By Lisa Rosen
December 17, 2008
As the Oscars approach, the only thing "Frost/Nixon," "Milk," "Doubt" and "Revolutionary Road" seem to have in common is potential for a nomination. However, though they each tackle wildly different subjects, what they share is a desire to examine moments of social change in America's not-so-distant past -- moments that carry relevance to modern audiences but would perhaps feel too incendiary if put in a contemporary setting.
As the filmmakers and some industry watchers say, these period films offer the security of distance, a slight remove that, ironically, allows audiences to bring focus to the present moment.
The film is set in the late 1950s when flocks of gray flannel suits headed home on the train to their wives and cocktails. In this setting, one couple tries to combat their growing frustration with the suburban ideal they have attained without quite knowing why. Director Sam Mendes, who achieved great success with the contemporary rendering of American suburbia in "American Beauty," was initially hesitant to revisit that locale with "Revolutionary Road." Then he realized that, ultimately, it wasn't a movie about suburbia, or even the '50s. "I think that sometimes it's easier to draw direct parallels and see clearly what the story means to you when it's not in a contemporary setting," Mendes says.
He used that space to consider the more universal theme of feeling trapped by one's circumstances and the consequences of being too fearful to change them. "It might be more difficult to distance yourself from the opinions of the writer and the filmmaker" if the film is set in the present, he notes, whereas "you never feel lectured to or instructed when you're watching a period film."
In "Doubt," writer-director John Patrick Shanley had little interest in addressing the church abuse scandals, although the film (and his original play that preceded it) revolves around the possibility of one such episode. Rather, Shanley found himself inspired by the absolute certainty of rightness that the U.S. government exhibited during the run-up to the Iraq war.
That conviction reminded him of the Bronx of his childhood. "There was a great certitude about the direction society was going," in 1964, he points out, "and no real indication that it was about to crumble in many ways."
Whereas the play was written during that time of moral certitude about the war, the film comes out now amid a time of doubt and great uncertainty of what's to come. Then, as now, Shanley notes, "We're on the cusp of great change."
Change is also at the center of "Frost/Nixon," which tells the gripping true story of the 1977 encounter between a popular talk show host of previously untapped depths and a disgraced U.S. president desperate to restore his reputation. (Like "Doubt's" Shanley, screenwriter Peter Morgan first conceived the story as a play.) The parallels to the present political climate are unmistakable. "It really ties together television and media and politics in ways that certainly resonate during an election that's gone on for two years," notes Vivian Sobchack, professor of critical media studies at UCLA.
A close look at Richard Nixon's imperial presidency brings to mind the Bush administration and its moves toward a centralization of powers."Just the line, 'If the president did it, it's not illegal,' makes it incredibly relevant," says Ben Mankiewicz, host of Turner Classic Movies and co-host of ABC's "At the Movies."
But, as he notes, if a story of this nature had been set in the present, it would have been too charged. Conversely, set it too far back, and it would lose its relevance. "If you made it about John Quincy Adams, who overstepped executive authority, it's a guy in white hair and simply doesn't deliver the same punch as a guy in a necktie who rides in a limousine," he says.
Co-producer Eric Fellner didn't care about its setting. "When I sat in the theater and watched the piece, it felt very contemporary and very vibrant and relevant," he says. "If I'd stopped and thought, this took place 30 years ago, I don't think I would have been as interested. The beauty of 'Frost/Nixon' is that, yes, there's a lot of history and facts in it, but it's actually about two fascinating, intelligent guys going for one another."
Co-producer Brian Grazer thinks the period gives the story a clarity it might not have otherwise. "If it's set in the present moment it feels more subjective, doesn't it?" he said.
This film tells the inspiring story of Harvey Milk, one of the first openly gay men to be elected to office in the U.S., as city supervisor in San Francisco in 1977.
Much has been made of the film's release a few weeks after the passage of Proposition 8, which banned gay marriage in California. Although the story of a gay activist fighting oppression seems remarkably good timing, its relation to an even larger national story is also worth noting. Milk was a community organizer who spoke powerfully on the campaign trail about the importance of hope. Sound familiar?
The timing seemed perhaps a little too fortuitous, according to executive producer Michael London. The filmmakers hadn't noticed the parallels in the script, but watching the film for the first time, "it just jumped out at everyone," he says. " 'Oh, my God, he's got the same language as Obama.' " The story was so resonant that it almost felt uncomfortable, "as if we must have been trying to make a conscious connection," he adds. Uneasy with the idea of releasing the film during the presidential campaign, they settled on a post-election opening date.
But the parallels are unmistakable. "We've actually gone full circle and we've come back to a place that's remarkably similar in some ways to what people were thinking about, and hoping for, in the '60s and '70s," London says. Adding that although he may be a bit idealistic, "I think a lot of people are hungry for the kind of change that Harvey Milk represented in 1978."
Here again, a step back can provide conclusions that a contemporary story cannot. In considering "Milk" and its reverberations today, film historian David Thomson points out, "History's very good at showing you the silliness of the things that people got very indignant about." The author of "Have You Seen . . . ?: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films," Thomson sounds his own note of hope when, in looking at all of these films, he suggests, "I think they're teaching history so that we will gradually make advances. We'll try to understand the past and see what fools we were and try not to be such fools again."
Rosen is a freelance writer. firstname.lastname@example.org
(Photos: "Revolutionary Road," courtesy Francois Duhamel / DreamWorks; "Doubt," courtesy Andrew Schwartz / Miramax Film Corp; "Frost/Nixon" courtesy Ralph Nelson / Universal Pictures; "Milk," courtesy Phil Bray / Focus Features.)
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