03/16/2007 02:51 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Everything is Political

The $70-million opening weekend of 300 answered the big question: Can a blood-soaked, slightly homoerotic sword-and-sandal comic-book movie attract a mass audience in the wake of such flops as Troy and Alexander? Talk about the burning issues of our times.

But the success of 300 failed to settle the other question that arose during the run-up to the film's premiere: Namely, which character is supposed to be the stand-in for George Bush? Which army is meant to represent the United States? Is this movie saying that we're the good guys - or the bad guys?

Is it Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler) and his 300 Spartan tough guys, who go to Thermopylae to defend the freedom of their city-state from the ravening terrorizing invaders from Persia (which is what they used to call Iran)?

Or should we visualize Bush when we see Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) and his million-man march of killers, the forces of evil about to descend on tiny Sparta, which hasn't done anything to provoke such an attack other than refusing to surrender?

Obviously, how you view that issue depends on how you view the U.S.'s misadventure in Iraq (oops, guess I tipped my own hand there). It's easy for someone like Willian Kristol or Rush Limbaugh to point to the Spartans as the metaphorical equivalent of the USA - with righteousness on their side defending against foreigners who worship a different god (which might as well render them godless). But it's just as easy for someone from to view the egomaniacal, heartless Xerxes as the symbol of American arrogance, steamrolling all who disagree.

"Everything is political," the filmmaker Hector Babenco once told me in an interview. Yet, as he was quick to point out, American audiences rarely notice the political subtext in a film unless the movie's subject itself is political. Otherwise, it's assumed that all the other elements - from casting to happy endings to the lack of overt political content - exists in a world independent of political interpretation. Not true, of course.

Why isn't there more discussion of the politics of movies? Because critics rarely bring the subject up. Why not? I'd bet most or many of them have been actively discouraged from doing so by their editors - because it inevitably pisses off one group of readers or another. It's also thought to alienate readers when critics are too analytical and go beyond simple thumbs-up, one-to-four-star scale of evaluation. Like every other aspect of the old media - by which I mean newspapers - movie reviews are being dumbed down and joked up to appeal to a rapidly shrinking readership that has the newspaper industry in a panic.

It's easy to spot the politics in a movie as powerful and pointed as, say, Ken Loach's "The Wind That Shakes the Barley," which opens in limited release later this week. Obviously, it's about the Irish struggle for independence from colonial England in 1920. Less obviously, it too provides a metaphor for the American occupation of Iraq. When Damian (Cillian Murphy), a doctor-turned- rebel, screams at his befuddled British captor, "I don't recognize your authority! Get out of my country!", it's not difficult to imagine a similar scene at, oh, let's say, Abu Ghraib.

It will be interesting to see how many critics make that connection - or do more than pigeonhole "Wind" as a polemic (which is how conservative British critics tagged it). As it stands, beyond the news story reporting the Bush/Leonidas/Xerxes question at the 300 press junket, few of the mostly negative reviews that I saw of that film even mentioned the metaphorical conundrum. It was almost as if critics were relieved to be able to dismiss the film as overheated junk so they wouldn't have to deal with it in a more serious manner.

I'd be willing to bet that most critics for daily newspapers know they'd be opening a can of worms in offering that sort of analysis of 300. If they felt compelled to state an opinion about which side of that dialectic they come down on, they run the risk of alienating a portion of their readers. Even the perception of a political position is enough to trigger angry letters and phone calls.

So 300 is a hit. Big surprise. And most publications are content to leave it at that, skittishly dancing away from its politics and possible controversy. No surprise at all.