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 -- Juno, The Cider House Rules
AIDS -- Philadelphia, Dallas Buyers Club
corporate greed/corruption -- Michael Clayton, Wall Street, Glengarry Glen Ross
racism -- Crash, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Help, Driving Miss Daisy
abuse by priests -- Doubt, Spotlight
the holocaust -- Schindler's List
political corruption -- All the President's Men, The Contender
war -- Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, M*A*S*H, The Deer Hunter, Paths of Glory
cultural diversity -- Witness, Dances With Wolves, The Last Samurai, Avatar
gay/lesbian -- Brokeback Mountain
police corruption -- L.A. Confidential, Training Day
nuclear power -- Silkwood, The China Syndrome
organized crime -- The Godfather, Goodfellas, Casino, The Untouchables
prison -- The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile
alcohol/drug addiction -- The Man With the Golden Arm, The Lost Weekend
evolution/creationism -- Inherit the Wind
the bomb -- On the Beach, Dr. Strangelove, Fail-Safe
the media -- Broadcast News, Network
court system -- Twelve Angry Men, Absence of Malice
the environment -- Erin Brockovich, A Civil Action, Medicine Man
Big Tobacco -- Thank you For Smoking, The Insider
senior citizens -- The Intern, Gran Torino, A Walk in the Woods
anti-Semitism -- Gentleman's Agreement
revolution -- Doctor Zhivago, Reds
spirituality -- Heaven Is for Real, The Passion of the Christ
mental illness -- One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Rain Man, A Beautiful Mind
child custody -- Kramer vs. Kramer
The Hollywood blacklist -- Trumbo, The Majestic
war crimes -- Judgment at Nuremburg, Marathon Man
con artists/evangelists -- Leap of Faith, Elmer Gantry
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 are: High Noon (social responsibility); Signs (faith/spirituality); Rocky, Rudy, An 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…