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David Edelstein on the politics of movies

Critic David Edelstein goes beyond the surface spectacle of recent films and looks at some of the religious and political overtones running through what some might call popcorn escapist entertainment
David Edelstein on the messages in our movies 03:47

Our critic David Edelstein says even comic-book blockbusters can convey ideological messages:

Whenever I start talking about movies and politics, many people say, "They're just movies! They're entertainment!"

To which I say, "Wake up!"

Any film, even a comic-book blockbuster, can have political messages -- right and left, smart and dumb.

Consider three recent #1 hits:

Director Darren Aronofsky on controversial new film “Noah” 05:40
Darren Aronofsy's "Noah": Religious conservatives are frothing about it. I'd have thought a film that affirms the existence of an all-seeing God who sends visions to believers and punishes wickedness would be welcome in this secular age.

What galls some people, though, is that Russell Crowe's Noah values the Earth itself over humanity, which is shown ravaging the planet.

So is Noah a climate change-disaster allegory? In part I think it is, though Noah learns the hard way that humans matter, too.

The question is whether this is anti-Scripture, or what I think -- a timely re-imagining of an apocalypse story the Bible leaves sketchy.

"Divergent" comes to the big screen 01:17
The message is less obvious in "Divergent." In this dystopian future, humans are split into factions conforming to temperament: Daredevil types are "Dauntless"; selfless do-gooders, "Abnegation." The villains (led onscreen by Kate Winslet) are "Erudite," intellectuals who pursue knowledge. They're the ones who want to murder non-conformists, wipe out the faithful, and rule the world.

How's this political? It conforms to a message made explicit by, among others, former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who opposed higher education funding because, he said, colleges are "indoctrination centers for the Left" doing -- I swear -- Satan's work.

I'll admit my own prejudice -- that society's best hope is an educated populace. But "Divergent" is certainly a powerful warning of what happens when ideology crowds out compassion and tolerance.

Captain America returns to the silver screen 01:16
The most obviously political mainstream movie is, believe it or not, "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." It's a paranoid-conspiracy thriller, and though it's overblown and not terribly deep, a terrific one.

The Captain, who fought with the Greatest Generation in World War II, witnesses the birth of a new age of weaponized surveillance drones that track and kill suspected enemies of the state. He takes on so-called patriots who think national security trumps civil liberties.

Unlike, say, whistleblowers Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden, no one can accuse Captain America of being un-American!

The latest entry in the "Avengers" franchise: "Captain America: The Winter Soldier." Marvel

What's the takeaway? It's that we need to look beyond spectacle and understand that even popcorn escapist movies can be urgent and politically engaging. To argue otherwise -- to say, "They're just movies!" -- is willful blindness.

And that's political, too.

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