Hollywood Sends a Message?

After hearing the list of Oscar nominees Tuesday morning, you might have thought Hollywood was trying to send a message with its best-picture choices.

It’s not a stretch, given the increased criticism for liberal politics that movies and the entertainment industry in general have taken since the beginning of the millennium, some of it unwarranted, some of it completely justified.

Look at the best-picture category and you see “Brokeback Mountain,” a movie about two cowboys who carry on a decades-long love affair; “Crash,” a searing examination of racism in this country; “Good Night, and Good Luck,” which chastises the government and media using the battle between legendary CBS journalist Edward R. Murrow and Sen. Joseph McCarthy; and “Munich,” which filters the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum through the events after the Munich Olympics in 1972. Even the other nominee, “Capote,” could tweak a few noses because its title character, celebrity author Truman Capote, was gay.

Of course, “Brokeback” did well in the preliminaries, winning awards from the Screen Actors Guild, Producers Guild of America and Directors Guild of America, all of which make up a significant membership in the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the group that doles out Oscars.

At the risk of offending a segment of the population, I’ll say it may be worthy of its nomination, but there are a few films I deemed better in 2005. Lushly filmed by Ang Lee, superbly acted by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, and languid at times, “Brokeback Mountain” would be a classic love story were it not for the fact that it involves two cowboys, the cultural ideal of macho.

But given the recent debates about gay marriage and the willingness of citizens of some states to convey second-class status on homosexuals, it’s the right movie at the right time because it dispels stereotypes of gays and lesbians as promiscuous child molesters. It opens dialogue and gives viewers the opportunity to think.

The same is true for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a movie directed by Hollywood’s uber-liberal George Clooney. The story of Murrow’s pursuit of McCarthy is one of power run amok, but it also examines what should happen in a democracy when the system is working reasonably well. In some ways it was nostalgic, because in that film we got a little hint of the partisan politics that pervade the system and polarize the electorate today. As shown by Clooney, the good of the country was indeed on the minds of those elected to serve.

“Good Night” also reminded those of us who work in the media what our role should be – that of watchdog. We need to ask those in power tough questions, get them answered truthfully, and hold responsible those who evade or lie.

“Munich” poses a question that Middle East watchers don’t seem capable of answering: Will there ever be peace between Israel and the Palestinians when each side believes bloodshed is the answer to bloodshed? Since “Cinderella Man” (the best film of the year in my opinion) received no recognition in this category, “Munich” would be my choice to win. Director Steven Spielberg examines the underlying causes of Sept. 11, explores the issues and shows there is no easy solution.

Much the same can be said of director Paul Haggis’ “Crash,” arguably the most personal and intimate film of the lot. It’s heartbreaking without being melodramatic, and given that racism and bigotry still divide this country in some respects – just look at perceptions after Hurricane Katrina — its exploration of the issue remains compelling and relevant.

They say the arts reflect the attitude and state of the culture. When the Red Scare was prominent in the 1950s and early ’60s, Hollywood launched a steady stream of alien invasion movies. In the late ’60s and beyond, the perceived innocence of the prior 15 years was stripped away in favor of gritty realism, depicted in movies such as “Bonnie and Clyde” and “Midnight Cowboy.”

What do these nominations say about America today? That despite being the leader of the world, we are sorely in need of leadership, mutual understanding and guidance.