FILMS

Hollywood gets serious

Big topics are getting big-screen treatment

Brian D. Johnson January 10 1994
FILMS

Hollywood gets serious

Big topics are getting big-screen treatment

Brian D. Johnson January 10 1994

Hollywood gets serious

FILMS

Big topics are getting big-screen treatment

Traditionally, Hollywood movies have offered an escape from reality. But anyone venturing into a cinema these days should be prepared to grapple with some weighty themes: the Nazi Holocaust (Schindler’s List), discrimination against gays (Philadelphia), police-state horrors in Northern Ireland (In the Name of the Father), wartime atrocities in Vietnam (Heaven and Earth), the decimation of American Indians (Geronimo), and the smug hypocrisy of white liberal America (Six Degrees of Separation). Even the season’s goofiest farce, Mrs. Doubtfire, ends on a note of social responsibility—with a sermon designed to reassure children of divorced parents.

It is not unusual for Hollywood to bring out its more serious movies at the end of the year, in time for Oscar consideration. But it is hard to remember a season with such a heavy lineup of issue-oriented films. “Studios try to make a balance of movies over the year,” says Mark Gill, a senior vice-president with Columbia Pictures in Los Angeles. “Some are designed only to make truckloads of money, and some try to say something meaningful about our world and hopefully make a modest profit or break even. But you could say the balance has shifted towards more socially responsible films.” Venturing an explanation, Gill adds: “With the state of the world economy and the rise of neo-Nazism, it’s a reflective time. Also, the population is getting older, more sophisticated. You have to make a better movie than you did years ago.” Leading the trend is Steven Spielberg, who has made what many

critics have hailed as the movie of the year. The true story of German industrialist Oskar Schindler, who rescued 1,100 Polish Jews from Nazi death camps, Schindler’s List is a graphic and unforgettable re-creation of the Holocaust. With its stark, black-and-white images, it unfolds like a simulated documentary. But the scenes of Schindler in his own world are as luxuriously shadowed as Casablanca’s. Then, as the two worlds merge, the documentary becomes a fable, the story of a wealthy impresario who discovers his conscience—filmed by a wealthy impresario who seems to have discovered his conscience.

For Spielberg, the evolutionary leap from Jurassic Park to Schindler’s List marks a rite of passage: Hollywood’s most successful fantasy merchant grows up and gets serious. And with that coming of age, he may be emblematic of his generation. Jonathan Demme, a director who has built a career on stylish confections of slim moral consequence, has nudged homosexuality out of the Hollywood closet with Philadelphia, the first movie about AIDS by a major studio.

Only two years ago, gay activists denounced Demme’s Silence of the Lambs for portraying a serial killer as a transvestite (who stitched his skirts from his victims’ skin). The director quarrelled with the criticisms. But he now concedes that making Philadelphia was partly an act of atonement, an attempt to erase a tradition of gay screen stereotypes that he may have inadvertently reinforced. In trying to get his message across in Philadelphia, however, Demme found himself

straining to conform to another stereotype—the cliché of Hollywood narrative. “I kept trying to pump it up for the shopping malls,” he says, “desperate to attract a big audience.”

Blending propaganda into art is a delicate business: sometimes the lumps of social commentary simply refuse to dissolve. Two new releases, In the Name of the Father and Heaven and Earth, dramatize episodes of political injustice with vastly different results. Both movies are based on true and harrowing sagas of innocent bystanders who get trapped in the crossfire of history. But Heaven and Earth, the third chapter of Oliver Stone’s Vietnam trilogy (after Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July), is a bombastic opus that seems fuelled by guilt and shame. With In the Name of the Father, Irish director Jim Sheridan (My Left Foot) has fused the political and the personal to forge a brilliant drama, a movie incandescent with rage, compassion and wit.

In the Name of the Father tells the story of what is arguably one of the greatest miscarriages of justice in modern British history. Daniel Day-Lewis plays Gerry Conlon, one of the famous Guildford Four, who spent 15 years in an English prison for a terrorist crime they did not commit. Based on Conlon’s autobiography, the movie begins in the early 1970s, with breathtaking scenes of rioters battling British troops in Belfast. Conlon, a petty thief on the run, gets mixed up in the rock-throwing melee. The action unfolds to the psychedelic strains of Voodoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix—establishing a link between the counterculture and political culture that becomes a thread of the film.

But Conlon, a dope-smoking layabout, has no political interests. Leaving his family after a fight with his father, he moves into a hippie squat in London. One October night in 1974, Conlon and his friend Paul Hill (John Lynch) sleep in a park.

The same night, bombs explode in two Guildford pubs (near London) killing five people. Rounding up suspects under the sweeping powers of the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the police jail Conlon, Hill and two of their friends. The authorities extract confessions by torture and intimidation. And, as Conlon discovers much later, they suppress evidence substantiating his alibi. They also bury testimony from genuine IRA terrorists who have confessed to the bombings—and whose fingerprints match those at the bomb sites.

In the Name of the Father presents a staggering tale of injustice. But it also contains a moving father-son drama.

Conlon’s law-abiding father, Giuseppe (Pete Postlethwaite), is convicted as a coconspirator in the bombings. The Godfearing patriarch ends up sharing a cell with the prodigal son. Over the years, the relationship changes Gerry, and he begins to fight for his freedom. With the help of a persistent lawyer (Emma Thompson) who uncovers the suppressed evidence, the Guildford Four’s convictions are finally overturned in 1989.

With a galvanizing performance that spans two decades, Day-Lewis makes an utterly credible transition from shuffling delinquent to resilient political prisoner. It is the most powerful performance of his career, eclipsing even his Oscar-winning work in Sheridan’s My Left Foot. Thompson, meanwhile, acts with familiar plucky conviction— and incurred the wrath of Britain’s tabloid press just for appearing in the film. Although In the Name of the Father takes a clear stand against IRA violence, the movie’s evisceration of British injustice has touched a nerve at a time when IRA bombings continue unabated.

Heaven and Earth lacks that kind of immediacy. It never quite gets beyond the personal war that Oliver Stone appears to be waging with his conscience. The director, a Vietnam combat veteran, now looks at

the war from other side, through the eyes of the enemy. His movie, a 140-minute epic spanning nearly four decades, is based on an ordeal suffered by Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese peasant girl whose life was shattered by the war. The story, which Stone adapted from two autobiographical books by Hayslip, catalogues a relentless barrage of abuse. Over the course of the film, she becomes a victim of torture and rape, a servant for a Saigon playboy who gets her pregnant, a cynical black marketeer, a prostitute, a war bride and a disaffected suburban housewife in California.

The movie has its merits. As Hayslip, first-time actress Hiep Thi Le gives a game, credible performance. As the tarnished white knight who whisks her off to America, Tommy Lee Jones works up to a visceral portrayal of a vet on the verge of a nervous breakdown. And in restaging the Vietnam conflict, Stone found some stunning locations in rural Thailand.

But, although Hayslip’s story is a heart-wrenching one, the moviemaking keeps getting in the way. The characters have to compete with a sound track that has all the subtlety of a B-52. Stone’s script amplifies her experience into a melodrama packed with one soap-opera episode after another. Hayslip’s rape, which is replayed through the movie—a recurring flash of exposed breast in the jungle—seems unduly titillating. And the heroine, a lotus flower trampled by history, never transcends her role as an idealized victim. She is Stone’s Miss Saigon.

The high point of the movie, oddly enough, is her arrival in suburban America. Conveying her wide-eyed culture shock, the camera cuts abruptly from Indochina to a world of monster cars, obese women and a fridge as big as a bed. For once, Stone’s hyperbole offers comic relief. But on the whole, Heaven and Earth is dreadfully literal, right down to its pious moral: Stone cleanses America’s guilt with the balm of Buddhism, suggesting that Hayslip’s suffering—the war, the whole shooting match—is just a massive case of bad karma.

Closer to home, Six Degrees of Separation offers a satirical take on divisions of class, race and sexual preference in America. Based on the hit Broadway play by John Guare, and inspired by a true story, it is about a young, black, homosexual con artist named Paul (Will Smith) who wheedles his way into the Manhattan home of a high-society art dealer and his wife—by claiming to be the son of Sidney Poitier. Donald Sutherland, splendidly cast as a voluptuary, and Stockard Channing, reprising her stage role, play the couple, Flan and Ouisa Kittredge. Ironically, they are entertaining a rich South African client (Ian McKellen) when Paul stumbles into their apartment.

The play was performed primarily on a bare stage. But Australian director Fred Schepisi has invested the movie with a visual luxury, filming the couple’s Upper East Side apartment as a bordello-red jewel box adorned with art. The action, however, seems stagy. The intellectual elegance of the play’s dialogue, so forgivable in the theatre, seems unnatural on-screen. Six Degrees of Separation comes across as a filmed play. Still, it is a great play, rippling with provocative insights. And the idea behind the title—that everyone on the planet is just six persons removed from everyone else—is a fitting paradigm for social responsibility at the end of the millennium. Especially in Hollywood, which is still trying to overcome a profound sense of separation from the world at large.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON