“You’re a rancher. A lot of us here in Kansas are ranchers. I was just wanting to get your opinion on ‘Brokeback Mountain,’ if you’ve seen it yet. You would love it. You should check it out.”

This suggestion, posed by a student to President Bush at a recent Q&A at Kansas State University, produced the desired moment of squirmy surprise in an event otherwise described by “The New York Daily News” as full of “easily fielded softballs…from handpicked audiences.” Notice, however, this KSA student didn’t bother to ask the President about the thorny complexities of Steven Spielberg’s “Munich” or the modern-day echoes of George Clooney’s “Good Night, and Good Luck.” Something larger than a red-state college student goading the Commander-in-Chief occurred, and is occurring, here.

Far from the esoteric “gay cowboy flick” that seemed destined for a short life at the art houses, “Brokeback Mountain” has officially entered the cultural zeitgeist. The drumbeat of critical support has been deafening, with adjectives like “revolutionary” and “modern-day masterpiece” attached to it since its early December release. Over a dozen critics groups have named it the year’s best film. Pundits predict it will pick up the majority of its eight Oscar nominations come March, including Best Picture.

Most crucially, support for the film has extended beyond the tastes of awards analysts and subscribers of “Film Comment.” As of Feb. 6, the film’s domestic grosses were rapidly approaching the sixty million dollar mark, showing robust ticket sales on both coasts and, to the shock of many, in the heartland as well.

The lack of concentrated backlash by conservative and Christian watchdog groups continues to surprise as well. A Salt Lake City theater’s unexplained decision to not screen the film received cursory attention before being pushed aside by the ever-more-important issue of Jennifer’s reaction to Brangelina’s new baby. A search of the American Family Association website finds only three articles that mention “Brokeback.” The AFA has never been a group to shy away from their criticism of “the homosexual agenda”; a similar search of headlines containing the word “gay” brings up one-hundred-and-two hits. Why the silence on this, perhaps the most significant and mainstream rendition of queer love to ever come out of mainstream Hollywood?

Simply put, they know they cannot win a battle only they are fighting. “Brokeback Mountain” can be classified as many things, but one thing it’s not is a bleeding-heart, agenda-laden message movie. No one seems to be leaving it heatedly debating gay marriage initiatives. The conversation inevitably turns to the devastatingly tender romance at the film’s core, which brings us to the reason “Brokeback Mountain” has been such a success: it’s a damn good movie.

This may seem simplistic, but think about it: if it were a cornball, overwrought piece of trash-romance tripe, would anyone care? The sheer quality of the filmmaking allows wary filmgoers the reason to walk into the theater. Nervous straight guys (and girls) don’t have to face the chiding of friends without some solid support to back up their decision. They’re going to see it for Ang Lee’s beautifully restrained directing, or Heath Ledger’s revelatory performance, or the aching score. The subject matter becomes less paramount; in the end, a good movie is a good movie.

There have been recent arguments within the press over whether “Brokeback” should be classified as a gay love story or thought of in a more universal sense. Such arguments clearly miss the larger picture, which forms the second reason why the film succeeds: it’s both. Clearly, the specifics of “Brokeback” tie in explicitly with the characters’ sexual orientation. Unlike other star-crossed lovers of the film past, Ennis Del Mar and Jack Twist must not only deny their own romance, but the very notion that two roughneck cowboys in 1960’s Wyoming would even consider such thoughts. The repression and self-loathing make their sexual and romantic encounters practically explode with tension. Yet, in bypassing facile stereotypes, Lee and company zero in on the sometimes-endearing, sometimes-maddening specifics of Ennis and Jack’s relationship with one another, their respective spouses, and the larger community. Achieving a level of poetic detail rarely seen in mainstream filmmaking, “Brokeback Mountain” becomes a universal love story because of its specificity. Filmgoers may not be able to relate to Ennis and Jack on a purely surface level. Rather, they see themselves and their significant other in Jack’s tragically moon-eyed optimism or Ennis’s guarded emotional disconnection. Like all great film love stories, “Brokeback” embraces the particulars of the cinematic world it conjures up, thereby allowing the audience to transcend to a common plane of collective emotional connection.

This leads us back to the comments made to President Bush and that pesky KSA student’s question. Notice the exact phrasing used: “You’re a rancher. A lot of us here in Kansas are ranchers.” Going beyond the obvious Bush/ranching ironies (wait, he was born where? Oh, right: Connecticut), the choice to discuss the characters within “Brokeback” by their occupation, rather than sexual orientation, shows the humanizing balm an excellent film can place upon the most hoary of stereotypes and assumptions. Suddenly, the “sanctity of marriage” President finds that American citizens see the love of two men, not as an icky deviation to be legislated into oblivion, but a legitimate part of the social fabric.

Is it grandiose to suggest “Brokeback Mountain” will change every mind and heart in America? Of course. Is it naïve to think a film can begin to realign national opinion on a divisive and emotionally-charged social issue? You only have to count the watery eyes as you exit your local movie theater to find the answer.

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