Politics backdrop for a number of awards hopefuls

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Between presidential campaigns, Congressional hearings and an ever-growing library of muckraking memoirs, it's difficult to go a day without hearing some disturbing piece of news about the state of the nation. Except, that is, at the multiplex, where traces of the war on terror, the war in Iraq or anything else that might put a damper on a night out have been difficult to find.

That is, until now. As summer blockbusters have given way to a serious-minded (and exceedingly crowded) fall slate, the theaters are suddenly filled with awards-season aspirants tackling the current political situation head-on. The last two months alone have seen the release of Warner Independent Pictures' "In the Valley of Elah," Universal's "The Kingdom" and New Line's "Rendition," with MGM's "Lions for Lambs," the Weinstein Co.'s "Grace Is Gone," HD Net's

"Redacted" and Universal's "Charlie Wilson's War" still to come.
Why the sudden change of heart? Insiders point to several factors, chief among them the shift in public opinion. With disapproval of the Bush administration's Iraq effort nearing 70%, criticizing the war has become a safe bet. "Hollywood follows trends," says Robert Redford, who directed and stars in "Lions for Lambs." "The mainstream is interested in only one thing: moneymaking. Profit. Hollywood is a business, nothing more, and it's not the business it used to be. It's a clearinghouse."

As Redford points out, documentaries about the Iraq war began showing up at his Sundance Film Festival in 2004, but it took three more years for feature filmmakers to respond in significant numbers.

Charles Ferguson, director of Magnolia Pictures' documentary "No End in Sight," points to "the structural and economic condition of what my left-wing friends would call the mainstream media. There are roughly half a dozen large, diversified companies that control most filmmaking and most broadcast news. Those films are very heavily regulated and very market driven, and one can easily imagine that they might be loath to touch the subject."

Tony Gilroy -- who made his feature directorial debut on Warner Bros.' George Clooney starrer "Michael Clayton" and penned the screenplay for Universal's "The Bourne Ultimatum," in addition to the two previous films in the action franchise -- chalks the delay up to the gestation period of studio films, as well as the time needed to get a perspective on current events. "It takes a few years," Gilroy says. "It's the cultural digestive tract. It's going to be many years before anyone can explain what's going on right now."

But for John Cusack, whose "Grace Is Gone" was part of a wave of war-themed films at this year's Sundance, the subject is too pressing to ignore. "I think people are just reflecting what's going on," he says. "I don't know how you would avoid talking about it if you're talking about modern life."

Like many of the filmmakers behind the current crop of political films, Ferguson was motivated by a need to fill gaps in the mainstream media's reportage. A millionaire software developer with a Ph.D. in political science, Ferguson had no filmmaking experience before he began "No End in Sight." But as the war stretched into its second year, he became disturbed by the fact that no one was making a substantial, policy-oriented film about the mishandling of the invasion and subsequent reconstruction of Iraq, and he decided to tap Washington connections from his years as a Brookings Institution fellow and make the documentary with his own money.

Cusack says he chose to star in "Grace" also as a reaction to his growing frustration over the state of current events. Disgusted by the government's refusal to allow the press to photograph the coffins of American soldiers, which he calls "a despicable act," Cusack found in James C. Strouse's script a way to "tell the story of one of those coffins coming home."

In the film, which Strouse directed, Cusack plays a husband who cannot bear to tell his daughters that their mother has been killed in Iraq. "I thought, 'You can't just hide the sacrifice that real people are making for this war,'" he says. "So I wanted to tell the story of what happens when these coffins come home, that they didn't want to be broadcast every night or to be in our papers."

Another Magnolia project, Brian De Palma's "Redacted," is explicitly concerned with redressing the lack of unfiltered images from the conflict overseas. Framed as a collection of footage from security cameras, TV documentaries and online video sites, the movie pieces together the story of two U.S. soldiers who rape a 15-year-old Iraqi girl and then murder her and her entire family, while the rest of their unit looks on.

The story is drawn from real events, although the details have been changed.

De Palma is palpably incensed by the war's sanitized presentation and closes his otherwise fictional film with a gory montage of genuine war-zone photos, most taken from the Internet, including the blasted bodies of infants and children. Even here, the images are not untouched; for legal reasons, the victims' faces are blurred

"With the war in Vietnam, we saw the images, the reporters were able to move freely within the war theater," De Palma says. "We saw our casualties, we saw their casualties, and that's what got us out into the streets, and that's what got us out of the war. The people who are running this war learned the lesson that these images can never get out. That to me is offensive."

Although De Palma makes no bones about his incendiary intentions, most filmmakers are eager to distance themselves from any hint of polemics. "I try to avoid sending messages in film," Redford says. "I think that can be dangerous. I'm more interested in provoking thought."

He is careful to point out that "Lions for Lambs" deals not with Iraq but Afghanistan, an equally vital but less volatile subject.

Cusack says that one of the things that drew him to "Grace" was that it was "political but not partisan." "Everybody has strong feelings about policy and policymakers and the ideology behind the war," he says. "But before anyone, myself included, gets on their soapbox, maybe they should just have a moment of silence, for the grief."

That's not to say Cusack is allergic to more pointed politics. He is currently putting the finishing touches on Nu Image's "War, Inc.," a satire on war profiteers he calls "as unsubtle and unrestrained as ("Grace") is graceful and restrained."

In a charged political climate, even ostensibly apolitical movies are drawn into the debate. Paramount Vantage's "The Kite Runner," adapted from Khaled Hosseini's novel about life in Afghanistan, pointedly concludes in 2000, a year before the U.S.-led invasion. But David Benioff, who adapted the novel for the screen, says that commentators have been unable to resist trying to frame the film as a political statement, one that either supports the invasion by depicting the misery of life under the Taliban or decries the folly of any attempt to impose another country's will on the Afghan people.

"I'm already seeing reports of people on both sides taking it and saying it's justification for this or that, but that was never the intent," Benioff says. "I think one of the things that makes the movie more interesting than some of the other ones that are coming out is that it's not hammering people over the head with a political message."

That's not to say that it isn't having an impact -- the film's original Nov. 2 release had to be delayed until Dec. 14 after concerns emerged over the physical safety of its three young stars. The distributor is set to relocate the boys and their families away from Afghanistan to protect them from the threat of violence that might be sparked over a rape scene that appears in the film.

Although the studios have opened the door to releasing movies with political themes, it's not clear that audiences have warmed to them. Despite a cast including Tommy Lee Jones, Charlize Theron and Susan Sarandon, Paul Haggis' "In the Valley of Elah" at press time has taken in less than a third of its reported $23 million budget, and while "No End in Sight" calls itself the second-highest-grossing documentary of the year, it still has yet to repay Ferguson's $2 million investment domestically. (Although he won't specify, Ferguson says he made some "mistakes" in the publicity campaign that will be corrected for the DVD release.)

"I think this film will probably have a rough time getting traction," says Redford of "Lions for Lambs." "Films that are more thought-provoking, they usually have a harder time. There are so many films out this fall, and in addition, so many are about the Iraq war."

Ferguson, at least, knows that his film has gotten through to an audience who can change the course of the war; he has twice screened it for members of Congress.

The response Academy voters will have to these films is up for debate, but with so many projects posing important questions, it seems likely that at least a few of them will wind up with multiple nominations. For most of the filmmakers, though, the key thing is to help audiences engage with the world around them.

"I do believe you can provoke thought," Redford says. "I think that's about the most a film can do." Although "Lions for Lambs" is essentially a series of interwoven Socratic dialogues, Redford sees it as a movie that asks more than it answers, quoting Samuel Goldwyn's maxim that messages should be sent Western Union.

"I think ideas are important, and they have consequences," Cusack says, "but the ingenuity of ("Grace's") screenplay had to do with its simplicity. How can you deny a 12-year-old to ask the fundamental questions about why this is happening, and what does it mean?"

For him, bringing home the devastation of a life lost in war is itself a political act. "As long as other people can make the sacrifice and we can continue to watch the Cubs lose in the playoffs again, this war can go on and on and on," he says.

"I don't think anyone is ever moved to tears because of somepolitical statement on our position in Afghanistan," adds Benioff. "It's the story."   
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