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 The problem with this past year's Best Picture five is not that they contain messages but that the messages are out-of-date.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.
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.
Is that plot farfetched? Not at all. Pastors and priests in Europe have already been brought before the courts for criticizing homosexual behavior.
Let's move to Script Outline B: Home Is Where the Heart Is. The happy life of a Christian homeschooling family is disrupted when the parents are arrested for a technical violation of the schooling laws. The court orders them to stop homeschooling and requires them to enroll their four children in public schools where they will receive proper "socialization." In school the children are teased mercilessly for their modest dress and their ignorance of pop culture. The two girls are sexually harassed in the corridors. In class the children are subjected to politically correct versions of history and literature.
The movie continues with Michael, the oldest, getting in trouble with his biology teacher for offering an intelligent defense of intelligent design. Polly, his younger sister, receives an "F" for an essay that questions her teacher's feminist take on Pride and Prejudice. Eleven-year-old Faith is humiliated in her sex-education class when she is forced to participate in a unit on condom use. Nine-year-old Samuel begins to succumb to his school's conditioning process. One day he arrives home proudly wearing a badge that proclaims "It's OK to be Gay." Tensions increase in the family. Relationships are strained almost to the breaking point. Mr. and Mrs. Goodwin request that all their children be opted out of sex-ed classes. Their request is refused. They ask to see their daughter's social studies curriculum. Again they are refused.
The situation is bleak, but finally the family files suit. A homeschool legal defense team vindicates their rights in court while exposing the school officials for the totalitarian ideologues they are. Meanwhile, newly enlightened parents in the school district band together to demand the resignation of the school board, superintendent, and principals. The old corrupt order crumbles. The Goodwin family is once again allowed to homeschool their children, and harmony is restored.
Once again, there is nothing far-fetched about the plot. It is a composite of incidents that happen every day in America. The only fantasy element is the notion that an enlightened parent group could actually reform the system. Administrators, teachers, and their supporters in the NEA are more firmly entrenched in power than the union bosses in On the Waterfront.
Let's look at Script Outline C: Veritas. All hell breaks loose at Midwestern University when Professor Harrison Jones innocently assigns his students to research the topic of women's underachievement in the sciences. Coached by their women's studies professor, a handful of female students go to the dean to denounce Jones. He is accused of hate speech, insensitivity, and chauvinism, and is hauled before a faculty/student review panel. Demonstrations erupt across campus. In the campus newspaper and on the quad, students and faculty call for Jones' dismissal. Once-friendly colleagues shun him. His office and his car are vandalized. Meanwhile, a subplot develops, revolving around an Orthodox Jewish student who refuses to participate in the mandatory co-ed dorm program for freshmen. He is warned that he must comply, and must further submit to sensitivity awareness training, or else be expelled.
At the low point of his life, Professor Jones begins to fight back. He eloquently defends the right to free inquiry. Only one lone colleague gives him moral support, but he finds an unexpected ally in Dr. Jill Jensen, a young assistant professor in the philosophy department. She admires Jones for his courage, and as a student of Plato and Aristotle she takes ethics seriously.
Knowing that she risks her own tenure prospects, Jensen conducts an informal investigation in which she discovers that the university has a double standard. The women's studies professor who instigated the attack on Jones tells her own students that all men are rapists, and despite her talk of "inclusivity" will hire only lesbians to teach in her department. A professor in multicultural studies proclaims that all white people are mentally ill, yet he receives honors and promotions. Professor Jensen also finds the university has an unofficial policy of canceling invitations to outside speakers who are deemed politically incorrect. Finally, she and Jones discover that the head of the Mid-East Studies Department has been funneling federal national security funds into the coffers of terrorist groups.
Armed with this information, Jones and Jensen go to a wealthy benefactor, an alumnus of the university. Incensed by these revelations, the philanthropist alerts several of his friends and fellow benefactors. Together they go to the university president and board of trustees, threatening to suspend all further support unless reforms are made.
Meanwhile, the family of the Orthodox student has hired a civil-rights lawyer who threatens a lawsuit that will expose the university's hypocrisy and its suppression of choice. The administration caves in. Jones is reinstated. The women's studies professor and the multicultural studies professor are reprimanded. The head of the Mid-East Studies Department receives a visit from the FBI. Jones and Jensen realize that they are meant for each other; they decide to get married.
In the final scene Professor Jones is in front of his class once more. It is the last class of the semester, and toward the end he talks earnestly about the importance of academic freedom and urges his students to remember that they should always put the search for truth above personal feelings and animosities. When he finishes the room is silent. Then a lone student begins to clap. She is joined by another, then another. Soon the whole class, even those who were reluctant at first, are on their feet applauding.
Again, all of these incidents, even the misallocation of federal funds by the Mid-East Studies Department, have a basis in fact. Today's reality is that the impulse to run roughshod over civil rights and due process comes mainly from left-leaning establishments such as the universities. This is why a movie such as Good Night, and Good Luck is so out-of-sync with present realities. It's another of those message-in-a-bottle movies that reveal an industry intent on fighting yesterday's battles. Hollywood seems incapable of understanding that there is a new strain of McCarthyism, and that it emanates from the left, not the right.
There is another reason why Good Night, and Good Luck ought rightly to be regarded as a museum piece. In suggesting that there was no real threat to national security then (although the Venona Papers say otherwise), the film implies that there is no real threat today. Since 9/11 it's been difficult to miss the fact that Islamic terrorism is a real threat, possibly the biggest threat that we've ever faced, but Hollywood manages to miss it. True, Munich does deal with terrorism, but it does so in a very strange way. The viewer is left with the impression that, although terrorism is a bad thing, there is no specific Islamic threat to the world's security; rather, terror is presented in terms of an intertribal dispute. The film comes close to accepting the slander that it is somehow the stubbornness of Israel that invites terror.
Not only does Hollywood miss the real civil-rights issues of the day, it also manages to miss the gathering storm that is now darkening the horizon. Once again we are left to wonder about the movies that aren't being made. In that spirit of curiosity let me suggest two more candidates for Phantom Film of the year.
First, here's Script Outline D: See No Evil. A rough-mannered radio talk show host speaks out against "Islamo-fascism" one too many times. When his body is found the next day, the note stabbed to his chest leaves no doubt about the motive. Police investigate leads in the local Muslim community but back off when Islamic pressure groups together with civil-liberties organizations complain about ethnic profiling. One stubborn detective persists, however, and with the help of his Muslim partner conducts his own investigation-an investigation that leads into a labyrinthine world of mosques, madrassas, and arranged marriages.
Finally, with the aid of moderate Muslims who both fear and despise the radicals, the detectives are able to track down the killer and his cell. A fiery gun battle erupts and only ends with the death of several of the terrorists and the arrest of the others. In the closing scene another talk show host, a rival to the slain man, now shaken to his senses by the tragic event, honors his rival's courage and takes up the cause of awakening his own listeners to the new fascism in their midst.
In Script Outline E: Three Days of Terror, a team of Islamic terrorists takes over a Christian school in a suburban American town. They hold the students and teachers hostage, rig the school with bombs, and make impossible demands. Traumatized parents, television crews, and SWAT teams gather outside. Negotiations go nowhere. The terrorists threaten to kill one student for every hour of delay. Numerous acts of courage and self-sacrifice by students and teachers are observed. Interactions between teachers and terrorists highlight the clash of civilizations. There is conflict among the terrorists themselves. Some of them never realized it would go this far. One of the dissenters is shot.
Then, troubled by his conscience (one of the schoolchildren whose picture appears on TV resembles his own son), a Muslim activist with inside knowledge of the operation goes to the FBI. With his information, and because of the actions of three heroic teachers, the SWAT teams are able to rescue the children with a minimum loss of life. In the final scene parents and children tearfully reunite; teachers comfort students and one another. Interviewed by reporters, one of the heroic teachers makes a moving plea to his fellow citizens to avoid reprisals and instead to work together with Muslims of good faith. The camera pans up to the cross over the school entrance. The symbol suggests both the source of the teachers' strength and the possibility of more struggles and suffering to come.
A skilled screenwriter could undoubtedly come up with better versions of these stories. The point is that these stories-or stories like them-are the stories of our time. They represent the battles that need to be fought now. Not all movies need to be message movies, but if Hollywood wants to deal with issues, why not deal with the crucial issues of the moment?
That would be a change-and change is supposedly what Hollywood wants. One book of advice for aspiring screenwriters promises that if you can come up with a new twist on an old plot, the Hollywood executive's face will light up and he'll exclaim, "No one's ever done that before!" But the reality seems somewhat different. The long list of missing movies suggests that the stories "no one's ever done before" are precisely the stories that Hollywood executives would rather not even think about.
-William Kilpatrick is the author of Why Johnny Can't Tell Right from Wrong