Coming Down from the Mountain

January 07, 2006
A thought by James Berardinelli

Brokeback Mountain is going to win the Best Picture Oscar. This is a bigger lock than Titanic or The Return of the King. It's pointless to ask whether it deserves the recognition - that's not what Oscar victories (or nominations, for that matter) are about. But there are other issues swirling around Brokeback Mountain.

It's difficult to say anything critical about the film without the risk of being labeled as homophobic. But I think my record is strong enough that I don't have to worry about that. And I liked Brokeback Mountain, according it a *** rating. It's probably the best "gay cowboy" (to use the common lexicon) movie ever made, but to call it the best of 2005's class is to overrate it.

Many of those who have lauded Brokeback Mountain are sincere in their opinion, but I think there's something else going on here. Conservatives are up in arms about the movie, refusing to see it on the ground that it fails to demonize homosexuals. How anyone can criticize a movie without seeing it is beyond me, but that never stops anyone. But with the political right damning the film, the left has had a typical reaction. They have overpraised and overrated it. Liberals (which includes a huge chunk of Hollywood and many film critics) have jumped on board the Brokeback Mountain bandwagon, lionizing the production to a greater degree than it deserves.

The film isn't about homosexuality. It's about love and longing. It's about accepting a socially acceptable life rather than pursuing a passion. It's about lying to oneself and others. But all that stuff is getting lost in the fray. Brokeback Mountain is being praised or condemned because the main characters have a gay love affair.

Beneath it all, Brokeback Mountain is a good film, but not a great one. Other movies, such as The Bridges of Madison County and The Remains of the Day, both of which deal with similar subjects of longing and repressed passion, state their cases more powerfully and with greater poignancy. But those films feature male/female couplings. So it's the gay issue that sets Brokeback Mountain apart and, in my opinion, clouds people's judgement on both sides of the issue.

Would the film win Best Picture if it was about the doomed love affair between a strapping young lad and a rugged lass who was a socially unacceptable mate for him? They could not marry becuase of class barriers (or something similar), but their love for one another causes them to meet regularly over the years to keep their affair alive, even though they are married to others. It sounds almost trite, but that's the heterosexual version of Brokeback Mountain. And, while it might get some nice reviews, the Academy would most likely ignore it.

So, like it or not, Brokeback Mountain has become all about the gay issue, one of this nation's most polarizing themes. Homophobes will crusade against the movie, and the other side of the political spectrum will follow Newton's Third Law in the social arena. Lost in the process will be the actual movie - a sad love story that should have been able to stand on its own merits rather than on those forced upon it by outsiders.