How To Make Political Movies

From A.O. Scott's Year in Film roundup:

"Doubt," "The Reader," "Frost/Nixon," "Revolutionary Road" -- all of these transplants from stage or page are impeccably acted, exquisitely production-designed excursions into the recent past. And each one is a hermetically sealed melodrama of received thinking, feverishly advancing a set of themes that are the very opposite of provocative. The suburbs are hell on earth. Richard Nixon was a monster. Literature is good for you. Religious authority is bad. The Nazis too. Kate Winslet is hot.

Why argue? And, for all the shouting and finger pointing that goes on in these films, they exist to be admired, not argued about or with. The interesting movie debates of 2008 were incited by the populist entertainments of summertime, "Wall-E" and "The Dark Knight," contrasting allegories pitched at the anxieties of the moment. Curiously enough, the makers of "Wall-E" took it upon themselves to deny that the film was a parable of environmental devastation as well as a disarmingly sweet love story, while some who commented on "The Dark Knight" pushed the allegorical interpretation as far as it would go, reading the film as a cloaked apologia for -- unless it was a veiled critique of -- President Bush and his policies.

Yes. I wasn't in love with The Dark Knight, but my doubts had less to do with the movie's political and philosophical ambitions than with the mismatch between those ambitions and the requirements of the superhero genre. And leaving the question of the comic-book movie's limits (or lack thereof) aside, Scott has it right - both Christopher Nolan's take on Batman and Pixar's take on consumerism and catastrophe are stellar examples of how to engage with contemporary political debates without falling off into propaganda.

The fact that the two films' stylistic approaches - the one doomy and portentous, the other whimsical and puckish - otherwise couldn't be more different only makes the continuity all the more striking. And Scott puts his finger on what, precisely, that continuity is: Both films seem more interested in being argument-starters than argument-enders. (Last year's Juno had a similar quality, and as I noted in my review, WALL:E is the second recent Pixar movie - after The Incredibles, with its obvious but not too obvious libertarian thread - to pull this trick off.) There's no better goal for a filmmaker who wants to tangle with politically-charged material to aspire to - because if your audience doesn't leave the theater debating the political implications of what they've just seen, then you've produce agitprop, not art.

(This should not be construed, incidentally, as a call for more movies that depict people arguing about politics: One Lions For Lambs was quite enough, thank you.)

Ross Douthat is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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