Among the current or upcoming movies with an unmistakable political agenda are Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers," a critique of how the American government merchandised heroism during World War II; "Catch a Fire," a powerful drama about the apartheid era in South Africa; "Babel," a panoramic look at misery and injustice around the world; "Home of the Brave," a story of three Iraq war veterans who have trouble adjusting to life at home; "Blood Diamond," Edward Zwick's drama about a mercenary whose consciousness is raised during the civil war in Sierra Leone; and "The Good Shepherd," an epic history of the CIA, written by Eric Roth and directed by Robert De Niro.
In the past, Jewish filmmakers made major contributions to socially conscious movies, and they sometimes suffered for their principles. During the blacklist era, the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings had an ugly anti-Semitic tinge, as committee members frequently focused on the Jewish-sounding names of actors and writers accused of inserting communist propaganda into movies. Although they didn't like the attention they received during these hearings, the Warner brothers were among the prime purveyors of socially conscious films of the '30s. Warner films such as "I Am A Fugitive from a Chain Gang," "Black Legion" and "Angels with Dirty Faces" exposed social problems of the Depression era. In the filmmaking renaissance of the '60s and '70s, Italian American artists like Robert De Niro, Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese played a central role. But Jewish directors like Sidney Lumet ("Serpico," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Network"), Arthur Penn ("Bonnie and Clyde," "Little Big Man") and Mike Nichols ("The Graduate," "Catch-22") also created archetypal movies of this rebellious era.
Jewish filmmakers are involved in many of today's socially conscious movies, though of course they aren't the only ones at the barricades. Documentaries have gained popularity in recent years, following the success of Michael Moore's "Bowling for Columbine" and "Fahrenheit 9/11." Some of the latest entries include Amy Berg's scathing documentary about child molestation within the Catholic Church, "Deliver Us From Evil," and a disturbingly timely film about the FBI's harassment of John Lennon, "The U.S. vs. John Lennon." One of the strongest documentaries, made by Barbara Kopple and Cecilia Peck, is "Shut Up & Sing," the impassioned film about the furor that greeted the Dixie Chicks' anti-Bush comments on the eve of the invasion of Iraq.
The first important dramatic movie to focus on the Iraq War is "Home of the Brave," written by Mark Friedman and directed by Irwin Winkler. It's unusual for a film about a controversial conflagration to be made while the war is still raging fiercely. Hollywood ignored the Vietnam War until years after the conflict ended. But Friedman and Winkler have plunged right into the fray, opening their film with startlingly effective scenes dramatizing the chaos and savagery that confront American soldiers in Baghdad. The film tries to avoid overt political sloganeering. But in showing the monumental difficulties that these vets face on their return to America, "Home of the Brave" makes an unmistakably mournful comment on the war.
At first glance, "Catch a Fire" would seem to be a safer political drama in that it condemns the brutal South African regime that was overthrown 15 years ago. But the film has more universal implications. Screenwriter Shawn Slovo and her mother, the film's producer Robyn Slovo, actually lived through the tumultuous events depicted here. It seems that they were inspired not simply by the atrocities of the past but by a desire to comment on current events. The film's hero, Patrick Chamusso (Derek Luke), is an innocent, apolitical man unjustly arrested and tortured. His mistreatment drives him straight into the arms of the terrorist group he was falsely accused of abetting. Is the same thing happening today to prisoners abused in Iraq and Guantanamo? The film raises timely questions about a repressive government's role in aggravating the very problems it claims to be solving. Director Phillip Noyce has commented pointedly that "Catch a Fire" is as much about events of 2006 as it is about the 1980s. (For a Jewish journal profile of screenwriter Slovo, click here.)
"Babel," an international production with major Hollywood stars (Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett) as well as complete unknowns, bitterly observes the double standard of justice around the world. When an American woman (Blanchett) is injured in Morocco, the story is front-page news all across the world, but the media fail to report on the tragic consequences for two young Moroccan goatherds caught up in the incident. While the film laments the suffering of invisible people, its intersecting plot lines eloquently demonstrate our interconnectedness. One of the positive notes in the film is the growing sensitivity that Pitt's character achieves when he is forced to spend time in a Moroccan village and depend on its residents.
Similarly, in "Blood Diamond," Leonardo DiCaprio plays a self-involved man awakening to the exploitation of helpless Africans. Director Ed Zwick has frequently been motivated to chronicle social problems. His stirring Civil War drama, "Glory," celebrated the unfamiliar story of black soldiers in the Union Army. "Courage Under Fire" surveyed the consequences of the first Gulf War, and Zwick's remarkably prescient but controversial movie, "The Siege," highlighted both the threat of Arab terrorism and the danger of American overreaction. "Blood Diamond" is infused with a similar sense of social concern.
These new movies illustrate one crucial change from the social protest movies of the past. In the '30s and again in the '60s, socially conscious movies were almost always about American problems -- unemployment, poverty, racism, police corruption, media manipulation. The new political movies are painted on a larger international canvas. No doubt this global perspective grows out of the terrible jolt that Americans received on Sept. 11, 2001. The outside world intruded violently into our domestic tranquillity, and filmmakers who want to sound a wake-up call are reminding us that the world's problems are now American problems as well. Whether audiences will line up to heed the warnings remains to be seen, but the burning social passion of some of our most gifted moviemakers definitely enriches the cinematic landscape this fall.
Stephen Farber is the film critic for Movieline and a Jewish Journal contributor.