Even in a cinematic culture where the studio that Sam Goldwyn co-founded thought a no-laugh-track version of Hogan's Heroes (Hart's War, with Bruce Willis in the Bob Crane role) was worth an $80 million investment, the triumphant return of the message movie stands out as a particularly puzzling development.
Throughout the 1990s, while high-minded critics carped about mindless action films, a potent counterforce was brewing, with the result that we suffered a raft of socially conscious pictures arguing against corporate polluters (Erin Brockovich), police misconduct (The Hurricane), the war on drugs (Traffic), the power of big tobacco (The Insider), the indiscriminate rounding up of Arabs (The Siege), and more. The trend may have reached its apotheosis this February, when John Q, a sermon on national health care whose very title announces its dedication to the common man, took in a healthy $40 million in its first two weeks.
Although Hollywood has always believed the best way to address any social ill is to make an all-star movie about it, the message movie has had a rough ride through most of film history. The oft-quoted Goldwynism, "If you want to send a message, call Western Union," should have been the last word on the matter, but that hasn't stopped producers from trying.
The modern message movie may be traced to 1947, when Elia Kazan (who would go on to direct such issue films as Pinky, A Face in the Crowd, Wild River, and On the Waterfront) came out with Gentlemen's Agreement, a lecture on the dangers of anti-Semitism. Meanwhile, Edward Dmytryk directed his own anti-anti-Semitism movie, Crossfire. This convergence of two films on the same theme was propitious, and it ushered in a brave new era of didactic pictures such as Home of the Brave (racism in the armed services) and Boomerang! (rush to judgment).
Despite Sam Goldwyn's warning, the message movie flourished after World War II. The once highly regarded producer/director Stanley Kramer served up more homilies than Bishop Fulton J. Sheen, including The Defiant Ones (moral: we're all brothers under the skin), On the Beach (nuclear war is wrong), Inherit the Wind (creationism is silly), and Home of the Brave (we're all brothers, but you can cure a black man of paralysis with racial slurs). Richard Brooks treated the "juvenile delinquency" crisis of the '50s in The Blackboard Jungle and is credited by boyish critic Leonard Maltin with forcing Hollywood to "grow up." Nicholas Ray not only blew the lid off an epidemic of castrating mother figures in Rebel Without a Cause, he warned of the growing perils of cortisone addiction in Bigger Than Life. Sidney Lumet, later famous for '70s message flicks Network (kill your television) and Serpico (cops are corrupt) offered up Twelve Angry Men (justice is everyone's responsibility) to Eisenhower's America.
Later came Norman Jewison, who directed the Sidney Poitier classic In the Heat of the Night, Sylvester Stallone's Jimmy Hoffa valentine F.I.S.T., and Al Pacino's windbag-lawyer classic …And Justice for All—and in 1999 revived his career by directing Denzel Washington in The Hurricane. If the genre produced few pictures that stand up over time, it did allow for some gripping dramas, such as Lumet's Fail Safe, and some striking moments of refreshingly unabashed agitprop, such as Salt of the Earth, the banned 1954 union film calling on the workers of the New World to unite.
By the late 1960s, however, the message movie's buttoned-down pieties, not to mention its confidence in various authority figures to solve social problems, seemed embarrassingly dated. Despite the occasional '70s Oscar magnet such as Norma Rae, social consciousness migrated to television, where the fabled mini-series Roots and countless movies of the week alerted audiences to the crises of racism, AIDS, bulimia, deadbeat dads, gay relatives, and so on.
The renaissance of big-screen, do-gooder potboilers in the 1990s, while unexpected, jibes with the middling-progressive sensibilities for which Hollywood has always been known. It's not surprising, then, that one striking feature of the current batch of messengers is that they have fitting antecedents in the old batch.
Ed Zwick, the producer/director who alternates short-lived TV entertainments (thirtysomething, My So-Called Life) with solemn celluloid encyclicals on race (Glory), civil liberties (The Siege), and mentally retarded parenting (I Am Sam), is a dead ringer for Stanley Kramer. Denzel Washington is our Sidney Poitier, the handsome everyman who nobly serves as conscience of the nation. Steven Soderbergh, the technically proficient director of Erin Brockovich and Traffic, could be the second coming of Sidney Lumet, or perhaps even the great Kazan himself (minus only the propensity to name Communist names in front of Congress).
Yet the arrival of John Q indicates the message movie is already sliding into decadence. Roger Ebert called it "the kind of movie Mad magazine prays for," and its execution is so sloppy you may get nostalgic for the subtle artistry of Judgment at Nuremberg (Kramer's thumbs-down review of Nazi Germany) or Hewitt's Just Different (an after-school special advocating kindness toward the mentally challenged).
For the first 15 minutes or so, John Q almost looks like a deft piece of agitprop, setting its message in the kind of stark terms that would make a Havana censor blush. Though ostensibly set in the present day, John Q exists in a kind of eternal movie 1975 where cars are always being repossessed, the factory is perpetually shutting down, hospitals are larded with religious statuary, an honest working man can't get a break, and even the telephones are rotary. The spectacle of Washington—an actor in constant danger of vanishing into a cloud of boring rectitude—pleading and sweating for the attention of evil bureaucrats, all to save a son who is cuter than Webster and Gary Coleman combined, is as gripping as the film gets.
The great generation of socially conscious filmmakers would have known how to create maximum tension from the film's Kafkaesque view of health care. But John Q, despite its apparent conviction that we're all waiting around for Hillary Clinton and Ira Magaziner to make us well (the script, unsurprisingly, was written in 1993), lacks the courage to build a movie around this frustration. The writer, James Kearns, who cut his teeth with TV scripts for Highway to Heaven and Jake and the Fatman, doesn't even demonstrate much awareness of how richly complicated the health care system can be.
Instead, the picture shifts into a hostage drama of white-knuckle boredom. All the clichés of hostage movies—the SWAT sniper crawling through an air duct, the crowd of unruly rubberneckers who cheer for the hostage taker, the meretricious newsman who grandly announces, "This is my white Bronco!"—get trotted out, and the burden of broadcasting the picture's propaganda falls exclusively on a series of monologues, dialogues, and pettifogs.
At one point, as soon as it's clear that nothing very big is going to happen in the standoff, the hostage taker and his charges settle in for a bull session about the ills of the contemporary health care system that seems like something you might catch on C-SPAN on a Saturday afternoon. Conveniently, the hostage crisis also kicks off a nationwide debate on the single-payer health plan. When a movie ends by recapping its themes in clips from Politically Incorrect, something's gone seriously wrong.
There may be a bigger problem here than just some poor artistic decisions. The M.O. of the classic message movie was not specifically to lecture but to dramatize the issue at hand. This is what allows pictures like The Defiant Ones and The Blackboard Jungle to stand as collectible pieces of crude popular art that, like the songs of the labor movement, can be appreciated no matter how indifferent you may be to their politics. Along the way, the heroes were pitied, the villains were booed, and we all learned a lesson. After all, if it hadn't been for the mid-'80s TV apocalypse The Day After, people would still believe nuclear wars are way cool and should be waged as often as possible.
In today's message movies, too often the issues are presented not as fodder for stirring speeches or rabble-rousing drama but because their makers seem to believe the audience needs remedial education. John Q's end titles even lay out nationwide statistics on insurance coverage and transplant waiting lists.
Hollywood dilettantes are a particularly ill-chosen group of spokespeople for uninsured families, oppressed minorities, and other huddled masses; the reliance on statistics and abstracts, rather than drama, to deliver messages may be an indication of just how far, in shared-experience terms, Tinseltown is from the people for whom it speaks. As a result, the message movie is not only back but simpler and more didactic than ever. The only question is whether audiences will be slow enough to follow along.
Tim Cavanaugh writes for Agence France-Presse, Salon, and The Washington Post.