“LIBERALS,” JOKED LENNY BRUCE, “can understand everything but people who don’t understand them.” That was back in the 1960s, when liberalism was flush with righteous self-confidence. These days, liberals don’t even understand themselves. They’re not sure what they’re supposed to believe in — besides, of course, the monstrosity of the Bush administration. This is obvious in the floundering Democratic Party, whose top presidential hopeful, Hillary Clinton, keeps taking positions (Iraq, abortion, flag burning) that her leftish supporters keep defending as tactical. It’s a bad sign when the people on your own side insist that you don’t really mean what you’re saying.
But the loss of liberal self-confidence extends far beyond the Beltway. Nowhere is this clearer than at the movies, where you can feel liberal filmmakers struggling to find a response to 9/11, Bushism — with its marriage of corporate money to Christian moralizing — and the left’s own lack of direction. Perhaps the purest statement of such confusion came in David O. Russell’s I ? Huckabees, which didn’t pretend to dispense political wisdom. Messy and amusing, this cri de coeur from the very bowels of liberal muddle was about being progressive — and lost.

Still, Hollywood keeps desperately searching for something to believe in, and last year offered more politically charged movies than any year in recent memory. So in honor of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association (“To schnorr is human”), which will dispense its own form of golden-globed wisdom this coming Monday, allow me to offer the Official “On” Guide to the New Liberal Cinema — 2005.

Brokeback Mountain. The most fascinating thing about Ang Lee’s wrenching “gay cowboy” picture (as it’s lazily known) may well be the unlikely responses it’s provoked. Some straight critics, most of the horny-repressed Kaelite persuasion, have complained that there’s not enough steamy eroticism (although I can’t name another Hollywood movie with what critic Nathan Lee termed “spit-lubed buttsex”). Critics at several Christian outlets have, to their credit, reviewed Ang Lee’s film as a film, not as a culture-war manifesto, judging it for its artistry even as they took issue with the characters’ homosexuality. Meanwhile, the media have been filled with pieces — including a teasing op-ed by Larry David — either saying “I don’t want to see Brokeback Mountain” or asking whether the refusal to go makes you homophobic. I don’t know about you, but I can’t remember an op-ed piece about not wanting to see any other movie, or anyone asking if skipping Memoirs of a Geisha means you’re a racist. Gee, do you think gayness may still make some people uncomfortable?

The Constant Gardener. Leave aside the offensively hyped-up portrait of African life (must every scene in a shantytown feature loud music and jarring edits?), this political thriller may be most memorable for turning a solid liberal triumph into a crowd-stunning bummer. After years of agonized dithering, Ralph Fiennes’ constant gardener overcomes his habitual detachment to finish his murdered wife’s brave work — thwarting drug-company baddies who test their wares on poor Africans, and the sleazy British diplomats who help them. But just when he’s learned to do something useful in the world, he goes out of his way to let himself be murdered just like his wife, for reasons only a naive and sentimental romantic like John le Carré could possibly find plausible. I mean, after toppling Nixon, Carl Bernstein didn’t immediately step in front of a truck, although marrying Nora Ephron may have accomplished the same thing.

Crash. For its opening hour, Paul Haggis’ first feature does something genuinely daring. It looks at L.A. through the prism of race, pushing what’s normally repressed to the front of our consciousness, conjuring a city filled with run-amok ids — Anglo socialites who fear people of color, black carjackers who hate whitey, white cops who feel up innocent African-American women during routine traffic stops. There’s only one problem. Once Haggis creates this apparently Hobbesian racial world, he seems less influenced by the facts of life than by The Facts of Life (where he once was a writer). He shies away from his stories’ deeper implications, resolving them with enough coincidences and cheap ironies to make O. Henry commit hara-kiri. Small wonder that viewers tend to find this movie either extremely powerful or utterly bogus. It’s both — depending on the scene. (Then again, Haggis is at least trying to think about race. Seventy years after the original King Kong — and two years after his own nine-hour epic featuring evil dark-skinned hordes — Peter Jackson still populated Skull Island with ooga-booga natives.)

Good Night, and Good Luck. George Clooney’s deft little piece of liberal catnip has been acclaimed as the inspiring story of Edward R. Murrow’s courage in standing up to Tailgunner Joe McCarthy. In fact, it’s a parable of impotence. The saintly Murrow may wear his integrity like a Nader badge, earn his boss’ respect for his attack on McCarthy, and give all the purple-prosed speeches he wants about how TV must “educate, illuminate and inspire.” No matter. He can’t stop the debasement of mass news inherent in commercial culture. Like it or not, the Age of Infotainment was in the cards from the very beginning, and Murrow can only decry it, join in (doing TV tours of movie stars’ homes) and light another glum cigarette. To go any further would be to venture something that the dour Murrow (and the charming Clooney) is not eager to do: call into question the whole system of media ownership.

Jarhead. A.k.a. Looking for Oscar in the Military World. After the latest tarted-up flop from director Sam Mendes — and to think people gave Marisa Tomei grief for her Academy Award — he returned to England declaring that we Yanks just can’t handle a neutral movie on the subject of gulf war. Which is like an American returning to Iowa and claiming the dull-palated Brits can’t grasp the culinary refinement of a corn dog. Call me a hard-ass, but I don’t need any more war movies by some London theater director for whom Marines might as well be Martians.

Munich. D.H. Lawrence famously said, “Never trust the artist. Trust the tale.” Reading Steven Spielberg’s platitudinous ruminations on cycles of violence and the need for warring parties to negotiate, you’d never guess that his political-vengeance thriller isn’t just exciting but perceptive — fraught with a stinging sense of tragedy: In knocking off the Palestinians behind the Munich Olympics massacre, the Mossad hit team feels it’s doing what’s necessary, even as its members are morally coarsened by their bloodletting and increasingly doubtful that they’ve made Israelis any safer. Predictably, the movie has been bombarded by complaints that Spielberg lacks a sense of evil (because he allows Palestinian terrorists to have reasons for their unconscionable deeds), and that he creates a moral equivalence between Palestinian and Israeli killing (in fact, we see the action through the eyes of a morally sensitive Israeli Jew). Such criticisms imply that the movie is somehow hostile to Israel, which would have viewers roaring with bitter laughter in, oh, Jenin. If Spielberg really wanted to go after Israel, he would’ve called the film Qibya and begun in 1953 with Ariel Sharon’s Unit 101 slaughtering dozens of innocent Palestinian villagers in a government-sanctioned mission that called for “maximum killing.”

The New World. Terrence Malick’s movie is now 20 minutes shorter than the version I saw (keep cuttin’, dude!), and aside from the mortifying bits — all that romping in the grass — it captures with unmatched audacity the breathtaking encounter of Europeans and Native Americans, two radically alien civilizations. While Malick’s eye remains fresh, his thinking can be a bit musty. Time has come for artists to stop using women (in this case, an admirably complex Pocahontas) as symbols for entire continents, especially those that lose their imagined innocence to the presumably priapic West.

Syriana. Now that we’ve all genuflected to Clooney for backing this project, can we just admit it? Stephen Gaghan’s quasi thriller about Big Oil, American spooks and foreign policy embodies most of what stinks about today’s liberal filmmaking. First, it’s a big-star movie on a big political theme that chooses not to address the mass audience; instead, it plays at being an art film, deliberately obscuring the crucial connections it wants viewers to make and guaranteeing its own political irrelevance. Second, it serves up hokum that appeals only to the converted. I don’t care how much research Gaghan claims to have done, his script’s a grab bag of pulpy clichés, from its slithery-evil oil-company execs (I almost felt sympathy for them) to the noble Middle Eastern sheik (with the wicked brother, of course) who really, truly wants to fight evil oil companies for the good of his people. Finally, it’s mired in the liberal sense of hopelessness and futility. Gaghan treats The System as being so omnipotent that lawyers, businessmen, spies and diplomats are all reduced to ciphers without the free will to engage in moral reflection, let alone action. When Clooney’s CIA agent finally does rouse himself to act, he’s immediately post-toastied in a rocket attack so perfectly executed by his colleagues in The Company that you wonder why they didn’t just do the same to Osama.

The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada. In his highly entertaining first feature, Tommy Lee Jones has Big Issues on his mind. He demonstrates that racist border guards are bad, that they should be violently re-educated, and that, as a director, he’s not altogether unwilling to glorify his own image as a grizzled, but soulful, Lone Star motherfucker. As a friend said after the movie premiered at Cannes, “Tommy Lee sure wanted to be in The Wild Bunch, didn’t he?”

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