Political Film and Conversation: Elia Kazan’s Wild River and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land and Zero Dark Thirty, In the Land of Blood and Honey, and A Bottle in the Gaza Sea.

By Daniel Garrett

Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960) and Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land (2012)
Zero Dark Thirty (2012) by Kathryn Bigelow
In the Land of Blood and Honey (2011) by Angelina Jolie
A Bottle in the Gaza Sea (2011) by Thierry Binisti

The most delightful aspects of life may be conversation with an intelligent person who knows well a subject that interests you, and sunlight, trees, flowers, and long walks, and lakes and streams, travel and rest, great food and dessert, and literature, film, music, and the other arts, and sport, and spiritual contemplation, as well as friends, lovers, and family.  Yet our lives take place in particular communities and countries, in political circumstances.  Experience, observation, research, rigorous standards and astute comparisons, understanding and empathy are some of the basic requirements for the development of a significant political consciousness.  Those abilities and qualities would not seem to be so demanding or rare that the confusion and conflict that exist in public discourse could be explained by their absence.  Yet, the kinds of political conversation that take place are often so ignorant, so malicious, so paranoid, that they are mystifying.  Is the problem rooted in a faulty public education system that makes it seem as if the most vital political questions have been solved before the birth of its students?  Is the problem that conflicts between social groups are presented in the most self-interested, self-approving ways?  Is the problem that elected officials are not honest about the complexity and compromise involved in managing controversial issues?  Is the general populace too lazy and illogical to grasp the fundamental ideas and issues in government and society?  Honestly, it is hard to know.  (What do you think?)  Yet, when new works are offered—film and creative literature, music, and other arts as well as reports, studies, and commentaries—they are objects circulating within a culture of incomprehension, speculation, and suspicion.

Every film that takes on an important social issue is seen by its makers—artists, craftspeople, and funding executives—as an experiment in art, communication, and commerce.  Will the work be understood, respected, supported?  It must be difficult to recall that political films have been made, in different forms: Adam’s Rib, All the President’s Men, Amistad, Blue Collar, Bobby, Boys Don’t Cry, Brokeback Mountain, Bulworth, The China Syndrome, Coming Home, The Conspirator, A Day Without a Mexican, Doubt, The Dry Land, Easy Rider, Edge of the City, Erin Brockovich, Far From Heaven, For Colored Girls, Get on the Bus, Glory, Good Night and Good Luck, Grapes of Wrath, The Great Debaters, Green Zone, Heaven’s Gate, The Ides of March, In the Valley of Elah, Inherit the Wind, Into the Wild, Lifeboat, Lincoln, Lions for Lambs, The Long Walk Home, Malcolm X, Matewan, Milk, Modern Times, Nashville, Night Catches Us, Norma Rae, Nothing but the Truth, Pleasantville, Pride, Red State, Red Tails, Reds, Rosewood, Sankofa, Schindler’s List, Silkwood, A Soldier’s Story, Thelma and Louise, To Kill a Mockingbird, and Wag the DogAdam’s Rib makes fun of gender assumptions, while Brokeback Mountain shows love between two young men; and both films can be considered political for the social conflict their lead characters inspire or reflect. Inherit the Wind is about the fight over teaching scientific evolution or religious creationism in school.  Reds is one of the rare American films to engage a Communist or socialist perspective.  The China Syndrome and Silkwood explore the dangers of nuclear power.  Rosewood demonstrates what happens when black Americans take responsibility for themselves, as conservatives advocate: brutal retributive violence.  For Colored Girls is about the trouble some black women have with some black men.  Into the Wild focuses on a privileged young man’s rejection of bourgeois life.  Green Zone is about the failed search for the weapons of mass destruction in Iraq that were cited as the justification of war.  Why does the trepidation about political films remain?  Is it that, no matter what anyone says about the good character of Americans, that few trusts the discernment, intelligence, and sympathy of Americans when it comes to significant subjects?  Yet, artists keep trying.


Wild River, conceived and directed by Elia Kazan but written by Paul Osborn, is a film with a focus on nature and town and private life and the conflict that arises in pursuit of the public good, a film with a beautifully melancholy color palette and tone, and smooth pacing, deft editing, for a story threaded with honest, intelligent talk.  It shows government responsibility for the common good in conflict with individual will, preference, and property: after years of river flooding having destroyed homes and taken lives, a great dam is built, and an agent of the Tennessee Valley Authority works to get a resistant landowner to give up her island home before the great dam is operational and the river floods her land.  Under her will, the landowner has her own family as well as a community of black workers.  The government agent, of necessity, is setting a new order against the old order.  He is played by Montgomery Clift, an actor whose beauty was damaged by a terrible car accident that left him merely handsome, though addled by pain medication, drink, and sexual doubt.  Montgomery Clift is reticent, sensitive, an example of a solitary man who is not at all savage; he has integrity, but he has been a bit hollowed, weakened—and the actor’s personality affects how he plays the agent, Chuck.  The man is respectable but he is not a force.  The film’s strongest performances are given by Jo Van Fleet as the old tough lady landowner, Ella, and by Lee Remick as the lady’s granddaughter, Carol, a lonely young widow who discovers her own temperament and desires when speaking with the government agent.  Both women want what they want—and, whatever they say, insist on their right to have it.  The performances suggest that you can achieve power if you commit yourself to it, without asking permission.  The older woman is prideful and provincial, and given to paranoid talk about government (she suggests that President Roosevelt’s building the dam to prevent the annual floods that kill people and demolish homes is a ploy to get votes; the idea that government is constructed to help people, to accomplish the things they cannot do for themselves, seems foreign to her).  The grandmother has been the one holdout in the plans to clear the land for the dam, an emblem of an ornery, isolationist spirit, one that the government agent played by Clift will come to identify as a concern for dignity and independence.  Ella’s granddaughter Carol, played by Remick, is adrift, mournful, yet open after the death of her husband and the end of their apparently happy marriage and her failure to complete a college course.  The agent’s talking to the granddaughter stimulates her intelligence, and compels her to think of the world and other ways of being in it; and their unexpected affair draws strength to her and complicates his life too.  The dam has changed the course of their lives.  The young widow was going to disappear into common expectation and routine and the agent was going to move on to other assignments, calm and cool, distant, efficient, and intelligent.  The custom of the county is partly embodied by the violent response of some of the townspeople to the agent’s hiring of some of the local Negroes at a fair salary.  When the new lovers take flight together, they are going to a better place.


Promised Land presents a familiar situation, a small town facing down the changing culture, the shifting economy, and the dire prospects for the future—until its citizens are given the opportunity to sell the rights to the natural gas underneath their land, earning enough money to maintain or change their lives.  Matt Damon and Fran McDormand play corporate agents delegated to make contracts with the townspeople.  Steve (Damon) is a shrewd, stocky young man who is ingratiating but tough and able to offer deals that save his company money, but he has a residue of conscience that troubles him; while Sue (McDormand) is a practical woman with a son, just doing her job.  Their work is challenged when a high school teacher with some expertise draws public attention to the corporation’s method of extraction, on fracking: a method of flushing water and chemicals through rock that releases gas—which can damage the environment, endangering the stability of the land, poison the ground water, and threaten plants and animals.  Why is it that only a few people in a community ever seem to have sophisticated knowledge?  Why do so many abdicate to others the responsibility to know, and to make significant sense of the world?  The corporate agents develop minor flirtations with a couple of the townspeople, but luckily nothing comes of that—it might seem a form of exploitation if they sexed and left.  The flirtations do imply something about the friendliness, and even loneliness, of some of the residents there; and the flirtations allow moments that have nothing to do with business.  There are conversations about singing and teaching children to take care of things.  As the debate over whether the town should sell its gas rights proceeds, someone claiming to be an environmental activist whose family farm was destroyed by fracking arrives, and, he, Dustin, played by John Krasinski, is charming and smart and thus persuasive.  (Damon and Krasinski wrote the script that Gus Van Sant directs, creating a believable story within a natural landscape: an Eden threatened by the larger world.)  Agriculture and animal husbandry are part of the town’s traditions, traditions that have come to include church and school and food and drink and shopping establishments.  Traditions are maintained because they sustain people, making survival, health, and pleasure possible; but what can people do when the surrounding world changes and those changes affect them and the traditions are no longer enough?  That is the dilemma of the town.  There turns out to be both more and less to the environmentalist’s story than is first told; and the film ends with a certain ambiguity regarding the town’s decision.  What is most important is the attention paid to small town America, and the dilemma—ethical and economic—that is presented.

Zero Dark Thirty

Zero Dark Thirty is an example of the kind of film that exploits rather than illuminates history.  Its range of operations does not equal its range of understanding.  This film does not have much sense of complexity, of history or conscience; and it takes one of the most serious, even traumatic, facts of American history and uses it as the basis for action movie thrills.  The attack on the World Trade Center and the search for Usama (Osama) bin Laden led to engagement with a part of the world that most Americans, even those in power, knew very little about.  Power has been expressed by Western states with will but without knowledge of culture, spiritual values, or local politics: and the use of torture to gain intelligence was a primitive attempt to make up for that lack of knowledge.  The film does not fill in what was not known, as it could have: the film says nothing about the many invasions the Afghani people have suffered through the ages and of how little they have benefited from foreign powers, including that of Americans.  Many of those very poor people do not have the time, energy, or inclination to think about fighting, being too busy trying to survive their harsh terrain and hard lives.  The film does not acknowledge that Pakistan is an independent country, not an agency of the American government and thus has its own loyalties, priorities, and security (or insecurity) issues.  In director Kathryn Bigelow and writer Mark Boal’s Zero Dark Thirty, a young woman intelligence officer becomes involved with the brutal interrogation of Muslim prisoners as she investigates terrorism and tries to track down the location of bin Laden.  Her dedication leads to the identification of a bin Laden courier and that to the leader’s Pakistani compound, which is invaded, the leader killed.  It is an accomplishment but not a triumph—and it is hateful and perverse to cheer any man’s death.  Although her lone wolf attitude is noted, Maya’s desire for violent retaliation is not analyzed or criticized.  Jessica Chastain, pale, red-haired, slender, is a uniquely beautiful woman and a distinctive and gifted actress (Coriolanus, Lawless, Take Shelter); and as Maya she gives another deep, seamless, transparent performance—as appropriate, she is tentative and firm, shy and confident, passionate, resolved, spent.  Her colleague Dan, played by Jason Clarke, a boulder of an aging boy and an intelligence officer and torturer, has strength and brutal humor but more could have been made of his exhaustion.  Was it merely psychological?  Or was it moral too; and did it involve any sexual confusion?  The use of torture as a method of intelligence-gathering and the death of an enemy that is sought are far from ideal.  If death is the only victory, that is proof that there have been profound failures of understanding and communication and strategy, failures of political mastery—and of humanity.

In the Land of Blood and Honey

In the Land of Blood and Honey is a beautifully conceived, written, and executed film, drawing on a classic subject in a modern age: love between a man and woman from two different communities in a time of war between those communities.  This motion picture about the Bosnian war is the first film the actress Angelina Jolie has directed and it is better than most of the films on offer.  It is rare that a work of cinema is this well done and significant.  The actress (Lara Croft, A Mighty Heart, The Tourist), through her humanitarian endeavors, had visited the country and heard the stories of the Bosnian war, of the callous murder of Muslim civilians and the rape of women by Serbs.  She wrote a script and shared it with people on all sides of the conflict (which President Clinton and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright resisted becoming involved in), and Jolie got the responses of participants, and used that for insight in revising her screenplay.  Angelina Jolie is a writer and a director of impressive merit: her passion and preparation are at the foundation of quality work.  In the film In the Land of Blood and Honey, a Muslim woman painter, Ajla (Zana Marjanovic), living with her sister and the sister’s baby, meets a Serbian policeman, Danijel (Goran Kostic), and their nightclub dance is interrupted by the explosion of a bomb.  Life quickly changes, with Muslim men rounded up and shot and Muslim women jailed in camps, where they are regularly raped.  The policeman, now an army officer (his father is a general), protects the Muslim woman he knew, but their relationship is precarious, subject to the surveillance of others and the distrust between the two that threatens their affection and desire.  Life is brutal for Muslims; and when the painter’s sister goes out for supplies, she comes back to find her baby has become a victim of cruelty.  What is interesting is how casual the cruelty is—and is presented: it is a matter of course; and yet, while there is not much critical comment about the fact of cruelty, very few denunciations, the people who are treated badly respond with confusion and pain and fear, as people do.  The choices that Jolie has made and the things she has chosen not to do are as important as what she has chosen to do; and thus the film has persuasive drama and depth.  Because the Serbian officer the Muslim lady likes attempts to be decent despite his circumstances and responsibilities, the viewer has a sense of his complexity and possibility.  The historical role he has allows power but limited freedom.  His power gives him responsibility for other men and for atrocities that he himself may not have committed.  Inevitably, the lovers clash—as a result of history, community, conscience, divergent choices, and distrust.  It is a beautiful, intelligent, timeless and tragic story, a most admirable and significant film.

A Bottle in the Gaza Sea

It is often the case that when we cannot find the sensitivity or sophistication we require in or own culture, we must week it elsewhere—in the arts and philosophies of other nations.  Thus we appreciate work by Bach, Bergman, Bernhard, Bertolucci, Chereau, Costa-Gavras, Fassbinder, Frears, Godard, Kaige, Kiarostami, Mozart, Olivier, Ray, Renoir, Rilke, Rohmer, Shakespeare, Sokurov, Tarkovsky, Techine, Turgenev, and many others.  Sometimes you read, see, or hear a story and its logic makes you wonder why you have not come to it before.  In A Bottle in the Gaza Sea, a Jewish girl and a Palestinian young man become distant friends—and it is such a simple and compelling story that one thinks of the other films one has seen on Israeli and Palestinian subjects and wonders why this story was not there.  We are familiar with the stories of attack and reprisals between Israelis and Palestinians—and the American preference for Israel.  A Bottle in the Gaza Sea is obviously different.  Following an explosion in a café, a Jewish girl puts a message in a bottle and it floats to Gaza and is answered by the Palestinian boy.  The message in the bottle gives the film a fairy tale aspect: what if?  Yet everything that surrounds the two young people seems utterly real.  The motion picture is a French production set in Israel and Palestine, but its theme concerns us all: love beyond differences.  The sun-bleached stones and peculiar landscape and local architecture are great to see.  In the film, the young woman, Tal (Agathe Bonitzer), has parents, who with Tal, have moved from France to Israel and are trying to adjust to a strange place they want to think of as home, the ancestral home and the home of practical pleasures and responsibilities.  Her brother is in the Israeli army.  Tal has young friends who think about school, love, music, body piercings, and the required military service.  The Palestinian young man, Naim (Mahmoud Shalaby; sometimes Mahmud) has a mother (Hiam Abbas) who worries about his future and encourages him to think about college, and friends who are frisky and virtuous young men but also somewhat aimless, and an uncle who resents the young correspondent learning the French language, and whom the friendly but tormented young man works for as a delivery guy.  Palestinian soldiers police internet cafes for collaborators, disloyalty.  The Palestinian youth and the Jewish girl write notes to each other and send them by electronic mail; and their correspondence moves from naiveté and skepticism to intimacy, doubt, concern to anger to sympathy and friendship.  The friendship does not seem particularly romantic, but as their relationship involves ideals and spirit—one’s hope for oneself and for others—and, most of all, as it is about intimacy between a man and woman, it is perceived as romantic (sexual) by associates; and it may be romantic (loving), but on an unusual level.

Is there enough beauty and knowledge in the world?  What are the virtues we want to cultivate and celebrate?  What pain do we want to ease?  Where there is injustice, do we want justice?  What kind of culture do we want to live in, and with?  Many people do not understand art, its technique or its mission, but art conveys living experience and contemplation of life better than almost anything else.  Yet most people do not know the passion that inspires art, the purpose that shapes it, or the rigors that sustain it.  They do not know of the search for meaning by the artist among perceptions and possibilities and relationships, the search that infuses the form of art and its content.  They know nothing of the months and years spent studying diverse traditions and developing craft and imagining creative options.  All most of us recognize are the emotion, rhetoric, and sensation in art, often confusing our simple opinion with the artist’s supposed intention or understanding.  The much maligned artist—lazy, selfish, mad, impertinent, useless—is the despised obscurity, the envied success, the dead hero; and the fulfillments of art must be balm for the stupid abuse, with the promised immortality the justification of sacrifice and suffering.  Does that matter?  It is dangerous for people in a democracy to have a crippled sense of culture or politics: questionable choices and decisions are likely to follow, such as censorship and condemnation and confiscation, and conviction for imaginary crimes.  The knowledge that could be brought to light today is kept in the dark until some distant tomorrow—when it can be admired for its beauty but no longer have any practical value in a changed world.  If education and its narrow instructions are responsible for the lack of understanding brought to art, it seems also that the public media responsible for dissemination of information impoverishes political sensibility:  the brief nightly notations that television presents as news, facts without history, understanding, or meaning; the idiocy of conservative talk radio, full of misrepresentation, prejudice, superstition, and hate; the presentation of official sources as final authorities in newspaper reports; and the rampant frivolity, gossip, and malice of the internet.  There can be little doubt that the obscenity, promiscuity, and vulgarity easily observed in film, music, and daily life are a perversion of liberalism.  Irony and sarcasm have replaced sincerity and cordial manners.  Both the left and the right have things to apologize for, things that they can attempt to correct.  Of course, the fear and ignorance of majority group members do not help, nor do the personal pettiness and paranoia of minority group members.  When intelligent conversation occurs around art or politics, conversation not coaxed or curated by longtime devotees, it seems a surprise to everyone.  Fundamentally, and unfortunately, despite the brave, intelligent, and even heroic efforts of some artists, we have the public discourse we deserve.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer of fiction, poetry, drama, journalism, and criticism.  Daniel Garrett’s work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Garrett admires classic and modern literature and philosophy, and likes painting and sculpture, French film, Afghan and Indian food, jazz, rock, and world music; and he has written about international film for Offscreen; and produced comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He originated internet logs: one focused on culture and politics, “City and Country, Boy and Man,” and one focused on books, “The Garrett Reader,” and one focused on art, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker.”  Garrett has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.