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Strange bedfellows

Politics played a major role in the films of 2005

Last year, political argument in film confined itself almost exclusively to documentaries, from Fahrenheit 9/11 and its low-profile conservative detractors to such diatribes as Outfoxed, Uncovered: The War on Iraq, and many others. Rare exceptions such as Team America: World Police slipped cultural commentary into the mouths of puppets.

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In 2005, Hollywood finally caught up with the nonfiction film. Every week it seemed another feature opened that contained some critique of the American character or metaphor for modern-day issues. But some movies valued the veneer of controversy over the kind of challenging content that sparks genuine debate. In providing new perspectives on different issues in the post-9/11 landscape, some films generated shock and awe, others just smoke and mirrors.

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The war at home

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Steven Spielberg's War of the Worlds almost brazenly dramatized an alien invasion with unmistakable — yet inexplicable — imagery drawn from Ground Zero, including crashed airplanes, dust-shrouded witnesses and bulletin boards for the disappeared. Yet the film's allegorical point is too vague. Was Spielberg deriding American complacency, or equating terrorists with inhuman foes? War of the Worlds offered no obvious answer beyond simply provoking its audience.

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The summer's other special-effects showcase, Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Sith, made its intentions all but explicit. Though set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, its tale of a leader misleading a Galactic Republic into war and seizing dictatorial powers unfolds as a modern-day political fable. Though George Lucas began the story in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, in Sith the parallels to the Bush administration are about as obvious as the Death Star.

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Director, co-writer and actor George Clooney issued a kind of clarion call for media courage and against government witch hunts with Good Night, and Good Luck, a crackling docudrama of broadcaster Edward R. Murrow's televised challenges to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. Clearly intended as an object lesson for today's political and journalistic institutions, Good Night's script is studded with Op-Ed-ready lines like, "We cannot defend freedom abroad while deserting it at home."

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The global pillage

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A trio of literate, relevant espionage films addressed global conflicts with mixed degrees of subtlety. The Constant Gardener found suspense in a pharmaceutical company's misdeeds in impoverished Africa, but it could have been depicting any powerful conglomerate or Western institution preying on the Third World.

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While Gardener's corporate paranoia may have been too black and white, Syriana suffered from being too ambiguous in dramatizing the shadowy relationship of oil industry, terrorism and foreign policy. You can salute writer/director Stephen Gaghan's effort to do justice to the network of Middle Eastern sheiks, U.S. oil barons and Washington power brokers expanding their self-interests. But the moral struggles of Syriana's protagonists disappear in its details, and the film's pessimism does little more than confirm your worst suspicions about the way the world works.

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Spielberg's Munich superbly balances urgency and complexity as it delves into the risks of waging a war on terror. In response to a Palestinian terrorist massacre of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics, an "unofficial" team of Mossad assassins targets the architects of the attack — only to see even more vicious terrorists rise from the ashes. Virtually every scene in Munich involves the consequence of bloody retribution on the agent's character and, by implication, their homeland.

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Neoconservative critics have launched pre-emptive strikes against Munich, mischaracterizing it as a peacenik's call to coddle terrorists. The "bleeding heart" critique better fits Ridley Scott's would-be epic Crusades film Kingdom of Heaven, which takes such pains to decry both Christian and Muslim extremism that it settles for a mushy "Can't we all just get along?" plea.

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Violent vengeance

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Munich was originally titled Vengeance, and the new decade's films keep returning to themes of revenge and our obsession with violence. In A History of Violence, David Cronenberg offers a thrilling meditation on the savage soul that lurks below the heartland's peaceable surfaces. At least, that's the intention. The film might be a classic piece of pulp filmmaking, but its argument against violence feels heavily hedged. Viggo Mortensen's character and his teenage son repeatedly resort to force as their last resort against some of the most sadistic bullies and criminals imaginable. Since they nearly always strike in self-defense, Cronenberg's notion of Middle American bloodlust feels a little fuzzy. A History of Violence's increasingly disquieting scenes of domestic life hit home by suggesting that violence can be embraced.

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The French film Caché (opening in Atlanta in early 2006) uses a Parisian family's anxiety at being kept under mysterious surveillance as a remarkably restrained yet passionate exploration of vengeful impulses, media voyeurism and racial scapegoating (a theme echoed in the heavy-handed sleeper hit Crash and the little-seen Lila Says). Director Michael Haneke builds to a single act of violence, but the moment proves far more horrifying and far-reaching than any of the bloodbaths in Sin City or Oldboy.

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Gay politics

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While the 2004 election seemed to repudiate gay marriage on a national scale, domestic partnership gets a spirited defense from the year's most universally acclaimed film, Brokeback Mountain — even though it never directly evokes the issue. In Brokeback Mountain, the personal is the political: By focusing on the thwarted passions of the cowboys played by Heath Ledger and Jake Gyllenhaal, Ang Lee's melancholy romance implicitly — yet resoundingly — argues in favor of the need for gay acceptance.

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While Brokeback Mountain sparked a national conversation over America's willingness to tolerate gay unions, Capote provides a unique perspective on same-sex partnerships. While dramatizing Truman Capote's work on the book In Cold Blood, the film shows little interest in the author's sexual preference and explores his obsession with a senseless murder in Kansas (ideas with striking parallels to Cronenberg's film). Capote's relationship with "life-partner" Jack Dunphy is taken as a given, and in their scenes we glimpse tension and tender moments comparable to any marriage. Capote points to the gay film of the future, one in which mere sexual orientation needn't become fodder for debate.