02 April 2016

Take a Message

As some of you know, I'm a certified, card-carrying movie addict. I grew up watching way too many of them, to the occasional dismay of my parents and teachers, and I still watch way too many of them, to the occasional dismay of my wife. Cable-TV too. I'm especially fond of the new trend whereby Netflix subscribers can binge-watch entire seasons of shows like House of Cards and Longmire and Orange Is the New Black, chain-smoking them like Marlboros. Call it voluntary insomnia.

It won't surprise you that I also often run into movies and series I don't like. Usually it's because they're low-budget and poorly made (Plan 9 From Outer Space comes to mind), but now and then I come across movies that are expensive and acclaimed and hyped to the Nth degree--and are terrible anyway. And sometimes (so often that it's a little scary) it turns out they're "message movies."

What's a message movie? It's a film made to convey an opinion regarding a social problem or social conflict. It's not that I can't understand the temptation to make such a movie--I'd probably do it myself, if I were the producer and I felt strongly enough about a particular movement or issue or cause. So what's wrong with it?

What's wrong is that sometimes the preaching gets in the way of the storytelling.

I think the primary purpose of a movie or a novel or a short story--any piece of fiction--should be to entertain the viewer or the reader. If it happens to enlighten or illuminate or educate as well, that's okay too, so long as such enlightenment doesn't override the entertainment value. Spoken like a true redneck, probably, but that's my take. If I want nothing but facts, I'll dig out my old and dusty Britannicas or watch the Discovery Channel, and if I want to be brainwashed I'll tune in to one of the several channels dedicated to that purpose; you know which ones I mean, and they do a fine job of it. But when I watch a movie or read a work of fiction, I want a gripping plot and a satisfying story. Give me a light-saber battle and spare me the angst and deep thinking.

But they aren't all bad--and when they're good, they're very good. The following films, listed along with the issues they promote, are some of what I thought were well-done "message movies." Entertaining as well as informative:

abortion -- JunoThe Cider House Rules
AIDS -- PhiladelphiaDallas Buyers Club
corporate greed/corruption -- Michael ClaytonWall StreetGlengarry Glen Ross
racism -- CrashTo Kill a Mockingbird, The HelpDriving Miss Daisy
abuse by priests -- DoubtSpotlight
the holocaust -- Schindler's List
political corruption -- All the President's MenThe Contender
war -- PlatoonSaving Private RyanM*A*S*HThe Deer HunterPaths of Glory
cultural diversity -- WitnessDances With WolvesThe Last SamuraiAvatar
gay/lesbian -- Brokeback Mountain
police corruption -- L.A. ConfidentialTraining Day
nuclear power -- SilkwoodThe China Syndrome
organized crime -- The GodfatherGoodfellasCasinoThe Untouchables
prison -- The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile
alcohol/drug addiction -- The Man With the Golden ArmThe Lost Weekend
evolution/creationism -- Inherit the Wind
the bomb -- On the BeachDr. StrangeloveFail-Safe
the media -- Broadcast NewsNetwork
court system -- Twelve Angry MenAbsence of Malice
the environment -- Erin BrockovichA Civil ActionMedicine Man
Big Tobacco -- Thank you For SmokingThe Insider
senior citizens -- The Intern, Gran TorinoA Walk in the Woods
anti-Semitism -- Gentleman's Agreement
revolution -- Doctor ZhivagoReds
spirituality -- Heaven Is for RealThe Passion of the Christ
mental illness -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's NestRain Man, A Beautiful Mind
child custody -- Kramer vs. Kramer
The Hollywood blacklist -- TrumboThe Majestic
war crimes -- Judgment at Nuremburg, Marathon Man
con artists/evangelists -- Leap of Faith, Elmer Gantry

A few of these deserve special mention. I thought Shawshank, MockingbirdBroadcast News, Twelve Angry Men, and Medicine Man were particularly outstanding, and I so enjoyed Witness, Crash, Glengarry Glen Ross, and L.A. Confidential that I did separate columns on each of them at Criminal Brief. I was also surprised at how much I liked Trumbo, which I watched just last week. Once again, I haven't listed any that I didn't enjoy or I haven't seen, many of which (The Last Emperor, Leaving Las Vegas, Shakespeare in Love, Chariots of Fire, Ordinary People, Babel, Spotlight, etc.) won Oscars in some category or another.

Taking another tack, here are a few films that might not be considered message movies but really areHigh Noon (social responsibility); Signs (faith/spirituality); RockyRudyAn Officer and a Gentleman (persistence); Wall-E (the environment); Dirty Harry (the criminal justice system); The Alamo (patriotism); Dead Poet's Society (free speech); Duck, You Sucker (revolution); The Searchers (prejudice); Waterworld (global warming); etc. And I've heard that The Andromeda Strain, which at first glance is only a suspenseful SF film, was so influential that it prompted NASA to initiate a program to quarantine astronauts upon their return from space.

Please let me know if you can add some "message movies"--good or bad--to the list.

Meanwhile, bring on the DVDs and the popcorn. There are screenings to be held and worlds to be explored. Where'd I put that remote?

Too many stories, too little time…


  1. How about "Invictus"? Maybe it's such an obvious message that it doesn't count. But I certainly found it very powerful.

  2. The Minnesota Zoo announced their policy was to educate and any entertainment was incidental. Walt Disney said his policy was to entertain and any education was incidental. Guess which organization was profitable?

    Entertainment shouldn’t be the be-all / end-all, but it does capture people’s attention.

  3. Anonymous, I loved Invictus, and completely forgot about it when putting together my list. Good message AND good movie. (It helped that I liked both the lead actors.)

    Leigh, I like that comparison. I always think of James Michener's novels when someone talks about education first and entertainment second--although I admit I enjoyed most of his "fictional history lessons."

  4. I thought "My Own Private Idaho" (while dicey as far as actual plot goes) was really excellent about presenting living on the streets, addiction, and never, ever trust a trust-fund baby...

  5. Good example, Eve. What's surprising to me, in remembering that movie, is that it was some 25 years ago!!!

    Part of the fun in doing one of these "list" columns is finding out about some of the books, stories, movies, whatever, that stick in our memories from years past, and sometimes--at least in my case--influence the things we write about.

  6. Clan of the Cave Bear was a brilliant tribute to feminism. Lots of femme messages: men=neanderthals, women=evolved. he he

  7. Thanks, Anon--there have been a good many of those, recently as well as long ago. You'll get no disagreement from me, about those femme messages!

    I wonder if anyone else has noticed that YA fiction over the past few years has featured LOTS of young female heroes: the Hunger Games series, the Divergent series, and others. And an outstanding trilogy I'm two books into right now, called The Fifth Wave, by Rick Yancey. Most of these protagonists are Katniss Everdeen clones, but still powerful female leads.

  8. This subject always makes me think of Woody Allen's play GOD in which a Western Union boy in uniform arrives on bicycle with the author's message.

  9. I hadn’t seen the Woody Allen play Rob mentions, but for some reason Mel Brooks popped into my head.

    The Billy Jack movies come to mind where subtlety was not an option. Didn’t we get treated to a full-blown lecture in one or two of the films?

    A couple of other message-ladened movies might be Butterfield 8 and Thunder Road.

    50s and 60s television programming often came with a message, e.g, crime doesn’t pay, promiscuity doesn’t pay, rebelliousness doesn’t pay, etc. Did anyone besides me want to smack that creepy Rifleman kid?

  10. In The Heat of the Night, Defiant Ones.
    And while I'm here, a big congratulations to you on your Derringer coup. Well deserved.

  11. Just got back from two soccer games--thanks for the comments!

    Rob, I've not seen that play either, but (like Leigh) I thought of Mel Brooks when you mentioned it. Feel free to worry about both of us . . .

    Leigh, you are correct, about the Billy Jack movies. No subtlety in that message. But, God help me, I'll always love Born Losers Ithe first of the series). And Thunder Road will always be a favorite of mine. Remember the lit cigarette flipped into the lap of the driver in the other car?--a memory from almost sixty years ago. The message: don't drive with your window down in a Robert Mitchum movie. As for early TV, you're right--almost all those series tried to "teach a lesson" with every episode.

    Herschel, I actually had In the Heat of the Night AND The Defiant Ones in my list, but took them out because I had SO many examples of the racism message. Great movies, both of them. ("I have the motive, which is murder, and the body, which is dead.")

  12. And thank you sincerely, Herschel, for the kind congratulations. I am honored but still surprised. Lots of good stories were under consideration this year.

  13. Well, I probably shouldn't wade into this, but (isn't there always a "but" when someone says something like that?) it occurs to me that the best stories -- whether written, on film, or even in song -- make us aware of things, help us feel things, and help us know or understand important things in powerful ways. That is not to say that Stories are lectures, and in fact that's how I think you can tell a book or short story or poem or song or movie is NOT really a Story (capital S): it's heavy-handed and just TELLS you things -- all exposition, more or less. Real Story functions by way of the methods we have all discussed here: that it allows the reader or viewer to pick up what's going on from what's happening.

    We all learn from living. And sometimes the things we learn are things that really should be shared with others who were not present at the event or series of events that delivered understanding to those who were there. The way you transmit such understanding is through Story: a means of recreating the event so that others, through the power of word and image, experience it for themselves. And learn it for themselves, from that experiencing.

    Of course it's "entertaining." Human beings are geared to connect with Story. It's been part of our make-up for at least as long as Stories were painted and carved on rocks and cave walls more than 30,000 years ago. But if it's JUST entertaining, then generally speaking we don't like it much. We call it "fluff." Yes, "fluff" has its place -- escapism comes to mind -- but whether it's a comic book or a TV show or a novel or even a documentary film (Ken Burns' "Civil War" comes to mind), the Stories that grab us and don't let us go are ones that allow us to feel things, to understand things, and to learn from experiences first-hand even though they are technically "derivative" experiences. But that's not how they feel, because that is not how Story works. Story allows us to participate.

  14. I agree, Anonymous, and you said it better than I did (or could). The very best stories are of course those that allow us to feel the pain, joy, all the emotions, of the characters and to learn from what they go through--the stories that really do teach us a life lesson, if not the ultimate "meaning" of life. That's why I honestly believe that stories that are entertaining AS WELL AS informative (Mockingbird, Gantry, Schindler, Rain Man, Miss Daisy, Shawshank, and on and on) are the ones that will live forever, and the ones whose processes we should strive to imitate in our own writings. I also agree that "fluff" does have its place, and that all of us need escapism now and then--I have enjoyed all the Bond movies, even the really bad ones, because I knew what to expect and was willing to put my brain in neutral for a couple hours. But you're correct that we need meaningful messages in most of what we watch and read. I wish only that all "message movies" were of the high quality of some of those that have been mentioned in this column and the resulting comments. Thanks for "wading into" all this!

  15. Also, Speilberg's "Lincoln", even if it did have two more endings than it needed to.

  16. Yep, Lincoln puts forth a message, for sure. I suppose most movies made about real historical figures do. And you're right, it DID have several endings. I must admit, I watched it mostly because of Spielberg's involvement.

  17. From what I heard one of the other points "China Syndrome" was trying to make was about journalistic ethics. The Three-Mile-Island crisis hit about a week after the movie was released! By the way, I watched "Airplane" again last night, which borrowed (and paid for)the plot of "Zero Hour," and I found that an FAA rule prohibits a Pilot and Co-Pilot from having the same meal!

  18. Jeff, I'm actually old enough to remember when The China Syndrome came out (I watched it on a pay-per-view channel in a New Jersey hotel on an IBM trip), and I recall thinking how handy it was, publicitywise, that Three Mile Island happened around that same time. But I had not thought beyond the movie's obvious message. Good observation.

    Also, you never fail to come up with interesting and little-known (at least to me) facts, like the FAA rule. You've also made me want to watch Airplane again, for probably the fiftieth time.


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