David Denby, New York magazine’s influential film critic, sent a shock wave through Hollywood last summer with a damning indictment of American cinema headlined “Can the movies be saved?” Denby lamented that marquees across North America were offering an increasingly bleak range of options—violent revenge pictures in the Rambo mould, crass comedies about spoiled teenagers and special-effects extravaganzas. Denby’s attack voiced a common concern. But now, less than a year later, the state of the screen has visibly changed: once again, Hollywood is getting serious.
Mature movies focusing on America’s troubled conscience—especially the indelible stain left by Vietnam—are suddenly fashionable. The most obvious example: Platoon, a grunt’s-eye view of Vietnam that won four Oscars and has grossed more than $160 million at the box office. Platoon has supplanted director Francis Coppola’s 1979 epic Apocalypse Now as the war movie to end war movies. But now Coppola has released Gardens of Stone (page 57), which explores the Vietnam trauma from yet another angle, that of the ceremonial soldiers back home who must bury America’s Vietnam dead. The battle-scarred jungles of Platoon and the manicured graveyards of Gardens form symmetrical halves of the same nightmare.
Movies with a social conscience are not new to Hollywood. From the working-class politics of 1954’s On The Waterfront to the antinuclear intrigue of 1983’s Silkwood, film-makers have often forged drama from the furnace of social conflict. But the industry’s political mood swings closely mirror those of the country. And now, with scandals weakening the conservative Reagan administration,
Hollywood’s basic liberal instincts are reviving. A new generation of independent producers is stretching the frontiers of what is commercially viable onscreen. Impressed by their success, studio executives have learned that social vision can be a marketable commodity. Says Gardens of Stone producer Michael Levy: “The people who finance and distribute films are getting a sense of America’s conscience. They’re aware that today’s audience wants to deal with real subjects.”
Re-examining Vietnam is now a major obsession. Veteran director Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, 2001: A Space Odyssey) adds his gothic touch to the cinematic inquest with next month’s release of Full Metal Jacket, a story set during Hanoi’s 1968 Tet Offensive. Gar-
dens of Stone is a sympathetic portrait of the military as a misguided and maligned family business—not unlike the Mafia in Coppola’s The Godfather films—addressing heartland America’s hunger for reconciliation.
But Vietnam also provides a vivid metaphor for current U.S. military involvement in Central America. And the success of director Oliver Stone’s Platoon has drawn attention to his other independently produced film, Salvador. After limited theatrical distribution, Salvador’s Central American drama is now a hit on home video. Meanwhile, Hollywood producers are now preparing new and potentially controversial movies about the conflicts in Nicaragua and El Salvador.
An element of social advocacy has even begun to creep into Hollywood’s more escapist fare. Last year’s box-office champion, Top Gun, was a jingoistic tribute to the school that trains the U.S. navy’s fighter-pilot elite. One of this season’s most popular movies, Project X, also deals with a young airman (Matthew Broderick) whose father is a military hero. But Broderick’s character becomes a savior for a squadron of chimpanzees subjected to lethal doses of radiation. Project X coproducer Walter Parkes did not set out to make “a message movie” about animal rights. “But if it brings about a residual raising of consciousness,” said Parkes, “so much the better.” Meanwhile, executives at Tri-
Star Pictures are releasing a new antinuclear movie, Amazing Grace and Chuck. Starring Gregory Peck, it is a fable about a young boy who is so horrified by a visit to a missile silo that he gives up playing baseball to protest against nuclear weapons and triggers a global disarmament movement.
The makers of Amazing Grace had to build a mock missile silo after the U.S. defence department refused their request to film a real one. But the U.S. army gave full co-operation to Gardens of Stone, its first large-scale collaboration with Hollywood since helping John Wayne romanticize Vietnam involvement in 1968’s The Green Berets. The army generals were so pleased with Coppola’s movie that they awarded him a citizen’s medal. “It’s a pro-army antiwar film,” said Anjelica Huston, who portrays a peace activist in love with a military veteran. “Attitudes in Hollywood are changing, but so is the public consciousness.”
One clear sign of change is that Ed Asner is working again. In 1982 CBS killed Asner’s Lou Grant series after its sponsor complained about the actor’s public stance against U.S. policy in El Salvador. An unofficial blacklist hampered Asner’s career for four years. But Asner—now starring in NBC TV’s drama Bronx Zoo— says Hollywood is more tolerant of U.S. foreign policy critics. And the acceptance of Platoon, he adds, is “a great step forward to offset the Rambo mentality.”
Attempts to bring Third World struggles to the screen have found support in unlikely quarters. Richard Gere (.American Gigolo) plans to star in a movie based on the El Salvador experiences of
American physician Charlie Clements, the subject of last year’s Oscar-winning documentary, Witness To War. And with the backing of Universal Pictures, British director Alex Cox (Sid & Nancy) has spent April in Nicaragua shooting Walker, based on the true story of American zealot William Walker, who invaded Nicaragua in 1855 and declared himself president.
Hollywood and the U.S. military share a common trait: they are two of the most powerful sources of American influence abroad. As the military makes history, Hollywood’s rearguard draws up a big-screen balance sheet of heroes and villains, aggressors and victims. In his filmed monologue, Swimming to Cambodia, actor Spalding Gray recounts his experience working on The Killing Fields in Thailand: he calls such movies “war therapy.” Hollywood magic may not cure America of its traumatic ills. But it is creating evermore adventurous forms of treatment.
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