NEW YORK — Politics is usually in the air as November gets under way, and sometimes Hollywood takes note by tackling politically relevant subjects. This season's movies are pushing more than the usual number of ideological buttons, although not always in coherent or constructive ways.
The Siege jumped from the entertainment pages to the news columns long before its release today, as some Arab-American groups protested what they feared would be its perpetuation of negative ethnic stereotypes. Such anxieties seemed justified, given the movie's plot about an Arab-sponsored terror campaign that prompts the United States government to put New York City under martial law. But the movie turns out to be more complicated than expected.
Parts of it certainly exploit dangerous notions of an Arab community seething with violent fundamentalists eager to die for their fanatically embraced cause. The screenplay's half-hearted disclaimers reassuring us that "most Arab-Americans are decent citizens" hardly outweigh its implicit embrace of fear and suspicion.
In other respects, however, the movie is reasonably thoughtful. Its subplot about cloak-and-dagger rivalry between the FBI and the CIA points to a healthy recognition that government agencies are no more wise or effective than the people who work for them, and its speeches about civil liberties amount to a refresher course on the perils of law-and-order zealotry.
If it's hard to pin the picture down politically, at least it marks an improvement in director Edward Zwick's storytelling style, previously exemplified by "Legends of the Fall," a legendary bore, and "Glory," which glorified white Hollywood stars more than the black Civil War soldiers it was supposedly about. "The Siege" gives sizzling scenes to Denzel Washington as the FBI agent, Annette Bening as the slippery CIA operative, Tony Shalhoub as a loyal Arab-American betrayed by his adopted country, and Bruce Willis as a military commander.
Two other fall movies deal with a different kind of politics, peering at the thuggish neo-Nazism practiced by skinheads and their ilk. This ideology veers perilously close to the sheer evil found in horror stories, and Apt Pupil appropriately takes its plot from a novella by Stephen King, the bestselling terror-spinner of all time. The main character is a high-school student who discovers that his elderly neighbor is a Nazi fugitive with a murderous past and blackmails the old fascist into feeding the student's morbid curiosity about the Third Reich, the Holocaust, and the unthinkable crimes associated with them.
"Apt Pupil" conveys some cautionary messages, especially in its suggestion that youngsters may misunderstand or willfully refuse to grasp the full hideousness of this century's worst historical episodes, unless teachers and parents provide forceful educations in these areas. But as directed by Bryan Singer, who made such a smashing impression with "The Usual Suspects" three years ago, the movie contains enough gratuitous gristliness and over-the-top melodrama to forfeit any credentials as a serious exploration of its topic.
This goes double for the appalling American History X, about a seemingly clean-cut boy who wants to follow in the footsteps of his older brother, an ardent neo-Nazi fresh from prison for a vicious race-related crime. The film's pretzel-like plot may not be the fault of director Tony Kaye, who has complained about studio interference. But the movie is so riddled with simplistic psychology, bombastic effects, and ham-fisted insensitivity that nobody involved should be taking much pride in it.
The wickedness of neofascist hatred and bigotry cries out for hard-hitting Hollywood treatment. Next time, though, the filmmakers should show reasonable respect for the intelligence of their own audience.
* All three movies are rated R and reflect nasty violence and frequently morbid subject matter. David Sterritt's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org