Chihuahua,’” says Chad Hartigan, an analyst at Exhibitor Relations Co., a box-office tracking firm. “But movies like ‘Chihuahua’ have always made more money than movies like ‘Body of Lies,’ and they always will. It’s the fact that a movie directed by Ridley Scott and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe cannot pull in $20 million on its opening weekend that should give Hollywood pause. It has to be the subject matter that’s keeping people from the theater.”
“Body of Lies,” like most Iraq war-themed films that have preceded it (“Lions for Lambs,” “In the Valley of Elah,” “Home of the Brave,” “Stop-Loss,” “Rendition”), may simply be too on-the-nose for its own good, dealing with a polarizing subject with which moviegoers are already living.
Brian De Palma’s Iraq-set “Redacted” only managed to eke out an anemic $65,000 during its theatrical run last year. Errol Morris didn’t fare much better with “Standard Operating Procedure,” his exploration of the Abu Ghraib photographs, which grossed $229,000 despite strong reviews.
“Moviegoers today are not adverse to serious-minded escapism,” says Hartigan. “They just prefer it not be too seriously close to home. They’re looking for a middle between holding up a mirror to our reality and completely stupid escapism, which is maybe why ‘The Dark Knight’ did so well.”
Politically conservative novelist and screenwriter Andrew Klavan (“True Crime,” “Don’t Say a Word”) wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal this summer that interpreted the blockbuster Batman movie as “a paean of praise to the fortitude and moral courage that has been shown by George W. Bush in this time of terror and war.”
Klavan argues that only through metaphor and allegory can conservatives find Hollywood movies that speak to their values.
“Like the news media, the entertainment media - especially the film industry - has drifted further and further to the left, until they have lost all sense of balance and sense that this is a country with two points of view that need to be looked at objectively,” Klavan says. “Right now, they’re trying to affect the election, just as they put out “The American President” in 1995 to make Bill Clinton’s philandering seem less important than it really was.”
Tom Ortenberg, president of Lionsgate Theatrical Films, sees the situation differently, pointing out that his company, which distributed “W.” and “Religulous” (as well as past controversial films such as “Fahrenheit 9/11” and “Dogma”) did so only because the movies could not find a home with larger film studios - precisely because of their political content.
“We saw both ‘Religulous’ and ‘W.’ as fantastic opportunities for us,” Ortenberg says. “We’re smaller than the major studios, so we have to be more nimble and opportunistic. We’ve never embraced a film solely because of any controversy - the most important thing for us is that these are really good movies - but we don’t shy away from it, either. If exploiting a controversy can help us market a terrific motion picture effectively and cost-efficiently, we’re all for it.”
Ortenberg points out that the impression of the film industry as a leftist empire is an inevitable result of putting a large number of artists together.
“By definition, a creative community is going to lean more liberal in their politics,” he says. “It doesn’t make them better people, but there is a certain mindset that goes along with being an artist. If we saw a terrific picture with a different point of view, we’d be happy to consider it. But we can only play the hand we’re dealt.”
The makers of “An American Carol” made no attempt to hide the film’s aggressively conservative stance. Even the film’s theatrical trailer openly courts that audience, with a series of title cards that state: “For those of you who take pride in America comes a movie that finally gets it right - and laughs at those who don’t.”
Vivendi Entertainment, which distributed “Carol,” opted not to screen the film in advance for critics, fearing it would be panned for its politics. A company spokesperson declined to comment for this article via e-mail about the movie’s stance, but director Zucker told Entertainment Weekly “Most political comedies say both sides are bad. We’re saying (expletive) it. We’re taking a side.”
Despite a grassroots Internet campaign that urged readers to see the film and send Hollywood a message, “An American Carol,” too, has faltered at the box office, grossing only $6.8 million to date.
It may be that, unless you’re a proven name like Michael Moore or Mel Gibson, whose “The Passion of the Christ” grossed an astonishing $611 million worldwide, movies with a specific ideological slant benefit best from a soft-sell approach.
“Fireproof,” a low-budget ($500,000) drama about a firefighter (played by “Growing Pains’” Kirk Cameron) who turns his faltering marriage around by embracing Christianity, has been quietly opening around the country since Sept. 26 and has grossed $21 million thus far. Produced by Sherwood Pictures, a ministry of Sherwood Baptist Church in Albany, Ga., it is repeating the success of the production company’s previous film, “Facing the Giants,” which grossed $10 million on a budget of $100,000.
Neither the trailer nor the promotional posters for “Fireproof” indicate the story’s religious underpinnings, but the film is reaching its intended audience through old-fashioned word of mouth. Like the other ideological films currently in theaters, though, “Fireproof” has not drawn in general audiences, supporting the evidence that when it comes to a debate of politics or religion, the multiplex may not be moviegoers’ venue of choice.
“With the occasional exception - like ‘An Inconvenient Truth,’ which had the weight of the media and the government establishment pushing for its untrue idea of global warming - no one particular film is going to make large numbers of people change their minds,” Klavan says. “So they end up preaching to the choir.”
But Klavan believes even the films that go unseen end up seeping into our thought processes. “The underlying assumptions of so many Hollywood movies - that America is the bad guy, that the government is not to be trusted, that religion is bad, that poor people are the government’s fault - have drifted through the consciousness of the country like slow poison and have had an effect over time.”
Another element keeping these pointedly opinionated films from broadening their audience may be the same thing that has changed practically every aspect of modern-day life: the Internet. Protests continue to greet Hollywood movies on a regular basis, from the National Federation of the Blind’s recent picketing of the film “Blindness” to demonstrations by disability advocacy groups against “Tropic Thunder.”
But those are fleeting blips on the radar compared with the last wide-scale protest of an American movie, the tempest that greeted Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ” in 1988, which was large enough to draw the curiosity of filmgoers who otherwise might have passed the film by.
“‘Last Temptation’ would still be controversial if it was being made today, but our current cultural climate is less confrontational than it was in the 1980s,” says Thomas R. Lindlof, a professor of communications at the University of Kentucky and author of “Hollywood Under Siege: Martin Scorsese, the Religious Right and the Culture Wars.” “James Dobson (founder of the evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family) is probably more prominent now than in 1988, but he probably couldn’t mobilize followers today as he did back then. Because people can communicate their thoughts and ideas about popular culture and the media at lightning-fast speed online, it takes a little negative energy out of controversies.”
And without controversy, many of the current political films won’t be able to survive for long at the multiplex.
‘When I went to see ‘W.,’ I came out wondering ‘What happened to Oliver Stone’s edge?’” says Paul N. Lazarus III, a film professor at the University of Miami and veteran producer of Hollywood films such as “Capricorn One” and “Westworld.” “When it comes to political movies, the chief mantra in Hollywood is: ‘If it will make money, we’ll do it.’ But I was both disappointed and dismayed with ‘W.’ It just didn’t resonate. I don’t think it’s going to do very well with the public at all.”