So, ladies and germs, it's time for the big award. We've listened to a faintly hip and vaguely political TV host crack wise about our president, the one hardly anybody in this room voted for. We've seen cheesy musical numbers, at a level of bogosity that has made us ache for the craftsmanship and aesthetic integrity of "American Idol." We've gasped with horror at the atrocious and expensive gowns, and listened as millionaires tearfully thanked their accountants, their nannies and their second-grade teachers back in Chillicothe.
Can I have the envelope, please? I may slit it open gracefully, or rip it apart manfully, like an eager lover busting the strap of some Victoria's Secret undergarment. I'll make that decision on impulse. Let's get a drum roll. Let's flicker the lights meaningfully. OK. Now. And the winner is ...
No, silly, these aren't the Oscars. These are the LGAs -- you know, the Liberal Guilt Awards, otherwise known as the Guilties, in which Hollywood congratulates itself for its general condition of progressive enlightenment and lectures the rest of us from its newfound position of half-baked moral seriousness. Now, strange to tell, this year's nominated films are exactly the same for both the Academy Awards and the LGAs. You could argue, in fact, that as Hollywood has pulled a long face in the last year and cranked out one feel-bad soapbox flick after another, the Oscars have pretty much become a liberal-guilt-apalooza.
OK, so the LGAs don't really exist. But we decided they should, at least this time around. In a year when America shuffled along under a president nobody likes (or at least nobody in Hollywood), trapped in an endless and dreary war nobody likes (ditto, although I'm not sure anybody else is too crazy about it either), it seemed like the way to get an awards nomination was to deliver a sober, bordering-on-soporific movie that tackled Meaningful Social Issues while beautiful people stared into each other's eyes over an ululating, quasi-ethnic soundtrack.
Admittedly that description also applies to those lovingly produced commercials for mysterious pharmaceuticals that dominate late-night television. But this is nonetheless the year in which Oscar-nominated films have been attacked for being too soft on homosexuals, Arab terrorists, black street criminals and communists. (So far as I know, nobody has accused "Good Night, and Good Luck" of going too easy on Joe McCarthy.) Conversely, I'm sure somebody somewhere feels that some of those movies were too tough on those categories of people. (I can guarantee that Ann Coulter and her band of blood-drinking cyborgs see "Good Night" as a slur against St. Joe's name.)
In search of the picture most deserving of a Guilty -- for most egregious achievement in pompous, self-important message delivery -- I came at the best picture nominees relatively fresh. I had seen only one of them before taking on this assignment, and since I mostly cover low-budget independent film, watching these lush, expensive, manipulative productions one after the other was something like eating birthday cake for dinner for a week.
At the same time, I'll admit that I'm not altogether unhappy about Hollywood's latest bout of compulsive seriousness (even if making fun of it is irresistible). In general, I prefer the mainstream movie world in its soul-searching mode than in its fun-loving and/or life-celebrating mode. Mostly that's a question of craft, not morality: All the nominated films this year are well made and packaged with earnest attentiveness, and generally adopt the notion that mainstream audiences might possess brains and be willing to deal with some level of moral ambiguity. For various reasons, most of them bad, audiences for romances, comedies and action films are generally assumed to be morons who require regular doses of electrification to keep them awake.
All these movies have previously been reviewed on Salon, and admirably so, by my colleague and pal Stephanie Zacharek. Our opinions coincide in some cases and differ in others, but I didn't try to rereview these movies so much as unpack the message they're delivering and the politics, if any, they come wrapped in. When it comes to handing out the Guilty -- a semi-abstract sculpture representing the unity of all peoples and an end to hunger and warfare, or perhaps just representing Angelina Jolie (which comes to the same thing in the end) -- the choice was absolutely clear.
So. Let's back up a little. The nominees are
Message: A three-parter, as I see it. 1) Real, manly men sometimes like to, you know, do it with other real, manly men. 2) Gay people who had to live in the closet were damaged or even destroyed by the experience. 3) The effects of closeted sexuality were more widespread than that; it damaged the American Family, dammit!
Signature moment: Naive young wife (Michelle Williams) opening the screen door to find hunky cowpoke husband (Heath Ledger) in deep, enthusiastic snogulation with "fishing buddy."
Comments: Despite the mostly idiotic furor around this movie -- a lot of it fomented by people who haven't seen it -- I found "Brokeback Mountain" perhaps the least, or second-least, preachy of the nominated films. It's a lovely, laconic landscape picture that offers no social prescriptions and never (or almost never) offers you a character locking his knees in front of that beautiful mountain scenery and delivering a speech. Yes, Jack (Jake Gyllenhaal) repeatedly accuses Ennis (Ledger) of lacking the courage to leave his wife and kids to shack up together in a double-bachelor blissful wonderland. But the screenplay (by Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana) offers no assurances that moral courage would be enough to rescue Jack and Ennis from the world of total homophobia that surrounds them, a world they themselves have accepted and imbibed. And to me, "Brokeback's" real subject matter is the way closeted sexuality corroded an entire society, dragging spouses, lovers, kids, friends and random bystanders into its maelstrom of lies and deception. While I never felt emotionally overwhelmed the way some viewers have, this is a moving and important work. Some languorous passages and dull spots aside, not a serious contender for the Guilty.
Message: Egotism and self-involvement are dangerous. Also known as, pride goeth before the fall. And by the way, capital punishment is barbaric.
Signature moment: Truman Capote (Philip Seymour Hoffman) dead drunk at the premiere of "To Kill a Mockingbird," whining about how convicted killers Dick Hickock and Perry Smith are torturing him by pursuing appeals that might save them from execution. How is he expected to finish his book?
Comments: This movie is a mixed bag, and may muddy the waters around the tormented figure of Capote more than it clears them. But while it unmistakably has moral messages to impart, Bennett Miller's film largely feels comfortable with the prodigious ambiguity of its story and its fascinating central character, and never mounts the soapbox. In both its subdued visual sensibility and its murky shades of gray, "Capote" feels like the only real indie among the four quasi-independent nominated films. (At least technically, "Munich" is the only studio film in the running.) Hoffman's impersonation of the late, great, flawed and vain Capote is so eerie it dominates the film a little too much, to my way of thinking. At times he's a profoundly sympathetic character and at other times he appears to be a callous spider, essentially seducing Smith, the lonely autodidact murderer, into his web and then lying to him and abandoning him. Is this what writers always do, just writ more dramatically? Could Capote have written a book that transformed the nonfiction genre without subterfuge and vainglory -- and without destroying himself? "Capote" may suggest answers, but doesn't seek to impose them. A rank outsider, for both the Guilty and that other, slightly more famous statuette.
Message: Race in America: It's complicated, yo! (Or, as Stephanie put it in her review: Racism is bad for children and other living things.)
Signature moment: Geez, there are so many. But in a film loaded with unlikely coincidences that would make Charles Dickens pee his inner linens with embarrassment, it's got to be the scene where the L.A. cop played by Matt Dillon arrives first at the scene of a car accident and must rescue a woman in an overturned SUV -- and it's the same bupscale beauty (Thandie Newton) he humiliated and molested, right in front of her husband, during a traffic stop a night or two earlier. Life! Dang!
Comments: Look, it's not like "Crash" is a war crime or something. A lot of the acting is quite good, and the honorable intentions of this achingly earnest sermon ("Racial Pain: Los Angeles, America, the World?") are obvious. But it's exactly the kind of portentous, piss-elegant middlebrow trash that many critics (and, unhappily, many viewers) see as Important Cinema. The only difficult part about identifying the preaching and speech-making in "Crash" is finding the places when it stops. No one in this movie ever talks like an identifiable human being, starting with the notorious early scene where two young African-American men who are about to carjack the L.A. district attorney get into a philosophical argument about the prevalence of white racism. (I had high hopes for that scene when it appeared they might have to shoot Sandra Bullock's eterna-whiny rich-bitch character. After that, it was all downhill.) This entire film is a spinach-flavored schematic, going from one overloaded symbolic encounter between angst-ridden people of different ethnicities to another. We've got a little girl in a bad neighborhood who is magically saved from death by a fairy cape, and the one decent, non-racist white cop in all of L.A., who ends up shooting a black kid for no reason. You could say that "Crash" is aware of the ironies and contradictions of race in America, but that's literally the only thing it's aware of. It's grasping you by the lapels, like that uncle you generally avoid at family gatherings, and screaming into your face: "My God! The contradictions!" It virtually throbs with meaning, and it's the kind of migraine throb that approaches meaninglessness.
Message: Television can speak truth to power or lull us with mindless pap. If we lose faith in popular journalism as a last line of defense against demagogues and autocrats, we're in deep ... whoops! Too late!
Signature moment: As payback to the network for his hard-hitting attacks on Joe McCarthy, Edward R. Murrow (David Strathairn) must interview Liberace from his home in Las Vegas. "Have you given any thought to getting married and settling down, Lee?" he asks. Lee assures Ed he's just waiting for the right girl.
Comments: I found "Good Night, and Good Luck" an exquisitely made motion picture, tremendously compact and assured. But, hey, it begins and ends with Murrow delivering a jeremiad on the evils of television to an audience of half-soused New York media insiders, and if that doesn't make it a strong contender for the Guilty, then nothing is. As with Sam Rockwell in the underappreciated "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," George Clooney takes a career character actor (Strathairn) and thrusts him into the limelight with spectacular results. In many respects "Good Night" is a mournful lament for a bygone age when television could still support an erudite crusader like Murrow. On the other hand, the struggles Murrow faced getting his McCarthy indictments on the air seem strikingly familiar, and he was widely derided by right-wingers as a commie pinko traitor and eventually dumped to Sunday afternoons, even by supposedly urbane CBS. This is a retreat from the vibrant eccentricity of "Dangerous Mind" into the far more familiar territory of a liberal Sunday-school lesson about democracy. Maybe we need more of those right now, but I'm not sure they do any good. The best things here lie elsewhere: the delicious black-and-white cinematography, the sheer eloquence of Strathairn as Murrow, the confident performances of Clooney, Robert Downey Jr., Patricia Clarkson, Ray Wise and a host of others.
Message: Violence begets violence. An eye for an eye leaves everybody blind. Oh, and: Dad? Where are you, Dad?
Signature moment: Israeli secret agent Avner (Eric Bana) boffing his wife in their Brooklyn, N.Y., apartment while horrific images of the Munich 1972 massacre scroll through his mind.
Comments: I found "Munich" a great surprise, and I mean that in a good way. Like virtually every Steven Spielberg movie, it's a fable about a damaged family more than anything else -- and like many of his later films, it's about a lonely child who has grown up into a wounded and inadequate father. But it's also a compelling political thriller full of excitement, character and incident. And it depicts, I think, a fascinating moral quandary. Unlike some critics, I don't see confusion or compromise or condescension (or, for that matter, liberal guilt) in Spielberg's approach to Munich and its aftermath. There is no question, in terms of history or ordinary human emotion, that the Israeli government was justified in seeking the deaths of those who planned the killings of Israeli athletes at the 1972 Olympics. The unanswered and perhaps unanswerable question in "Munich" is whether those acts of vengeance, and others like them, were worth it. Did they demand too much from men like Avner, from Israel, from all Jews? Did they harden the hearts of people on all sides, and gradually poison the world's attitude toward the Middle Eastern conflict? Many people have assumed that to ask these questions is to answer them, and that Spielberg (or screenwriters Tony Kushner and Eric Roth) have somehow adopted a squishy-hearted left-wing sympathy for murderers who happen to be Palestinian. I don't see it that way at all. "Munich" simply reminds us that justification does not equal justice, and that we can never know where other paths might have led. We can only see where we are now, and like Avner, we are damaged and estranged from each other, sick of the killing but unable to stop it.
And the winner of this year's Liberal Guilt Award is ... well, you tell me. I've got "Crash" -- all it needs is a personal appearance by a multi-culti Jesus to be the largest dose of didactic sermonizing ever made in Hollywood -- with "Good Night, and Good Luck" a distant second. Will we be back with another case of the Guilties next year, or will Hollywood have purged its conscience and moved, with cyclical certainty, back to cynical, prepackaged fun? I know we're all dying to find out.