Freeheld stumbles over too many hurdles to recommend it. The film’s heart is in the right place, but its focus is not.
Over at the conservative web site FrontPageMag.com, they like things conservative. I've noticed that they often post links to articles at RogerEbert.com, so that conservatives can reap the benefits of fine film criticism and commentary on popular culture. So, I was very pleased to see an article by Don Feder (my fingers almost typed "Doug Feith" just then, but he's a neoconservative and that's quite an elephant of a different color) about the best conservative movies of the year. Feder begins by observing:
Feder cites “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King,” “Open Range,” “L.A. Confidential,” Mel Gibson’s “The Patriot,” both “Spider-Man” movies as among the best conservative films of the decade.
It wasn’t a particularly good year for conservative cinema. It rarely is. Yet alongside the cavalcade of ideology, mediocrity and stupidity that is Hollywood today, a few gems shone forth dazzlingly.
What is a conservative film?
Let’s start with what it isn’t. It’s not about men with bulging biceps and even bigger guns. It’s not cartoonish action heroes. It isn’t revenge tales masquerading as heroism.
Conservative cinema does more than entertain; movies that do no more are visual candy. It instructs and inspires.
Conservative films celebrate virtue. They tell timeless tales of individuals overcoming all manner of adversity to achieve true greatness. They’re about honesty, loyalty, courage and patriotism. They’re concerned with conservatism’s cardinal values – faith, family and freedom.
Now, I'm not so sure these movies are "conservative," per se, or that honesty, loyalty, courage and patriotism are in any way exclusive to the right side of the political spectrum. I don't believe these particular films are even so much different from the movies openly conservative pundits have been attacking as insufficiently conservative. What you see in movies is largely determined by what you bring to them yourself, and perhaps your perception of a film has less to do with the movie's ideology than with the filter through which you interpret it.
In that spirit, here are Feder's choices for 2005, with some of his comments (and some of mine in italics and parentheses):
1. "Cinderella Man" -- ... The miraculous, 1930s comeback of boxer James J. Braddock became a metaphor for America’s struggle to get to its feet after the pounding it took in the Great Depression.
(Perhaps the reason audiences stayed away was because they they were under the mistaken impression that it was a metaphor about a liberal Democrat, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who gave Americans hope and raised the country out of the Great Depression. My theory, however, is that they avoided it because the title made it seem like another one of those transvestite boxing pictures and what everybody was saving up for was a gay cowboy movie instead.)
2. "King Kong" (2005) -- ... Superficially, it’s a fine action film. On a deeper level, its characters exemplify feminine virtue, masculine heroism and romantic love. The movie describes a hopeless romance and makes us care for its computer-generated title character.
(And what about "Grizzly Man"? Perhaps it is the computer-generatedness of the masculine lead that sets this hopeless romance apart from "Grizzly Man" and "Brokeback Mountain." It's so much easier to get into stories of thwarted love when they involve giant primates and teeny blondes.)
3. "The Island" -- ... Audiences treated it as just another sci-fi flick. But “The Island” is a forceful and compelling pro-life statement... But the story takes a backseat to the broader bio-ethical debate. To see “The Island” is to gaze into the abyss where science combines with the ethics of convenience to create horrors undreamed of in ages past.
(OK, I'm totally there for any bio-ethical debate movie. From the trailer, I thought it was a parable about religion -- how the repressive Powers That Be keep citizens in their place by stringing them along with enticing promises of happiness in the next life, in some invisible afterworld paradise called "The Island," which turns out not to exist, and to actually just be death, instead. My error.)
4. "The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe" -- From the moment little Lucy wanders into Narnia through the wardrobe full of fur coats, it’s pure enchantment. Along with her sister and two brothers, Lucy is thrust into a monumental struggle of good and evil in a magical realm. There’s Christian symbolism in the noble Aslan, who sacrifices himself to atone for another’s sins –hardly surprising, as the tale comes from the pen of the greatest Christian apologist of the 20th century.
The movie, which can be enjoyed on any number of levels, speaks of temptation, sin and redemption. If you don’t love it, I can only assume you’re one of the secret police in the service of the White Witch.
(D'oh! You lost the PETA audience with that first sentence and the FBI, CIA, NSA and Department of Homeland Security with that last one. But I'm glad to learn that Christians, and Christian apologists, are taking a more inclusive view of witchcraft and other heathen traditions as a subject for entertainment these days. For a while there, some of them were slagging on the "Harry Potter" movies for their presentation of witchcraft, and even trying to ban Halloween because they thought it was a pagan ritual or a satanic holiday or something. Nice to know that witches are back in the Christian fold again!)
5. "The Great Raid"-- ... Unlike "Pearl Harbor," there’s no effort to whitewash the Japanese military, who are presented as pure sadists and cold-blooded killers – products of a Bushido culture that disdained the weak and helpless.
There’s heroism to spare, especially in the real-life character of the American nurse who remained behind to help the prisoners, a tender love story and a realistic depiction of combat. In the midst of another war for the survival of civilization, it helps to remember the sacrifices of an earlier generation of G.I.s.
(Yes, American movies have, in general, been so wishy-washy when it comes to portraying the Japanese during WWII. Perhaps most important, though, this movie demonstrates the advantages of seeking local cooperation for a military maneuver, and how thorough planning and strategic foresight are essential crucial to victory. As director John Dahl told Roger Ebert: "We thought it was important to show what a crucial role the Filipinos played. There were things we didn't have time for in the movie -- for example, the total cooperation of the rural people, who rounded up all the dogs so they wouldn't bark and betray the silent troops. And the way hundreds of ox carts were quietly readied, to carry away the freed prisoners.")
6. "Batman Begins" -- ... As Batman struggles to understand the nature of evil and the difference between justice and revenge, he confronts his most deadly challenge...
(That's an excellent description of Steven Spielberg's "Munich." But, wait, are you saying Batman is Jewish?)
7. "The Greatest Game Ever Played" -- ... I particularly liked the portrait of Ouimet’s family: the Irish mother who encourages him to dream, and the disillusioned father (a French immigrant engaged in backbreaking labor) who believes the boy’s dreams will only lead to disappointment and unhappiness. (Why can’t Hollywood give us functional families in the here and now?)
(This is not to be confused with "The Greatest Story Ever Told," which was about a man who would strongly disapprove of money spent on an elitist leisure activity such as golf, when it should be given to the poor. But, yes, there are surely few more functional familial attributes than a father who doesn't believe in his son's dreams. With functions like that, who needs dysfunctions?)
8. "Little Manhattan" -- ... It’s about young love [between 11-year-olds], and not-so-young love.... Their awkward romance is both humorous and touching. It ends where first loves necessarily must end.
(I thought I'd seen this, but it was "The 40-Year-Old Virgin" I was thinking of.)
9. "Coach Carter" -- ... For Coach Carter, turning his boys into young men headed for college is far more important than turning them into star athletes. At Richmond High, only half the students graduate (and only 6% of those go to college). The rest graduate to gangs, drugs, prison and a trip to the morgue. It’s a pleasure to watch Jackson deliver his lines with manly self-assurance.
(This sure sounds like another one of those do-gooder liberal movies to me. Just wondering: Of the half of Richmond students who graduate high school, how many are on Carter's basketball team?)
10. "Memoirs of a Geisha" -- ... (As the film explains, a geisha isn’t a hooker in a kimono, but an “artist of the floating world” – though there is a sexual element to this world.) Overall, “Memoirs” only hints at sex.... The heroine, Sayuri, is sold as a child to a geisha house. Her choices – to become a menial and spend the rest of her life working off her contract to “mother,” or embrace her destiny. She chooses the latter only when the kindness of a handsome businessman makes her yearn for a way to enter his world. Sayuri is brave, determined and compassionate. It’s touching to see a child form an attachment that lasts a lifetime.
Forget the sets (sumptuous). Ignore the scenery (lush and exotic). Instead focus on the story of a little girl who falls in love with a man, and endures much for the sake of that love.
(Wait, wait -- I think I saw this back in the 1980s when it was called... "Pretty Woman"! There's nothing more heartwarming than children being sold by their mothers into slavery -- as menials or sex workers -- and being taught the meaning of love by kind, handsome businessmen. Sounds like it's a classic love story -- an Eastern, if you will -- with a cultural obstacle that comes between the two lovers. Or am I thinking of "Brokeback Mountain" again?)
An interview with Michael Shannon on Freeheld, 99 Homes, Boardwalk Empire, and more.
Our monthly series digs into the career of Wes Craven and comes out with his 3D 2010 film, "My Soul to Take".
A comparison of Frank Costello in The Departed and Whitey Bulger in Black Mass reveals weaknesses in the latter.
A letter to Angelina Jolie about the casting of her upcoming take on "Cleopatra."