On one level, "The Passion of the Christ" was a religion story. On another level, it was an entertainment story, an amazing case study in the modern entertainment industry's blind spot on matters of traditional faith and culture. Reporters will be covering those stories for some time to come, as this blockbuster climbs toward $400 million at the U.S. box office. What happens if Gibson decides to make this an annual Lenten rite in theaters?
But on another level altogether, this bloody epic was a story about journalism. Get get bloody personal about it all, it was a story about Mel Gibson and The New York Times. Journalists who have been following the Passion drama at that level will need to read a report in Variety entitled, "The Times: Mel's cross to bear."
Let's cut straight to the money paragraph by editor Peter Bart:
It is not my intent here to indulge in Times-bashing. I spent eight very happy years on the Times staff, and I respect that paper's unique role in our journalistic establishment. Still, the Times has vastly stepped up its coverage of pop culture and, in doing so, seems to be bending its normal rules of journalistic fairness.
The warfare started, of course, with a bizarre investigative piece into the bizarre beliefs of Gibson's elderly father. Then Frank Rich started carpet bombing the project in column after column. Had Gibson gone crazy? Would he ever eat lunch in Hollywood again? Would civilization as we know it survive?
Even worse, was this all an attempt to help the White House rally traditional believers and overthrow the Sexual Revolution?
As predictions go, the Times' entire litany could stand major "correction." Despite the fact that Frank Rich compared it to "a porn movie," by the end of its run "The Passion" could rank second only to "Titanic" as the highest-grossing movie ever made. Further, there have been no signs of anti-Semitic outbreaks tied to the film's release -- not even in places like France and Argentina. As for Gibson, there's no indication that his viability as an actor or filmmaker has been compromised.
Which leads us to the next stage of this story -- trying to deal with Gibson's increased power as a filmmaker and the demographics of the audience into which he tapped.
Meanwhile, notes Bart, the Times clearly let its rage to get out of control. It missed the story. Several times. Somewhere in the newsroom, someone needed to stand up and say: Wait a minute ...
...it's a movie, not a political tract. It represents Gibson's vision, not his rhetoric. As such, it deserves to be judged as art, not prejudged as ideology. There are legitimate disagreements about the film's take on biblical history. What is beyond dispute, however, is that "The Passion" is a true phenomenon in the history of motion pictures. As such, it is "news" and deserving of objective reporting by the media. Even by the Times.