The Conversation

Call Western Union? Not Quite

One of my pet peeves is the idea that good films don't have a "message." This is often summed up by referencing a quote attributed to studio boss Samuel Goldwyn "If you want to send a message, call Western Union." That sounds good but I don't think it's true.

For instance: 1981 - Chariots of Fire, 1982 - Ghandi, 1986 - Platoon, 1990 - Dances with Wolves, 1993 - Schindler's List, 1995 - Braveheart, 1999 - American Beauty, 2005 - Crash.

Those are all best picture winners and all of them have a message to convey, though obviously not all of the messages are controversial with everyone. Nevertheless, these aren't just films about what happened--in Vietnam, in India, in Scotland, in the American West, in LA, in suburbia--they aren't documentaries. These are films that make a point about the morality of what happened. They take sides. They have a lesson, a moral, a warning--in short they have a message.

If you include films that were nominated or which won awards other than best picture you can list a bunch more:

  • 1958 - The Defiant Ones
  • 1960 - Elmer Gantry
  • 1962 - To Kill a Mockingbird
  • 1967 - Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
  • 1967 - In the Heat of the Night
  • 1970 - MASH
  • 1976 - All the President's Men
  • 1979 - The China Syndrome
  • 1983 - Silkwood
  • 1993 - Philadelphia
  • 1991 - Thelma & Louise
  • 1999 - Cider House Rules
  • 2000 - Erin Brokovich
  • 2000 - Traffic
  • 2005 - Brokeback Mountain
  • 2005 - Syriana
  • 2006 - Blood Diamond
  • 2008 - Milk
  • 2011 - The Help

How about from this year's nominated films: Lincoln, Django Unchained, Les Miserables, Beasts of the Southern Wild, The Master, Life of Pi. All of them contain a message in addition to an entertaining and compelling story.

Even summer popcorn films these days--Avatar, The Day After Tomorrow, Wall-E, Lorax, the Star Wars prequels, etc--often contain subtle or not-so-subtle political and cultural messages. Some of them--Iron Man 2, The Dark Knight--are even arguably conservative. In any case, one could list hundreds more films that were less successful at the big awards or the box office but which nevertheless were not merely entertainment for entertainment's sake. They had something to say about where we are and where we ought (or ought not) be going as a society.

And of course the same is true of television. Mad Men, 24, West Wing, etc. Some of the messages in TV shows are bought and paid for by people looking to change public opinion. Even Washington is in on the act these days, using story lines planted in friendly TV shows to get across messages about the President's health reform plan.

The idea that good art doesn't have a message doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, though it may be true that bad art is often a case of putting the message cart in front of the horse. What makes art artful isn't a lack of message it's the ability to skillfully pack enough realism (Traffic), emotion (Philadelphia) or visual creativity (Avatar) around the message to make it palatable even to people who don't necessarily agree with the writer/director's point of view. Hollywood rewards those who learn to hide their political hooks inside the colorful lures of art and entertainment.


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