Life in the left
With Standard Operating Procedure ruffling feathers in some corners, Joe Griffin examines why documentaries have become the refuge of left-wing film-makers
ollywood’s notorious conservatism, likely born of the inherent high-risk enterprise of making movies in the first place, is as old as cinema itself. But you don’t have to go back as far as The Birth of a Nation to find it.
Dirty Harry cemented Clint Eastwood’s place in cinematic history. His no-nonsense, rule-bending cop Harry Callahan regularly circumvented the rights afforded to suspects to get the job done. Indeed, his unconstitutional search allowed a killer to go free. Callahan then spends much of the film harassing the villainous Scorpio before executing him. The film spawned three sequels and countless imitations, and received accusations of fascism. The climax, in which Callahan kills Scorpio in self-defence, allowed the hero to have his cake and eat it: morally upright capital punishment.
This self-defence execution has since marked the finale of many action films, including Lethal Weapon, Bad Boys and the quintessential Republican action movie, Die Hard. Even James Bond, arguably the only non-American mainstream action hero of our day, uses a license to kill and enthusiastically embraces misogyny and xenophobia – sometimes both at once!
Right-wing adventures are popular with both the left and the right because they take place in a simpler, less morally complex world. The concept of punishing evil-doers harshly with more regard for revenge than justice is a scarily seductive one. Or, to put it another way, suspending ideology is as easy as suspending disbelief.
So whither the mainstream manifestos of the left? Well, Hollywood actors have often leaned to the left, and many have shepherded political projects to the big screen. However, usually they tend to be “issue” movies, or award-bait such as Whose Life Is It Anyway? (which discussed euthanasia), Syriana (American politics relating to oil) and Goodnight and Good Luck (McCarthyism).
When Hollywood tries to push a left agenda while simultaneously providing entertainment, it often comes across as shrill (The Life of David Gale) or anemic (Rendition). Even when liberal films openly court young audiences via hip-hop and broad laughs, such as Warren Beatty’s outrageous Bulworth, audiences stay away.
The US invasion of Iraq spawned a slew of films about the issue. Most of them criticised the conflict and none made much money, despite the presence of big stars such as Samuel L Jackson (Home of the Brave), John Cusack (Grace is Gone), and Tom Cruise (Lions for Lambs).
It seems the best the left can hope for are metaphors in the likes of X-Men (an analogy for gay rights or the American civil rights movement, depending on who you talk to), 28 Weeks Later (a horror movie metaphor for the occupation of Iraq), or the sight of Jason Bourne reading the Guardian.
All of this makes the success of a certain handful of documentaries especially surprising. Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine, which grossed more than Rendition, Lions for Lambs and In the Valley of Elah combined, was vitriolic, engaging and, most importantly, profitable. Moore puts himself centre-
Hstage of his films and aggressively argues his point with a heady cocktail of laughs, facts and conjecture. He understands the appeal of being part Errol Morris, part PT Barnum.
Documentaries can highlight issues in a shocking, simple way that drama cannot. Consider Errol Morris’s breakthrough work, The Thin Blue Line. This documentary tells the story of an innocent man sentenced to life imprisonment. The premise sounds like a cliched TV movie, but Morris’s matter-of-fact account let the protagonists and antagonists speaks for themselves. The resulting film not only packs a narrative wallop, but changed the outcome of the case. Would this have happened if it were a conventional drama?
Morris’s style – meticulously researched, relatively low-key examinations of serious issues (admittedly accompanied by the occasionally delirious Phillip Glass composition) is undeniably powerful. His current film, Standard Operating Procedure, has already sparked more discussion than the wave of well-intentioned post-Iraq Hollywood movies.
The only problem with all of this is that it’s preaching to the converted: few Red State voters, for example, are likely to pay to hear Michael Moore’s latest diatribe, but rightwing action movies cross borders and cultural divides effortlessly.
Onefilm that’s likely to ruffle feathers will be out in time for the US presidential election. Judging by the trailer, broad laughs, strong opinions and big issues will jostle for audience’s attention in Oliver Stone’s George Bush biopic, simply called W.
is out today and is reviewed on page 12
The right stuff: a hard-boiled, sharp-suited Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry