Hollywood rarely dives too deeply into the unpredictable water of political filmmaking, which carries the ever-present threat of controversy and reduced profits at the box office. Independent and overseas filmmakers take on such topics with some regularity, however, and the Cannes Film Festival screened some interesting examples, showing the wide range of approaches available to directors.
A movie that's definitely headed for American theaters is "Canadian Bacon," written and directed by Michael Moore, whose "Roger & Me" was a popular documentary about Moore's effort to confront the head of General Motors with the disastrous results of factory closings in a Michigan city.
Moore turns to fiction in "Canadian Bacon," which tells the sardonic story of a Niagara Falls sheriff caught in a war between the United States and Canada, sparked by an American president who needs a new enemy now that the Soviet Union no longer presents an "evil empire" to US citizens. Much of the film recalls "The Mouse That Roared," the Peter Sellers comedy about a tiny country at war with American forces, and the last portion - about a missile-defense system that's out of human control - is clearly influenced by the all-time classic of cold-war comedy, "Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb."
Starring the late John Candy, with Alan Alda and Rhea Perlman backing him up, "Canadian Bacon" is awfully silly, peppering its serious messages - about the dangers of nationalism, the power of the military-industrial complex, and the way politicians manipulate the public - with generous amounts of slapstick humor, exaggerated images, and dopey dialogue. While this undercuts the movie's thoughtful impulses, it plays into Moore's strategy of making a political film that won't just provide tea-time talk for intellectuals, but will stir up thought about complex issues while attracting broad-based audiences in malls and multiplexes.
It remains to be seen whether Moore's approach will usher in a new era of political filmmaking, or turn audiences off by appearing inflammatory, contradictory, or patronizing.
Response among critics has been unenthusiastic so far, but perhaps the festival's high-toned "Un Certain Regard" series was not the best testing ground for such a deliberately undignified romp. It will be interesting to see how "Canadian Bacon" plays with the general public.
A look at the Spanish Civil War
One of the most openly political films in the festival's official competition was "Land and Freedom," directed by British filmmaker Ken Loach, who's been taking on important issues for almost 30 years. He tends to be most persuasive in small-scale pictures like the recent "Raining Stones," about a worker struggling to afford a new dress for his daughter, and "Ladybird Ladybird," about a woman whose children are snatched away by a welfare agency. "Land and Freedom" is closer to his ambitious "Hidden Agenda," examining a complex topic in world affairs: the Spanish Civil War and the citizens of many lands who joined its confrontation between socialist idealism and fascist oppression.
"Land and Freedom" was made on an obviously modest budget, but its very limitations serve as evidence of its good faith, since a more lavishly funded and slickly produced approach would probably have necessitated compromises.
The combat scenes are less than compelling, yet their lack of visceral impact keeps our minds on the human dimensions of the struggle; the scenes of ideological discussion are neither exciting nor illuminating, yet they suggest that such abstract talkathons played a role in the antifascists' eventual defeat.
All told, "Land and Freedom" is no more gripping or graceful than its somewhat ponderous title, but its seriousness and sincerity are commendable.
Strong buildup, weak film
Less successful was "Beyond Rangoon," an epic directed by John Boorman and heralded by Variety, the entertainment trade paper, as the festival's most keenly anticipated studio release. Showing an American woman's escape from murderous armed forces during Burma's student democracy movement in 1988, the movie turns out to be strong on action and ambition, but weak on everything else.
Not that any civilized person could argue with its indictment of Burma's military dictatorship. But the filmmakers have subordinated their message to such an over-the-top string of chase scenes, suspense episodes, and hide-in-the-jungle heroics that the seriousness of their purpose is nearly lost during much of the story.
Defending this strategy, one could use Moore's argument that commercial movies based on time-tested formulas are an effective way of promoting political awareness among the public; but I doubt whether movies as hyperactive and superficial as "Beyond Rangoon" are likely to encourage thinking of any real depth, duration, or adventurousness.
On the level of sheer craft, there's much to admire in John Seale's color-filled cinematography, and much to howl at in Patricia Arquette's numbingly flat readings of the screenplay's equally flat dialogue. In all, this movie was directed by the klutzy Boorman of "The Emerald Forest" and "Zardoz," not the agile Boorman who made "Hope and Glory" and "Exorcist II: The Heretic" so memorable.
I have profound admiration for the life and work of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese dissident whose activities (movingly acknowledged in the film) have brought her a Nobel Peace Prize and a long spell of house arrest in her own country; yet under the movie's stupefying spell, I left the festival auditorium not contemplating her greatness but dreaming up alternative titles inspired by better films on similar subjects. "The Year of Living Tediously" is one that came to mind.