A Movie With Legs

Posted: Jan 27, 2005 12:00 AM

The conventional wisdom concerning Tuesday's Oscar nominations suggests that the entertainment establishment made an appropriately cautious decision to avoid controversy by simultaneously snubbing both of the year's most polarizing pictures. In fact, the sloppy, dishonest, brain-dead habit of equating "The Passion of the Christ" with "Fahrenheit 9/11" reveals more about Hollywood's bias and blindness than any aspect of the major awards the two films won't receive.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" represents an unabashedly partisan piece of propaganda whose primary purpose (proudly and repeatedly announced by its irrepressible creator) involved the attempt to discredit and, ultimately, defeat the Bush administration. "The Passion," on the other hand, attempted to convey a timeless religious message rather than score timely political points. None of the countless commentators who derided the film as "Fahrenheit's" right-wing doppelgänger ever bothered to identify the movie's conservative messages concerning, say, the Iraq War or Republican tax cuts. Some moviegoers may resist or resent Mel Gibson's transparently theological agenda, but they can hardly fault him for inserting blatant (or subtle) endorsements for the GOP. During the election season, the embattled director scrupulously avoided endorsing either presidential candidate and confined his political activism to opposition to California's ultimately successful voter initiative (supported by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger) to fund embryonic stem cell research.

Of course, the more hysterical critics of "The Passion" might argue that its allegedly anti-Semitic elements irrevocably identified the project with an archconservative outlook, but this argument ignores the fact that Jew-hatred appears today far more frequently among the America-hating left than on the flag-waving right. Consider the malicious focus by Michael Moore and his antiwar cohorts on a few relatively obscure "neocons" in the Bush administration: The endless invocation of the names Wolfowitz, Perle and Feith fairly reeks of anti-Semitic conspiracy theorizing.

Categorizing "The Passion" as a right-wing movie depends upon the notion that only benighted conservatives could possibly take the New Testament seriously and literally--an assumption that would separate liberals from America's faith-based majority even more definitively than the selection of Howard Dean to head the Democratic National Committee. Mel Gibson's movie succeeded in every corner of the country, drawing huge crowds in blue states as well as red, and giving the lie to the canard that it appealed exclusively to fundamentalist fanatics. During 2004, "The Passion" earned an astonishing $370 million in domestic box-office receipts, more than tripling the take for Michael Moore's lavishly publicized agitprop.

In a sense, this startling success recalls the days of Hollywood's "Golden Age," when leading studios understood the profound distinction between political and religious message pictures. While generally avoiding the risks of raw partisanship in the electoral arena, the powerful moguls of the 1940s and '50s knew that a respectful approach to biblical themes ("The Ten Commandments," "The Robe," "Ben Hur") could serve to unify rather than divide the mass audience. Public-opinion surveys show no drastic decline (and perhaps even an uptick) in church attendance and scriptural study over the past 50 years, and the commercial success of Mr. Gibson's Aramaic-and-Latin experiment indicates that Catholics, Protestants and others among the vast army of believers can still mobilize in support of pious pictures.

Religiosity not only draws more broad-based public support, but also counts as far less transient than campaign-season propaganda. This suggests another reason that the lack of serious Oscar attention paid Mr. Gibson (his movie did win nominations in three technical categories--makeup, cinematography and musical score) rankles the moviegoing public far more deeply than the shutout of Mr. Moore. Traditionally, the top Academy Awards go to motion pictures that plausibly aspire to "classic" status--as did last year's big winner, "Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King." The most celebrated Best Picture winners of the past--from "Gone With The Wind" and "The Sound of Music" to "Schindler's List" and "Titanic"--appealed to Academy voters because they looked like movies that might still connect with eager audiences many decades after their debut.

"Fahrenheit 9/11" unequivocally functioned as an artifact of the moment and a factor in a fiercely fought political campaign. As soon as that campaign concluded, the energy instantly leaked out of Michael Moore's effort to win major Oscar nominations, and his movie began to feel as dated, quaint and irrelevant as a faded bumper sticker from a losing cause. "The Passion of the Christ," on the other hand, still plays with the same fiery immediacy it brought to its explosive Ash Wednesday release. And it's easy to imagine church groups (and cinema students) still watching it with avid attention 50 years from now, much as "The Ten Commandments" has continued to draw eager audiences during periodic re-releases in the course of a half-century.

"The Passion" clearly dwarfs such skillful but slight works as "Sideways" or "Finding Neverland" (both nominated for Best Picture) in terms of thematic and historical significance. Members of the entertainment elite may confuse faith and politics--viewing religiosity as suspect and subjective, while embracing left-wing ideology as a form of Ultimate Truth--but the mass audience now and in the future will reliably recognize the difference.