I am one of that rapidly disappearing breed who looks to the movies for something besides escapist entertainment. Not that I expect some socially redeeming value in every film, but once in a while, yes. Frankly, though, I am not getting any of it lately, particularly nothing that one could call political relevance.
One film that tried, but failed, to produce against that objective was The Ides of March. That had a presidential campaign as the backdrop for a morality play about how dirty politics can spoil even the best-intentioned. The good candidate/bad person foil of the story, played by George Clooney, had a behavior profile somewhat like the naughtiness that we have subsequently learned John Edwards was up to in 2008, but Edwards’ story is ho-hum today, certainly put in the shade by Barack Obama’s arc of growth, challenge, and upright behavior. In other words, although the cynicism seemed a good tone for any political year, it didn’t hit the right notes in 2011 to inform, challenge, or modify our prevailing political mood (which is—what?—I will return to this later).
One of 2011’s top films was Iron Lady, in which Meryl Streep gave an Oscar-winning performance as former U.K. Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Streep’s craft was on full display as she became Thatcher in her political prime, and also in her senility later on—the reference point for the storytelling. Thatcher’s politics—which prominently featured extreme austerity during a recession, just as today’s Conservative government in Britain is attempting—could have provided an interesting angle to examine current affairs, but that was nowhere present. Alternatively, her style and her political pairing with her American contemporary and fellow traveler, President Reagan, could have provided a window on the reality behind the hero-worship US Republicans offer him today. Instead, the focus was all on biography: Reagan’s character appears for a few seconds to dance with Maggie, the twelve years or so of her government flash(back) by with the only real attention being to her blundering bravado—ultimately successful—in the Falklands War with Argentina, and one of the more interesting storylines proposed—how a grocer’s daughter developed the gravitas needed to capture her party’s leadership and win her first general election—is never really completed.
The top-grossing film of 2012 has surely already been released, and it is Hunger Games. This movie is set sometime in a regressed future North America called Panem, headed by a dictatorial capital peopled by folks with clearly degenerate habits (clothes, makeup, and, in particular, entertainments). Those nasty folks enjoy an ugly “reality show”, just as unreal, phony, staged as today’s ones, but much more exploitative and gory. Our heroine—the superb Jennifer Lawrence—is caught up in a desperate life-and-death struggle as she wins the contest then has to toe a treacherous path to keep her political masters from tossing her into their continental wastebasket with the other proles.
Clearly, there is just a touch of old-fashioned, libertarian, anti-cosmopolitan American values going on in the story of Hunger Games, and the trajectory of “extreme reality” entertainment seems plausible. But all of it—the setting, the ugly future economy, the court intrigues in the capital—are just the setting for the real story, the struggles of our brave, wise, and overwhelmed heroine. At least that’s so in the movie; I haven’t read the books. What I’d like to see more (in the next two—or more--installments, certain to appear in the next couple years now that this one has been such a big hit) is how his dysfunctional society can possibly function as it does, and how it got to this fractured juncture.
The movie with this year as its title was far from topical, though many still believe it to be so. 2012 had plenty of excitement, with the special effects teams turned loose on various continents and magnificent displays of total annihilation. The storyline—of a family which defied all odds to survive the catastrophe—was nothing short of ridiculous, though, and the politics and the earth science (I presume here) bear no relation to anything.
The most cogent political framing in a movie last year was Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, which for me was an alternate-reality telling of SARS, the bird flu epidemic that never quite happened in the early years of the last decade. The story felt very authentic in many ways—the politics of managing health risks, the nature of emergency medical research, the varying responses—greed, riot, desperation, acceptance—which the public would experience. In spite of a (reported) death toll in the millions, though, it didn’t seem to satisfy the public appetite—not enough car crashes, splatter, sex, rock ‘n’ roll, or something of the like—and the movie cut a very shallow swath through our society last summer and disappeared without much of a trace.
Finally, in my review of recent material I want to mention two movies from 2010 which had much more to say about our world, which, whether we like it or not (see here, Internet fans!) is dominated by the political, economic and military reality which seems nowhere to be found in today’s crop of film (at least American film). Up in the Air captured the essence of the 2008-09 Great Crater and its distorting effects on our society, and Hurt Locker put out there a (dramatized) real-world drama of incredible tension, a subject otherwise totally ignored by the 98% of us not directly touched by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
What movies are waiting out there to be made? One, I think, is the bio of Pat Tillman, the NFL player who chose to volunteer to fight in Afghanistan, was killed by friendly fire, with the army covering it up: Where Men Win Glory. There is certainly a Michael Moore movie (or a Michael Moore-type movie) about the economy, probably focusing on the mortgage/foreclosure crisis which remains unsolved. Lastly, I expect to see some sort of ruthless expose of the Tea Party--not the membership, but the money and power behind it and what it seeks.
At Least There's One Topical Release
For some unknown reason, there is a major motion picture release coming with a re-make of The Three Stooges. The leads are no great draw, and the concept an absurd notion, in that those who remember the original should be way beyond having any interest, while those who don't remember it can't imagine why it should be made.
The one thing I have to say for it is that it is a reasonably good characterization of the Republican nomination contest. "Mitch-a-sketch" Romney is Moe, calling all the shots, bullying the others. Newt, clearly, is Curly. That leaves "S.P. Rick" Santorum as Larry, I guess, while Ron Paul could do a reasonably good Shemp, if he should be called upon.