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Progressive Hollywood - Lords of War - Sophie Scholl

A useful if very mixed bag of a book is Progressive Hollywood, A People's Film History of the United States by journalist Ed Rampell. If you can get past the breathless fawning celebrity prose, and that's not easy, you'll find some interesting documentation on the historical impact of the left on Hollywood.

The first half chronicles - in a breezy accessible way - the relationship of the left to Hollywood from the 1930s to 1970s. Don't expect a profound analysis that relates the social and political currents to the movies though: this is more of an efficient introductory cut and paste job. However, the second half - which examines the contemporary response of progressive Hollywood to the Iraq war and finally the (naive and self-defeating) campaign to back the Democrats - is politically much more problematic. It may describe, for the uninitiated, the scope and commitment of celebrity activists but its lack of sharp critical politics begins to pall after a while. It also has a tendency to exaggerate the role of these celebrities. On a more positive note the book does explain why activist celebrities are granted such a high profile in US politics and does identify for the first time in a published work that things are shifting in Hollywood. It endorses my view that more filmmakers are able to exploit the cracks in the studio system to make progressive work. There's still loads of reactionary nonsense but occasionally filmmakers are able to use the Hollywood system in terms of star power, distribution and marketing to make progressive films.

An example of this is the $50 million Lords of War, a powerful and dark comedy satire against the arms trade starring and produced by Nicholas Cage and directed by Andrew Nicholl (writer of The Truman Show). From the best opening credits of the year so far, we see the journey of a single bullet moving inexorably towards its final horrible destination. Then the end credits flag up that the members of the Security Council are the biggest arms dealers in the world. A sort of Goodfellas-style approach has Cage narrating, in his morally detached sardonic way, his evolution to a globe trotting arms dealer. He's more exercised with keeping his coke addicted morally sensitive brother out of rehab and deceiving his trophy wife into believing that he's a legitimate businessman than looking at the effects of his trade. His whole life is a lie but he doesn't care. Selling guns to murderous African dictators holds few real qualms for our 'hero'.

This movie vividly reminds us of how the merchants of death ply their trade. It brings home the conspiracy of western governments to flood the Third World with guns. Notwithstanding the slightly dubious representations of Africa this should be required viewing for campaigners against the arms trade.

Sophie Scholl - The Final Days by Marc Rothemund is a tribute to the eponymous heroine of the little known White Rose, the German student resistance movement under the Nazis. There have been film treatments of this courageous group's activities before but this one is based on the meticulous reconstruction of her interrogation and eventual brief incarceration in prison.

It confounds the conventional view of Nazi brainwashed Germans, who when not fervently saluting the F├╝hrer, were cowardly and quiescent in the face of the war machine. For here is a small brave student group who lead a propaganda resistance to the Nazis. Sophie Scholl, eager to prove herself, secretly disseminates anti-war leaflets at college with her brother. This opening sequence is tense and tautly directed. She's caught and subjected to a lengthy interrogation: a duel of wits which forms the main bulk of the narrative. Sophie's moral rectitude and intelligence are an inspiration to us all. Unfortunately the central section is static and drawn out: the debate has authenticity on its side but the dramatic focus is too narrow. The final court hearing is at times surreal, sombre and, of course, tragic.