Samuel Goldwyn told his writers, “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” Nevertheless, every story contains a message. Writers can no more help sending them than they can help speaking prose. Indeed, modern civilization may be more influenced by the ethical values taught by movies and television than by any other cultural institution, including religion. But some films speak more powerfully than others. For example, those five nominated for best picture in the upcoming Academy Awards are unusually compelling. Their surface messages differ but they all explore a common moral theme: punishment.
As I “read” them, their surface messages are as follows: Brokeback Mountain: “Everyone is better off if gays are free to form loving, monogamous unions.” Capote: “Journalists who write about real people may be tormented by conflicts of interest that compromise loyalty to their subjects.” Crash: “Everyone is racist, but on unpredictable occasions, everyone is also capable of surmounting racism.” Good Night and Good Luck: “Journalists have a responsibility to tell the truth, even when it is unpopular or when it challenges demagogues and powerful interests.” Munich: Revenge harms everyone and does not stop terrorism.”
The subtext running through all five films addresses the moral implications of punishment. In Brokeback Mountain the deeper message is: “Life’s circumstances and conflicting responsibilities may keep gays, like all other lovers, from spending their lives together. But, unlike others, gays must also expect to be punished cruelly, even violently, for their love.”
The punishment theme in Capote is: “Capital punishment is unjust, even for the most vicious crimes, since the perpetrators have been so damaged by life that they are morally incompetent. Nevertheless, recognizing the unfairness of such punishment does not guarantee that one will want to prevent it. Even those of us who are normal and privileged may have our own motives for wanting to harm others.”
In Crash the message about punishment is: “We sometimes punish others who have done us no harm because, out of prejudice, we expect harm from them and want to prevent it or retaliate before they have can do so. Deterrence thus may cause the kind of tragedy that it is meant to prevent.”
In Good Night and Good Luck the corresponding message is: “Punishment is sometimes both justifiable and necessary. The best way of doing it is by exposing the wrongdoer to public scrutiny — ideally by letting his own words and deeds speak loudly for themselves.”
Munich is the story of a team of assassins on a mission to murder the eleven “Black September” terrorists who killed Israeli athletes at the Olympic games in 1972. They mostly succeed, but in the process some are killed themselves, while the rest become uncertain that their victims were genuinely guilty and become terrified by expecting retaliation from the constantly replenished Black September group. The message is: Revenge does not put an end to violence. As Gandhi said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth eventually leaves the whole world blind.’ Still, what else can you do when your people are killed? Turn the other cheek? Even though we know that punishment is no solution, we have no alternative.” (Although the producers and George Jonas, the author, proposed no answer to this dilemma, there actually was a good one. Yasser Arafat realized that the terrorists responsible for the Munich massacre had to be controlled. The PLO therefore offered an apartment with a fridge and TV in Beirut to every Black September member who married a Palestinian woman, plus $5,000 when their first baby was born. In response to these incentives, Black September was never violent again. That plot would have made a better movie than Munich.)
If these are Oscar’s moral messages this year, how successfully are they influencing public opinion? We have no empirical before-and-after-viewing research, but communications experts have established three general principles by which to appraise the five films. A movie or television series is likely to persuade its audience if: (a) it induces us to empathize with the protagonist right until the end; (b) its initial assumptions are those shared by the public, but it gradually reveals strong reasons for the protagonist to change his/her opinion; and (c) it states its message unambiguously, but without heavy-handed rhetoric.
An audience empathizes with a protagonist for two reasons: (a) he is basically moral, and (b) he expresses emotions that are appropriate to the unfolding situations. Clearly, the most admirable protagonist in the lot was Edward R. Murrow in Good Night and Good Luck. Indeed, he is the only character who could be called a "hero.” However, he is not emotionally expressive, so our respect for him never becomes deep affection. It is easier to love the two gay cowboys in Brokeback Mountain – or least the expressive one, for the movie focused more on the taciturn one. Neither of them was inspiring or heroic, so our feeling for them was more one of compassion than admiration. Still, their plight touched viewers’ hearts.
Capote was probably less successful, though its protagonist had a certain charm and could even be forgiven for deceiving, then abandoning, the condemned man who had told him his secrets. The problem here was not a marked lack of empathy for the journalist but rather that the message was never stated clearly. Sophisticated writers have a maxim: “Show, don't tell!” They want the character’s beliefs to be revealed in his visible actions, but in this case, it was not clear what Capote believed. The book makes it only slightly clearer. Nothing exactly questions capital punishment here.
Crash’s message was original and was stated unmistakably — probably too clearly. The characters were too much like caricatures of racists to be believable, and the message came across as heavy-handed preaching. It was the least subtle of the films. Usually the characters started from such an extreme point of view that the audience would hardly empathize with them, and their transformation was not gradual and reasoned but sudden and often inexplicable. Whereas Crash fascinates, it does not convince.
Munich was a continuous display of violence. It does offer a few arguments, both for and against the protagonist’s beliefs, and by the end he has mostly given them up. However, his counterterrorist activities are so repellent that one cannot empathize with him even from the outset. Besides, the film offers no new or inspiring ideas. Its message is probably the least effective of the five films.