Following in the footsteps of the auteurist critics who denigrated Stanley Kramer because he was so deficient in the style department, our winking era gives short shrift to the director of On the Beach and Judgment at Nuremberg. (Reviewing Kramer's autobiography, David Kaufman sniffs, "As with ... his films, what is missing from Kramer's reflections is the substance or the eloquence that might have raised his high-minded intentions above their pedestrian realizations.") But as the empty-minded Blockbuster juggernaut rolled on through the '90s, memories of Kramer began to turn fond. Kramer's '50s and mid-'60s films came out foursquare against the Nazis (Judgment), racism (The Defiant Ones and Dinner), war both conventional and nuclear (Ship of Fools and On the Beach), even creationism (Inherit the Wind). In 1968, critic Andrew Sarris had to admit Kramer wasn't a fake, and it's sincere non-fakeness that's winning the day again.
It's been a long road. As the ideals of the early '60s vaporized into narcissism and random violence, the Kramer-esque Message Movie looked as earnestly naive as an acoustic performance of "The Times They Are A-Changing" beneath the bleachers at Altamont. The Issue Film turned darkly arch, blackly ironic, and the burden of bearing its abstract, dispiriting themes crypto-race war (Planet of the Apes), technocalypse (The Omega Man), overpopulation (Soylent Green) fell on the shoulders of square-jawed nihilist Charlton Heston.
In the mid-'70s, Jewison threw in the towel too. Casting James Caan (then, as now, a Heston for hipsters) in the bloody, sarcastic Rollerball a dystopian movie that admits its Kubrickian despair when Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" replaces "The Star-Spangled Banner" as America's pre-game anthem probably sealed the genre's fate. (Rumors that MGM/UA's proposed Rollerball remake will feature Sebastian Bach's more crowd-pleasin' "Counterpunch" could not be confirmed at press time.)
Social Consciousness limped on as an Oscar magnet for another 10 years (Norma Rae, Kramer [not Stanley] vs. Kramer, Gandhi) before admitting defeat in the Spielberg era. Only away from Hollywood, in the person of the Social Issue director par excellence, New Yorkbased Sidney (Dog Day Afternoon) Lumet did the Message Movie live on maybe because the message of his much-lauded Network could be boiled down to an idea that all movie makers, from the most engagé to the most apolitical, used to fully embrace: kill your television.
Even in ashes, the Message Movie didn't go entirely cold. The '90s were the movie decade of Tarantino and James Cameron, but they were also the era of Edward Zwick. The onetime director of the '80s modeling-agency nighttime soap Paper Dolls has not shied away from America's racist history (the Denzel-starring Glory) or been afraid to admit that the summary imprisonment of Arabs would violate both the letter and the spirit of the Constitution (The Siege, also with Washington). Although it's doubtful that anything can ever make up for Legends of the Fall, further Zwick-tastic takes on American problems are now inevitable.
Even Spielberg spent much of the decade doing penance for once having been such a facile entertainer. The one-two punch of Schindler's List and Saving Private Ryan left few doubts that Nazis were indeed bad, while Amistad minced no words about the wrongheadedness of slavery. (These films also forced audiences to confront the issue of bloating in Spielberg's once-crisp running times.)
With the success of Erin Brockovich, we can bank on the fact that today's producers (for the Message Movie has always been more of a producer's genre than a director's) will be calling Western Union faster than you can say "...And Justice for All. " After Jewison helmed that Pacino courtroom consciousness-raiser, his reputation as a Big Issue director went into decline. His success with Moonstruck only led to weird items like the Whoopi Goldberg comedy Bogus, in which Gérard Depardieu played the eponymous character, an imaginary friend to overhyped little seer-of-the-dead Haley Joel Osment. Luring Denzel Washington back into the fold for The Hurricane has rescued him, at least temporarily. Washington even lent dignity to Zwick's Gulf War drama Courage under Fire.
Many moviegoers will welcome the screen-return of even the gentlest of progressive politics; others will simply ride it out until they get to see The Last Boy Scout II. After-the-fact exposés like Erin Brockovich and The Hurricane may be feel-good movies, but right now, the people they make feel the best are the ones collecting the Oscar nominations and counting the money, not the victims of racist cops and death-dealing corporations. Hollywood has always thought that the best way to solve a problem is to make an all-star movie about it. In the meantime, does anyone want to see my Mumia script? This hotshot chick lawyer and she is hot gets all obsessed with how innocent Abu-Jamal is, see, and decides she has to she has to, do you understand? get him off death row, and she'll do anything and I mean anything to see that justice is done. Nothing's gonna stop her, OK? Do you know who I see in the leads? Hint: Does the word "pelican" mean anything to you? How about "brief"?