The first warning sign came at the 2006 Academy Awards. When Crash won the Oscar for best picture over several more deserving movies including some that hadn’t even been nominated, like Match Point and The Squid and the Whale producer Cathy Schulman stepped to the stage alongside writer-director Paul Haggis, and thanked the voters for recognizing their movie “about love and tolerance.” I had seen Crash, and something didn’t seem quite right to me. My phone immediately rang, and before I could even get the “O” out in “Hello”,my friend Joe was loudly broaching the problem.
“Crash wasn’t about love and tolerance,” he shouted. “It was about hate and intolerance! The only tolerant character in the whole movie shoots someone in a fit of racist paranoia!” Oh yeah. That’s what didn’t seem right.
Not two weeks later, all the major critics who reviewed V for Vendetta, the popcorn action thriller starring Natalie Portman, discussed the movie’s politics as a focal point of their analysis. Sure, the movie was politically loaded, but focusing on the agenda of a big budget spectacle that had already failed to dazzle, suspend, or thrill again didn’t seem right. Were people really spawning political debates about a movie from the Wachowski brothers? The same guys whose previous idea of thought-provoking work was confusing stoned teenagers with The Matrix?
It’s admirable that people want our culture to strive for relevance and depth in its filmmaking and film watching, but our desperate grasping for real world ideals has dissolved our sense of cinematic values. People clearly want to be in touch with the times when they go to the movies. But they also clearly just don’t know which approach to take: serious or saccharine.
This is demonstrated clearly in how audiences have responded to the first two major releases to directly deal with 9/11. United 93 has thus far garnered the best reviews of 2006, according to Metacritic.com, the movie review aggregate. I’m inclined to agree that it is indeed the best film of the year up to this point. Yet Oliver Stone’s World Trade Center needed little more than two weeks to surpass Paul Greengrass’ chilling work at the domestic box office. Stone’s film got almost suspiciously good reviews. They seem to be an overly polite nod to a movie that didn’t ruffle feathers the way one might have worried an Oliver Stone 9/11 entry might. Quite the contrary, it’s hard to imagine World Trade Center ruffling anyone’s feathers at all. While it is serviceable, and features some of the most breathtaking sets of any film in recent memory, there is otherwise nothing of note about the movie, aside from the audiences’ willingness to accept this painful subject.
Rather than finding the right storytelling angle naturally, World Trade Center saccharinely caters to a crowd of guilt-ridden survivors. It tells the story partially from the perspective of the brave civil servants who survived, partially from the perspective of their panicking wives, and partially from that of a discharged marine, who helped save the trapped officers after leaving home to escape his feeling of helplessness. Stone took a harmless route, not only incorporating the majority experience of panic and grief from the sidelines, but making sure the heroic cops would offer an uplifting survival story (which audiences would be likely to know given the two real-life figures’ many public appearances leading up to the movie’s release). The movie doesn’t risk bringing our guilt and grief to the surface by focusing on the victims.
It’s hard to imagine anyone not crying over the course of World Trade Center, yet its touching moments are not organic, but rather ones that force the audience to recall heartbreaking memories from the actual day. United 93 never required the viewer to reach outside the movie for emotion and visceral experience. Both movies played on our societal memories that still seem incredibly fresh, even after five years. But United 93 offered a lean, superbly crafted thriller, that even in the absence of stars honored the heroes of the day and evoked its panic while still holding up against normal cinematic standards.
World Trade Center is so over-scored, so shallow in its every stab at sentiment, that for all it does right, it’s hard not to feel cheapened by it. By taking the steps of casting a star like Nicolas Cage or shooting the movie in a banal style, Stone robbed the picture of any distinctive character it might have offered. In the end, it felt almost like the pilot for a basic cable TV show about horribly unfortunate policemen. The mere act of releasing a 9/11 movie forces us to revisit the day that shaped so much of what’s going on now, with both personal and political perspective. World Trade Center took what could have been the most topical of movies and robbed it of any of that texture.
Movies are almost never good at making real political statements, only at referencing them. That’s why only a couple of Spike Lee’s most racially-loaded movies have particularly resonated. He’s a talented filmmaker, but his low rate of success is about par for the course when it comes to political movies.
Political movies are so hard to pull off that one-time landmark pictures like Gentleman’s Agreement and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner have aged horribly. The latter is a great example of why movies aiming to spur social progressivism inevitably fail. While the movie succeeded in the short term with awards and popularity, it wasn’t long before it looked laughable. Viewed now, not only is the movie terribly didactic in examining the debate between prejudice and racial liberalism, but its ideas of progress now actually seem rather racist themselves. The imprints in celluloid that are really worthwhile have little to do with social moralizing. That’s why so many people missed the point about Brokeback Mountain, one of the superior movies defeated by Crash at the Oscars.
It seems that everyone desperately over-focused on Brokeback Mountain‘s theme of sexual orientation, when it played only a minor role in the on-screen success of the movie. Its box office receipts were bolstered by the buzz and shock value surrounding its distinctive gay cowboy one-liner. But Brokeback Mountain wasn’t about homosexuality the way Crash was about race. It was the emotional element that made the film, not the physical. Ang Lee’s repressed, ill-fated lovers have far more in common with those of, say, Casablanca, than they do with the merely gay characters of much lighter, more comforting fare like Big Eden.
By regarding those two Oscar contenders as only a pair of “issue” movies, people failed to see the more important question at hand: the cinematic one. Brokeback Mountain was a rich visual experience, with a lyrical, painterly beauty that far transcended whatever its writing and performances had to offer. Crash, on the other hand, was mostly just crassly strung-together, skin-deep pieces of heavy-handed drama posing as something richer. We lose our artistic values when we assign importance to work not because of its aesthetic and creative contributions, but because our half-assed notions of social consciousness.
People frequently complain that the media warp and soften the issues. But these days, it seems that the issues have warped and softened my favorite medium. People are so busy trying to care about what’s important that they’re missing the point completely. All summer, message boards across the Internet have been debating whether or not Nacho Libre is racist because of Jack Black’s portrayal of an undignified Mexican. But Jack Black movies don’t denigrate Mexicans, wrestlers, or any broad group; they denigrate Jack Black. I don’t see Dick Cheney protesting Rob Schneider for defaming Americans.
We can’t afford to be this dense. As audiences, being dumb in the pursuit of social relevance is actually worse than being dumb in the pursuit of cheap action thrills. If we reduce our sense of what is bold, challenging, and socially important to the same kind of cheap sensationalism and buzzword fetishizing that drives television and tabloids, then we squander the chance to demand or obtain stories that genuinely possesses those qualities. Then all we’ll get is another Crash. Another cloying approach to recent history. And another ringing phone come Oscar night.