Is Hollywood Turning Left?

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LA film critic Ed Rampell argues that the movement is generating a new wave of progressive cinema.

Are the movies getting more radical? Hollywood has experienced three key progressive periods: New Deal/Popular Front films during the Depression and through the Second World War; 1960s/1970s 'power to the people' pictures; and, in my opinion, the post-9/11 era. The latter is epitomised by the anti global warming special effects blockbuster The Day After Tomorrow, a big budget studio feature; the Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, an indie executive-produced by Robert Redford; and Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 documentary. These are just the tip of the iceberg of a groundswell of left-leaning documentaries, features and indies.

Reds under the beds

As the Iraq occupation and insurgency continue, the progressive trend in movies is definitely continuing. Good Night, and Good Luck dramatises the epic on the air struggle broadcaster Edward R Murrow (David Strathairn) waged in 1954 on CBS's See It Now against anti-Communist zealot Senator Joe McCarthy. It is co-written and directed by George Clooney, who portrays producer Fred Friendly. Clooney recreates Cold War 'reds under the beds' hysteria in vivid black and white. The ex-ER star turns the CBS newsroom into an emergency room resuscitating democracy.

The shrewdest casting is of Roy Cohen and McCarthy as themselves. Glimpsed only in clips, the Senator's repulsive persona undid him in his attempt to rebut Murrow. The red-baiting demagogue who publicly made wild, unsubstantiated charges assailing victims' patriotism proved no match for the fact-checking investigative reporter. The newscasters became newsmakers, changing the world.

Frank Langella - best known from Dracula - depicts William Paley. The CBS chairman incarnates the network's profit-driven corporate side, in conflict with newsmen using the then-new medium to inform and enlighten, rather than merely entertain and sell soap. As Murrow/Strathairn warns at a 1958 industry awards dinner, television 'can teach, it can illuminate - yes, and it can even inspire... Otherwise it is merely lights and wires in a box.'

Good Night, and Good Luck's brilliance is making half-century old history as timely as today's headlines. Tensions between the corporate and public service aspects of TV are paramount in the 24/7 cable news age of media mergers and conglomeratisation. Networks with business before Congress and an FCC chaired by the Secretary of State's son failed to examine government untruths about going to war. 'News' is often more agitprop or tabloid than topical.

Good Night... shrewdly uses McCarthyism as a metaphor for today's Patriot Act and other homeland security measures assailing civil liberties, secretly imprisoning suspects without charges, trials or legal representation. Yesterday's Communists have been replaced by the new 'ists' du jour - terrorists.

In Lord of War Nicolas Cage portrays Yuri Orlov, a Soviet émigré whose family lied about being Jewish in order to move to the US. Buying into the American dream, Yuri gets rich by trafficking in weapons in a despotic African nation and at various hotspots. The feature shows how the USSR's collapse proved to be a bazaar and bonanza for arms traffickers. An Interpol agent (Ethan Hawke) tracks Orlov around the globe, but when he finally gets his man, Orlov is cynically released by government higher-ups who are part of the same rotten racket. New Zealander writer/director Andrew Niccol reveals the moral toll Orlov's gun-running has exacted upon him and his family.

Adapted from John Le Carré's novel and stylishly directed by Brazilian Fernando Meirelles, The Constant Gardener is likewise largely set in Africa. In this espionage thriller an aid worker (Pete Postlethwaite) in Sudan compares arms trafficking to the big pharmaceutical companies. Ralph Fiennes stars as a British diplomat married to Rachel Weisz, an outspoken activist hot on the trail of a drugs firm that literally makes a killing by experimenting on what Fiennes calls 'African guinea pigs'. The feature also discloses the collusion between the British government and pharmaceutical corporations.

Adapted from a graphic novel, David Cronenberg's A History of Violence stars Viggo Mortensen as a Philadelphia killer who has created a whole new life and identity by moving to Indiana, and raising a family with all-American girl Maria Bello. But his violent past finally catches up with the hood turned husband and father in this rumination on America's predatory predilection to use force. It's as if today's Yanks wage war on Iraqis because of their ancestors' genocide of the Indians.

On 5 October Mortensen - who has spoken at anti-war rallies - participated in a downtown Los Angeles reading of Howard Zinn's Voices of a People's History of the United States. Wearing a T-shirt proclaiming 'Impeach, Remove, Jail,' the Lord of the Rings star read an anti-imperialist Mark Twain quote condemning US atrocities in the Philippines. Other dissenting talents joining Zinn included Danny Glover (as Frederick Douglass), Josh Brolin, and Sandra Oh as anarchist Emma Goldman, declaring to rousing applause, 'Say to your masters go do your own killing, we've done it long enough for you!' My Cousin Vinny Oscar-winner Marisa Tomei closed the packed reading waving a clenched fist and quoting Cindy Sheehan to a standing ovation.

In LA other recent leftist events and artists have similarly drawn large, enthusiastic crowds. On 11 September an SRO audience packed Skylight Books for a Hollywood Activists Forum this writer moderated. Panellists included Tom Laughlin, star of the 1970s Billy Jack films, who called for impeaching Bush and immediate withdrawal from Iraq; leading Hollywood organiser Mimi Kennedy who played a character named after Abbie Hoffman on the Dharma and Greg sitcom; David Clennon of the CBS CIA series The Agency; Maori actress Rena Owen, star of the New Zealand anti domestic violence hit Once Were Warriors; Michael Shoob, co-director of the Karl Rove documentary Bush's Brain; and rapper Wil B.

Former Black Panther Party chairman Bobby Seale (who appears in the documentary Public Enemy) drew an even bigger crowd at an October speech in an LA college. On 23 September, a day after packing an LA cathedral with 1,000 supporters, George Galloway MP appeared on the HBO programme Real Time with Bill Maher in a reprise of his debate with Trotskyist turned hawk Christopher Hitchens. And of course, on 24 September masses of people marched against the Iraq war, led by Hollywood left stalwart Ed Asner, whose 1980s CBS drama Lou Grant was cancelled because Asner publicly clashed with ex-actor Ronald Reagan's Central American policies. The 'acting president', Martin Sheen - star of NBC's The West Wing series about a liberal president - delivered a rousing speech at the same peace rally, declaring:

'I think you know what I do for a living, but this is what I do to stay alive! I've always loved and supported my country, but my government has had to earn my support... This war is ill-conceived, ill-advised, illegal and a colossal mistake we can ill afford. The only clear truth about this administration is its dishonesty... Peace be with you... Let my country awake!'

Stay tuned. Progressive pictures march on with several forthcoming releases: Warner Bros' North County, directed by Whale Rider's Niki Caro, stars Oscar-winner Charlize Theron in a true story about miners battling sex discrimination. A liberal documentary with Zinn and Warren Beatty recalls One Bright Shining Moment: The Forgotten Summer of George McGovern. And there is also Marc Levin's stinging documentary exposé of anti-Semitism, Protocols of Zion.

Already out on DVD, Beyond Treason, narrated by ex-military nurse Joyce Riley, is a riveting account of Washington using its own soldiers as human lab rats and the exposure of depleted uranium in an Iraq where the only WMDs there were brought by Uncle Sam. Robert Greenwald's Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price documentary is being released in November, and Michael Moore's new doc Sicko, about healthcare, is upcoming.

Harold Pinter's Nobel Prize for Literature proves that messages and art can mix. From the screen to the streets, Hollywood activists are expressing progressive politics.

LA-based freelance writer and film historian/critic Ed Rampell is co-author of Made In Paradise: Hollywood's Films of Hawaii and the South Seas and Pearl Harbor in the Movies, and author of Progressive Hollywood: A People's Film History of the United States.