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Stars and strife 

The release and acclaim of recent politically driven films implies a cultural shift in entertainment. Carsten Knox discovers otherwise.

“Every civilization finds it necessary to negotiate compromises with its own values.”

So says Golda Meir, the former prime minister of Israel, in Munich, Steven Spielberg’s new film about men who hunt down those responsible for the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics. The quote, and the movie, have upset some hawks, who say Golda Meir had no compunction about ordering the deaths of Palestinian terrorists; that she didn’t see it as a “compromise” of her country’s values. In the New York Times, Ehud Danoch, the Israeli consul general to Los Angeles, said Spielberg is making light of the issue by finding a moral equivalence “between victims of terror and those who killed them.”

That the film is fictionalized, based on a historically disputed 1984 book called Vengeance by George Jonas, isn’t even an issue—it’s that Spielberg has chosen to approach the sticky political quagmire of the decades-long conflict between Palestine and Israel by humanizing all the characters, making the simple, perhaps naive case that violence begets violence, whether enacted by a terrorist or an agent of the state. Munich is a powerful film, satisfying as a cracking thriller and as a morality tale, and it’s getting people talking as they leave the theatre—drawing lines, taking sides.

In fact, as the awards season kicks in—among the nominees for the Golden Globes this weekend are such films such as Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck, The Constant Gardener and Crash; Munich is up for best director and best screenplay—2005 is looking like a year where Hollywood decided to take a few risks in the socio-political arena.

Perhaps most surprising is that these movies found audiences despite being about patently non-commercial subjects, including the corruption of the international oil business, the historical and ongoing battle for integrity in television news, Western corporate malfeasance in Africa and volatile race relations in contemporary Los Angeles.

It is a mistake to think these films were somehow timed to be part of a cultural shift. Hollywood moves very slowly—years can pass between when a project is greenlit, to actually going to camera, to post-production and theatrical release. Is it possible to trace back to the moment when these projects got off the ground, where the climate became less reactionary?

“Clearly, the 9/11 honeymoon ended with the attack on Iraq,” says Dr. Michael Cross, an expert in politics and popular culture, and a professor of Canadian Social and Cultural History at Dalhousie from 1975 to 2002. “It was so controversial, the break probably goes that far back. Which is fair enough timing for this spate of films, but the ability of the administration to censor Hollywood is always there, and we might well see it again if there is a sufficient crisis.”

Cross credits George Clooney for using his Ocean’s Eleven-anointed star clout to get the message-driven pictures Good Night, and Good Luck and Syriana made, noting Clooney comes from a political family (his father ran for public office in Kentucky as a Democrat). Cross also notes that 2005 recalls the early to mid-’60s in terms of the glaring political content of a few well-received films.

“There was a spate of political movies, most of them of quite high quality: Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, Seven Days in May, about an aborted military coup in the United States starring Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas, The Best Man,”—written by Gore Vidal and starring Henry Fonda, about nasty election-year political machinations—“and The Manchurian Candidate.”

As many Vietnam movies have shown, it doesn’t take very long for an unpopular war to make Hollywood “show its colours or exploit, depending on your point of view,” says Cross, citing Robert Altman’s virulent anti-military movie MASH, released in 1969, as an example.

What may be telling about the political films of the ’60s is they preceded the political and social shift that came later. “They were ahead of the wave,” Cross says. “It’s interesting to speculate if that’s true now—whether the movies are signaling we’re about move into a new age of activism.”

Munich is in theatres now.


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