Is there really a difference?
What differentiates a good message movie from a movie that’s too preachy? How does a movie effectively present a point of view without insulting the intelligence of its audience? As a Cinema of Change filmmaker, these are questions I am asking myself more and more.
This year is the 70th Anniversary of Frank Capra’s beloved classic, It’s A Wonderful Life. I confess that even though I consider Capra to be one of the best filmmakers of our time, he often treads a fine line between earnestness and hitting his audience over the head with his message.
But why it is that this bothers me in movies like It’s A Wonderful Life, but less so in a movie like Traffic or All the President’s Men? It comes down to the transparency of the director’s intent. Capra is a master filmmaker, but he also tends to make his point so vehemently that it feels like we’re watching a message being justified, rather than a story being told organically. That is, the argument for a particular ideal, way or life, or way of treating one another feels like a foregone conclusion even before the opening credits.
As long as you’re putting your central idea on trial though, rather than dismissing all opposing points of view, it’s a step in the right direction. If you’re stacking the deck in favor of your message, you’re cheating your audience – if you’re stacking the deck against your message, you’re challenging them and ultimately hitting deeper truths.
A perfect example of this: Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a movie that feels very Capra-inflected in its commitment to a single ideal. Yet at no point are story complexity and character depth sacrificed in the name of that ideal. There are no enemies and no heroes, only people standing up for what they believe in, and therein lays the conflict. It’s essentially a story of one man fighting against the world to uphold essential American ideals during the Cold War, and sure, by the end, the audience has never doubted that he was right all along, but the script sketches all of its characters in shades of grey, so much so that we understand where all of them are coming from and how they are thinking.
Bridge of Spies avoids cliches, tropes, and short-handed writing. It opts to be Cinema of Change and goes the distance make sure it’s critical and thoughtful. That is ultimately is how we avoid making propaganda.
I make films that promote ideas and question assumptions. I make no apologies for that, but as I explore the many ways in which that approach to filmmaking can go wrong, I continue to realize how delicate a balance one has to strike in order to do Cinema of Change right.