The power of films that tackle real-world issues -- EW asks if 'Blood Diamond,' 'Fast Food Nation,' and other conscience-clanging movies can truly affect audiences

By Owen Gleiberman
Updated November 10, 2006 at 05:00 AM EST

On the off chance you don’t already have enough on your plate, here’s another hot-button topic to worry about: conflict diamonds. The upcoming Leonardo DiCaprio thriller, Blood Diamond, tackles the issue of raw gems that were mined at gunpoint (or worse) to fuel the decimating guerrilla wars of Sierra Leone. Directed by Edward Zwick, the film, set in 1999, is a lavish big-scale production, with scenes of eye-opening carnage — young men getting their hands chopped off — as well as world-jewel-market lessons that tick across the screen with grim intrigue. And there is DiCaprio as a cucumber-cool South African mercenary who befriends a fisherman-turned-forced diamond worker (the enthralling Djimon Hounsou), plus Jennifer Connelly as a Vanity Fair reporter. ”You think you’re going to change the outcome?” barks DiCaprio to the swank, do-gooder journalist. ”You sell blood diamonds too!” An accusation she quickly dodges by declaring ”Not all American girls want a storybook wedding!”

In 2006, that’s a startling statement for a political drama to hang its case on. I mean, really, how many American girls don’t want a storybook wedding? (Enough to make this movie a hit?) Even prior to its release on Dec. 8, Blood Diamond has touched a nerve at De Beers, the international diamond conglomerate, which launched a PR campaign renouncing, and denying, the purchase of all conflict diamonds. Yet in today’s frazzled, fraught, nervously consumerist environment, it’s worth asking how much attention any moviegoer, overwhelmed by health care, the housing market, the techno-toys they have to buy their kids, not to mention such trivialities as the war in Iraq, is going to have left to devote to yet another issue: making sure they buy $10,000 jewels, if they can afford them, from enlightened mining zones.

I didn’t used to have these thoughts, this testy skepticism, about topical liberal message movies. Like a lot of people, I went to such high-minded and urgently timely rabble-rousers as Z or Norma Rae or All the President’s Men or Silkwood or Salvador or Erin Brockovich and got riled up, inspired, or simply entertained by them, taking in the gutbucket nobility of what they were saying — the protests against intolerance, greed, corporate malfeasance, political corruption, and so forth. Of course, many of these movies (like, say, The Killing Fields) deal with events that have already passed, and so they can scarcely be expected to change things. More and more, though, the films that arrive with a timely message — at least, the ones that aren’t documentaries — often seem to be released into a cultural vacuum of indifference.

Unless I’m forgetting something, I don’t recall The Interpreter, that Nicole Kidman United Nations thriller, stirring up a lot of overheated coffee-bar conversation about the role of the U.N. in the post-9/11 world, and ditto for North Country and the issue of sexual harassment. (I’m not even counting a camp fiasco like Beyond Borders, which was like a promo for Angelina Jolie’s Third World adoption campaign.) True, neither of those films was particularly good, but I’d pose the same question of effectiveness, of zeitgeist heat, in relation to The Constant Gardener, a splendidly made conspiracy thriller that did a scrupulous job of dramatizing the willingness of pharmaceutical companies to exploit AIDS in Africa for profit. Did it stimulate dialogue about, or alter the actions of, Big Pharma by one-tenth of a degree? And if not, did its message really mean anything? Was it all just hot air in a prestige Oscar bottle?

The question seems relevant as we enter another holiday movie season, with big-message pictures an inevitable part of the awards smorgasbord. The funny thing is, these movies now arrive with a wary, almost daunted sense of their potential irrelevance. In Richard Linklater’s Fast Food Nation, a brow-wrinkled muckraker adapted from Eric Schlosser’s nonfiction exposé of burger-world scandals (what’s next — Quentin Tarantino’s Consumer Reports?), a group of young folks, fed up with the corruption underlying the American fast-food industry, decide to get off their duffs and do something. One suggests writing a letter of protest, at which point the cool rebel guy, the one with the long hair and wool cap out of Dazed and Confused, steps forward. A letter, he scoffs? What’s needed, he says, is action. So the kids devise a plan to hit the corporation where it lives. Yet an overtone of awkwardness ripples through this mad-as-hell moment, since it raises an important question about the movie we’re watching. Is Fast Food Nation going to rouse anyone to action? Or is it just the cinematic equivalent of that woebegone letter, the one destined to have no effect at all?

You can see what the makers of these movies are going for, in their messianic Hollywood zeal. They must figure that if a book or a magazine article or a page-10 news story can spotlight an issue, how much more power might be derived from transforming that reportage into a vast ”important” drama with major marquee names. Yet it’s the transformation that may be the problem. It implies that the issues at stake are castor oil, that they need to be taken with a screenful of colorful-global-thriller sugar to make the medicine go down. Audiences, by now, are too aware of the clichés: the selfish heroes who wake up and learn how to care, the cover-ups that tilt into violence, the last-act triumph over the System.

Ironically, the Hollywood message movie may have revealed its weary bones in Erin Brockovich (2000), a good and popular film. In that toxic-waste corporate rouser, director Steven Soderbergh treated the message movie as a genre, pure and simple, as formatted as a Western. You could root for Julia Roberts, in her bustiers, to fight the power without worrying about what the power was. Tellingly, that same year, Soderbergh also made the brilliant Traffic, the rare topical film that spins the texture of an issue into drama, though in hindsight the question of whether that movie had even a ripple effect upon American drug-war policy remains in serious doubt.

To be fair, only a handful of topical dramas have ever had much resonant effect. The overlapping slew of cover-up thrillers that dotted the mid-1970s (Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, The Conversation) helped the public connect to the revelations of Watergate. The China Syndrome (1979), that nuclear hot potato, was the ironic beneficiary of the Three Mile Island disaster (it was released 12 days before the accident), and JFK generated headlines and more: Oliver Stone’s electric tapestry of conspiracy provoked dozens of articles in The New York Times, and the curiosity about the Kennedy assassination it rekindled was instrumental in getting Congress to open sealed files on the event. It’s worth noting that the first blockbuster, The Birth of a Nation (1915), was an incendiary message movie, and so, in its cornball-storybook way, was Casablanca (1942), released at the height of World War II, in which Humphrey Bogart’s Rick, conquering his apathy in the face of the war, learned that the problems of two people ”don’t amount to a hill of beans.”

Woodrow Wilson said The Birth of a Nation was ”writing history with lightning,” but has any scripted drama from the last three decades had as lightning an effect upon the national discourse as Fahrenheit 9/11? Whatever one’s opinion of Michael Moore, he has proven — in a way that Borat oddly echoes — that American moviegoers are hungry for confrontation, information, an immediate mirror of their times far more than they are for tidy liberal homilies served up in melodramatic form. Super Size Me proved that too — and so did Al Gore with the bracing, dialogue-in-coffee-bar-provoking An Inconvenient Truth. In general, the rise of documentaries as a mainstream entertainment form may turn out to be the single biggest nail in the topical-message-movie coffin.

It boils down to this: We now live in a reality-based media culture that bombards us with advocacy. Book-length exposés. Cable news. Talk radio. The 24/7 information stream that is the Internet. When something occurs like, say, the Enron scandal, it is reported on and dissected from every angle. But let’s imagine Hollywood decided to make a movie about Enron, embedding that scandal in a story, giving us a hero with a newly awakened conscience, a romance to make us ”care.” In doing so, a movie about the consequences of lying would itself be based on a lie: that those things matter as much as the scandal. And that they amount to more than a hill of beans.