Newsweek's Setoodeh: Blame George Bush for Depressing Hollywood Movies

There is absolutely no shock in stating much of the Hollywood media tend to lean slightly more to the left than a fuel gauge pointing to empty. This week I read the upcoming Oscar season seems to focus on movies trending towards morose and dark subjects, and therefore it was with little surprise, and a great deal of mirth, that I learned from an entertainment writer that the reason behind this somber subject matter was not the film makers themselves but a rather well-aimed target for the Hollywood left.

These are the sage words from Newsweek writer, Ramin Setoodeh:  “You can blame Hollywood's gloom and doom on the Oscars, but I'm not going to. Instead, I think it's George W. Bush's fault. Most liberal directors felt restless under his presidency, and they pushed the envelope with over-the-top, operatic tragedies”.

This kind of sweeping commentary of course is asinine, but what strikes me initially is the writer’s ignorance of the past few years of film making.  However, before delving into that morass let’s first analyze the films Setoodeh points to for evidence.  His primary focus is on “The Road”, the post-apocalyptic drama starring Viggo Mortensen with bleak scenes and themes.  “The Road seems to suggest that mankind is on a dreary march to endless pain” writes Ramin, “and after sitting through this season's Oscar contenders, I can relate.”  But looking into the source material you could come to a different conclusion. 

It is based on the novel by Cormac McCarthy, which was released in 2006, but McCarthy stated in an interview he was inspired to write the father-son story back in 2003.  This would suggest he was probably primarily influenced not by a perceived morass of a Bush Presidency but by the fresh wounds of the 9/11 attacks and the doom they could portend. Next, Setoodeh gives you permission to stop listening to him opine as he brings up the Coen Brothers release, “A Serious Man”, which he declares a comedy, even as he admits, “I had to get up and leave in the middle, it's so depressing.”  Not the best way to back up your premise.

Other titles of course are trotted out as “evidence”; the bleak urban drama “Precious” is mentioned, lumped in with last year’s slate of downcast nominees, but this insight also suffers from a timing problem.  We are seeing a rash of other films getting released in the Awards window of December, and they are inconveniently frothier in tone.  This week saw the release of Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog”, and the uplifting bio-pic “Invictus”, with “Avatar”, “Sherlock Holmes”, “Crazy Heart”, “Nine”, and “Up In The Air” soon to follow, with differing levels of drama but few that appeared borne from presidential doom. 

It is difficult to assume exactly what films will qualify in this year’s growth of the BEST FILM category to ten titles.

One thrust of Setoodeh’s arguments is that during the Clinton administration more comedies found their way into the nomination pool -- 20 percent by his estimates, but that still means that 80 percent of “Clinton Movies” were dramatic and heavy.  The fact is that historically The Oscars have been cold towards comedic titles, no matter the man in the White House. 

Audiences however have not only embraced these films, they have flocked enough to have that category expand during the Bush years.  The “R-Rated Comedy” came into vogue during that time with releases like “The 40-year Old Virgin” and “Wedding Crashers” doing big business, ushering in this summer’s monster hit “The Hangover”.  (Of course, the theory may be offered up this title serves as a metaphor for the end of the Bush tenure, but that is a large burden to place on the shoulders of a film that cracks-wise with scenes of dry-humping a tiger.)

One thing Setoodeh chooses to ignore here is that Hollywood has already played out catharsis on screen with our former President.  During the years of the Middle East wars Hollywood has had a lengthy stream of movies that were centered directly on the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and there are noteworthy details about all of those films.  For starters, they were uniformly ignored by the general population.  Year after year studios insisted on releasing these scathing indictments of the war effort, and just as reliably audiences insisted on staying away from them.  “Grace is Gone”, “Home of the Brave”, “In The Valley of Elah”, “Lions For Lambs”, “Redacted”, “Rendition”, “The Situation”, “Stop-Loss”, “The Kingdom," as well as the direct-to-video effort “Conspiracy” all failed to turn a profit. 

And for this discussion you can also add “American Dreamz”, a satirical take on the Bush administration.  Secondly, of those films tied in directly to those wars none garnered a nomination by the Academy.

This summer’s “The Hurt Locker” (another money loser) is finally expected to break through with an Oscar nomination.  However if Hollywood has been so informed by Bush-anxiety and the Oscar voters so influenced by a political cloud you might expect a better track record in this category.

Culture/Society Newsweek Ramin Setoodeh