Every February around this time, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences announces the nominations for its annual awards. And every year the crop of Oscar-worthy films seems to get smaller and smaller.
Conventional wisdom has it that 2000 was a bad year for movies. Hollywood churned out hundreds of films. But for every Gladiator, there were a dozen Art of Wars clogging the screens. For every Shadow of the Vampire, two dozen Dracula 2000s. For every Chicken Run, a hundred Return to Mes.
The most disappointing film of 2000 was probably The Patriot. Right-thinking Americans couldn't help sympathizing with the cause portrayed in the film. But nobody left the theater with any desire to pledge their lives, their fortunes, or their sacred honor to defend Mel Gibson from feckless critics who shrieked over scenes of young boys with muskets. The movie simply wasn't very good.
When it comes to pop culture, conservatives may justly be regarded as "the stupid party." Remember Forrest Gump? A disturbing number of conservatives thought it had something to do with "family values." Nonsense.
It's almost always fatal to ascribe "conservatism" to a Hollywood product. That said, Gladiator may be the most conservative film in years. It is about Rome only superficially. The filmmakers are interested not so much in the particulars of ancient Roman history as much as the troubles besetting America today. Gladiator assails the cult of celebrity. It takes dead aim at the decadence of the political class. It affirms the virtues of duty to country and family. "Strength and honor" is a rallying cry.
The hero of Gladiator, Maximus, is a great general who serves the Empire well. But he cannot wait to return to his fields and his family. He is called upon by his emperor, Marcus Aurelius, to be "the protector of Rome" and make the Empire a republic again. Maximus doubts he is suited to the task. But before Marcus' wish may be carried out, he is killed by his own son, the utterly amoral Commodus. The young prince lacks the classic virtues of temperance, courage, justice, and prudence. But, as Commodus tells Marcus before killing him, he possesses "other virtues."
Maximus suffers a series of calamities and is enslaved. He finds himself thrown into the arena, forced to fight or die. Engulfed by the roar of the mob, he is sickened by it. "Are you not entertained?" he bellows. Then he spits on the dirt.
In Rome, Commodus plots to destroy the last vestige of republican rule, the Senate. He satisfies the populace with bread and circuses. He loves the roar of the mob, which rules him more than he rules it. When Maximus eventually returns to Rome to fight in the Coliseum, Commodus finds it difficult to kill him because his beloved mob loves Maximus more than it loves Caesar.
Maximus swears vengeance on Commodus, and he has it. But his dying act is to carry out the wish of Marcus Aurelius. When the film ends, the audience is left to think that Rome is well on its way to becoming a republic again. Typical Hollywood happy ending? Or were director Ridley Scott and his screenwriters trying to say something else?
Gladiator ought to be best picture of the year. But it will probably get the royal thumbs down. For Maximus will face foes far more fearsome than Commodus or his Praetorian Guard. He'll face Erin Brokovich, with her ample cleavage and her stirring message of sticking it to a soulless corporation in the name of environmental justice. He'll face Traffic, a clever bit of propaganda (with very fine performances, to be sure) about America's losing "war on drugs." He'll probably also be up against the dancing warriors of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And he'll no doubt take on Forrest Gump in Castaway.
Traffic will likely take the Oscar. Strength and honor are well and good. But like Commodus, Hollywood holds "other virtues" in much higher esteem.