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The movie that wasn't made

Books and Movies 2006 | So many of today's "message movies" are like messages in a bottle, dealing with yesterday's struggles. Movies about today's underdogs would have a much different focus

Issue: "Books and Movies 2006," July 1, 2006

Samuel Goldwyn once advised would-be moviemakers that if they wanted to send a message they should call Western Union. Despite Goldwyn's advice, Hollywood has never quelled the impulse to send a message, and still cannot. Look at this past spring's Best Picture nominees: Brokeback Mountain, ostensibly a romance, argues for the legitimacy of gay relationships; Capote speaks to capital punishment; Good Night, and Good Luck warns us that McCarthyism must never be repeated; Munich teaches that revenge sours the soul and only leads to more revenge. The Oscar winner, Crash, offers various lessons about racism.

Nothing wrong with that. Some of the greatest works of literature have carried messages. Tolstoy's novels are full of lessons, and so are the novels of Dostoevsky, Dickens, Austen, Melville, and even Oscar Wilde (for example, The Picture of Dorian Gray). There should be no objection to a well-made movie that has a lesson to convey, as long as the lesson is not one that already has been drilled into us for decades. The problem with this past year's Best Picture five is not that they contain messages but that the messages are out-of-date. They are like messages in a bottle, sent out years ago, and referring to yesterday's struggles-particularly the struggles that revolve around civil-rights and social-justice issues.

It's not that civil-liberties issues aren't worthy of attention, but that for at least the last 40 years, Hollywood has had the same take on them-namely, that the story must focus on the cause of someone, preferably an underdog, who questions traditional social rules or constraints. Or, more to the point, someone who represents a cause favored by liberals. Thus in recent years we have been treated to such message movies as The People vs. Larry Flint, Cider House Rules, Vera Drake, Dead Man Walking, Kinsey, Million Dollar Baby, and now, Brokeback Mountain. If Hollywood continues much longer along this predictable path, audiences may begin to feel like dead men watching.

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The most interesting aspect of such films, however, is not the Groundhog Day sense of déjà vu they evoke, but the way in which the causes that are championed move quickly from the margins of society to the center. Indeed, many of these causes have been in the mainstream for decades. Are champions of abortion, such as Vera Drake, still the underdogs? Do pornographers such as Larry Flint lack legitimacy? Are gays still outcasts lacking power and voice? Was Kinsey not already a hero in his own day? Hollywood prides itself on following new lines of inquiry-indeed one of the top film companies bills itself as New Line Cinema-but much of what is offered seems like more of the same old line.

We've become so used to this stale stuff that it's difficult to imagine any way to frame civil-liberties/social-justice issues other than within the hoary liberal formula. But, in fact, there is a world of fresh material available, and a universe of new civil-liberties stories waiting to be translated to the silver screen. Rather than spend more time reviewing the movies that garnered awards this year, let's wonder about the movies that weren't made-and ask the question, Why not?

As a help to traveling along this new line of thought I've sketched out some storylines for some of the movies that weren't made last year, but should have been. These unsung films (unsung because they were never made) bring to light a whole new set of civil-liberties issues the public deserves to know about. They are the kind of movies filmmakers would make if they really aspired to be on the cutting edge. Note that the underdogs in these stories are truly underdogs, and that the previous underdogs are now often the top dogs.

Script Outline A: The People vs. Pastor Smith. A Canadian pastor is arrested for speaking out against gay marriage from the pulpit. A trial ensues, surrounded by much publicity. Powerful gay-interest groups call for Pastor Smith's removal from the ministry. Newspapers attack him. Friends desert him. His faith is shaken, and he has temporary doubts, but he struggles on in his effort to witness to the gospel. A gay lawyer, a man of much integrity, agrees to take on this unpopular case. He is called a traitor to his side and receives death threats. Nevertheless, he provides a brilliant and spirited defense of his client's right to freedom of religion and freedom of speech.

But even this seems not enough. Witness after witness for the prosecution accuses Pastor Smith of hate speech and intolerance. The case seems lost. At the last minute, however, a witness comes forward. He is an AIDS victim, close to death. He testifies movingly to Pastor Smith's compassion and good will-how the pastor had visited him, consoled him, prayed with him. People are moved; others are shamed. Many rally back to the pastor's side. His lawyer delivers an eloquent closing plea for justice and free expression. The court finds Pastor Smith not guilty. A blow is struck for freedom of conscience.

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