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It's not what you do, it's the way that you do it

My previous blog item, "Hillary and Bill: The Movie," has inspired a lot of comments, and some of them utterly baffle me. They take it for granted that I am pro-Hillary, if not necessarily anti-Obama. I've read the item again and believe it is neutral, as it was intended to be. I'm a political creature, but I intend to keep partisan politics out of this journal, which will, and should, deal only with the movies in various ways. I think those comments do, however, reveal something about how we watch movies.

In the piece, I set out to discuss what sort of a movie might be inspired by the endless 2007-2008 primary season. I came up with a backstage drama about the private lives of the Clintons, who, like the Obamas, have found themselves in a Mobius strip of campaigning. It is not natural to be running for office for month after month: To have every public statement and gesture, every shrug of body language, every Freudian slip, pounced on by the attack dogs. If I were forced to lead such a life, it would lead me to some species of madness.

I suggested a backstage film that had empathy for the Clintons. It wouldn't involve whether you agreed with them or not, but would center on how these two people, in private, deal with one another and the campaign hell they live in. I imagined weary scenes set late at night in anonymous hotel rooms. The ways they dealt with one piece of bad news after another. The reasons and ways they had to persist in the face of discouragement. I mentioned Stephen Frears' film "The Queen" (2006) as a possible model.

Why the Clintons and not the Obamas? Quite simply, because their story is more interesting. It has a longer history, and apparently a bleaker outcome. They seem to be losing the primary season, and have seemed so for several months, and they have both been running for something, win or lose, for most of their adult lives. To face this ultimate defeat, at the end of the most punishing primary campaign in American history, must be an ultimate test of their relationship, and what makes them persist in the face of discouragement. I wrote:

"Hillary wanted to win, and she ran and ran and ran until there was a kind of heroism to it. Futile heroism after a point, but that's where the story lies."

Some careless readers thought I was referring to Hillary as heroic. Others argued that she could not be, for one political reason after another. Still more somehow extracted from the essay a defense of Hillary, or an endorsement. But the fact is, I envisioned a movie about the Clintons, not for or against them.

My mail from readers has often assumed that by writing about something, I am endorsing it. Every new documentary about Iraq, for example, inspires a flood of e-mail to the Answer Man. My political views on Bush and Iraq are well known, and I sometimes express them in reviews, but such a documentary's greatest interest is not in what it thinks about the war, but what it brings to the table.

Consider Errol Morris's recent doc "Standard Operating Procedure."

Its content centers on the infamous photographs of torture at Abu Ghirab. It interviews many of the American soldiers involved in taking them. That's it. In plain daylight, the film is about why we take photos, how we look at them, why those particular photographs were taken, how they looked to the soldiers at the time, and how they look now. Its political feelings about the war are never stated. Of course it's implied that the soldiers intensely regret the photos and the military culture that gave birth to their jobs as prison guards, but there is no suggestion they did not support the war in general, or that they were not proud to be serving in uniform.

Yet many of my correspondents needed only to see the subject of the review to denounce the movie, and me, as left-wing, anti-war, biased, and so on. I tried in the review to say the movie was about viewing and thinking about the photos, and wondering what the soldiers and the prisoners were thinking and feeling, and asking why they had been posed in the way we were. One of the Marines in the film states, wisely and clearly, that a photo doesn't tell you what happened before or after it was taken. I think Morris makes it clear that the events depicted, with the human pyramids and dog collars and so on, would never have taken place if a camera had not been present. So the film is about the photographs, and not about the war, Bush, or anything else.

It's the same, really, about movies about anything. It should be possible to admire a film with subject matter you deplore, or positions you despise. The critic can make that clear in a review, but he should acknowledge the qualities of the film. The acid test is Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will." It belongs in my Great Movies Collection, but I've put off reviewing it for years.

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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