A Brief History of America on Film

This Fourth of July seems more shallow than past iterations of the holiday. We are in the midst of a viral pandemic and civil unrest that has ripped the mask off centuries long systemic oppression. These are not super patriotic times in my opinion, particular as I look around and see my fellow Americans unwilling to undertake the most minor inconvenience in order to treat their neighbors with dignity & love. This is not a list about how great America is, I eschew the Exceptionalism myth. These are movies that speak to the shrouded dark heart of a flawed experiment called the United States.

The New World (2005, directed by Terence Malick)

You see the story through the eyes of the Native peoples first. They rush from their longhouses, through the forest, the shores as English ships arrived in their bay. As audiences have come to expect from Terence Malick, this is a meditative, poetic depiction of historical events. Pocahontas is accurately portrayed as a teenage child getting caught up in the gears of colonialism that she and her people are powerless to stop. Malick is always drawn to the spiritual elements of a story and emphasizes the Natives’ deep ties to the land and their innocence when first meeting these newcomers.

The Revenant (2015, directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu)

The impetus for Europeans coming to the North American continent was to exploit the bounty of natural resources. One of the most lucrative was furs, desired by the wealthy elite across the Atlantic. Even after the founding of America, frontiersmen kept venturing out into the wilderness to gather the skins of animals for their bountiful profit. The Revenant tells the story of Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) as he fights to survive the elements, the Natives, and his own people in a landscape where the only language being spoken is the brutality of survival. The Revenant is a reminder that the “good old days” were anything but. My Full Review.

12 Years a Slave (2012, directed by Steve McQueen)

You cannot discuss America without addressing slavery. It was the industry that built this country. Many Civil War movies focus on the white experience of the war, so I think this picture is what people should go to when they want to understand the crime against humanity that led to that conflict. A freeman living in the Northeast is abducted and taken into the heart of slave country with no one interested in hearing his pleas. Instead, the freeman is tossed into the gnashing teeth of chattel slavery, which breaks him down and almost takes his spirit. 12 Years a Slave is as much a historical film as it is a horror picture. My Full Review.

Unforgiven (1992, directed by Clint Eastwood)

The OId West was not a stage of valorous accomplishments but a brutally violent lawless place. Clint Eastwood, a man who came up through Hollywood Westerns, decided to get real and make a movie about the toll of blood vengeance on a human soul. These are old broken men forced to pull out their guns for one last showdown. There’s no sense of victory here, particularly in Eastwood’s William Munny, who appears to be on the verge of bursting into tears going through the motions. Munny knows he cannot let innocent people be harmed, but he cannot endure taking life again. At this crossroads, we see the cost he pays to “do what’s right,” but walk away, wondering if anything can be considered “good” in a place like this.

Modern Times (1936, directed by Charlie Chaplin)

Industrialization was transforming the planet and especially America, in the wake of the Civil War and all the way into the Great Depression. Charlie Chaplin was a staunch Leftist, though he was clear about his non-affiliation with the Communist Party. He shared the same respect for labor and working classes, having grown up in poverty on London’s streets. The factories of major cities were the sites of brutal working conditions and the physical maiming & disfigurement of workers. Chaplin ponders if love & joy can still be found in these bleak, hopeless places. This is why Chaplin’s work has endured, not necessarily for its comedy, but for his deep well of humanity. His pictures were always celebrations of the ordinary person who didn’t want much out of life other than to be safe, happy and loved.

The Thin Red Line (1998, directed by Terence Malick)

World War II became the focus of the Greatest Generation rhetoric in the 1990s, and before then, Hollywood had been delivering mountains of patriotic pictures about the conflict. Terence Malick is not interested in romanticizing war but would instead focus on the fragility of the environment at the hands of man and, in turn, the struggle to remain faithful to one’s spirit when forced to struggle at the most primal levels. Private Witt has gone AWOL and is enjoying living among the Melanesian natives on a Pacific island. He’s found, imprisoned onboard a ship, and forced back into the battle. Witt feels driven forward by his love for his wife back in the States, his only desire to get out of here and back to her. All around him, people succumb to fear and panic, and in the end, he is forced to make a significant choice. My Full Review.

JFK (1991, directed by Oliver Stone)

If you haven’t noticed, conspiracy theories abound in the mainstream with ridiculous pablum like Alex Jones’ Infowars and QAnon dominating the rhetoric of certain circles. It can be argued that the first grand conspiracy theory would be that JFK was not assassinated merely by Lee Harvey Oswald. This was the film Oliver Stone was born to make and arguably his masterpiece, an evocation of paranoia and mistrust that pulls the viewer down into the sinking mire a frantic mind. New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison (Kevin Costner) starts going down a rabbit hole after learning that the president’s death had ties to activity in his city. This reveals a torrent of cabals connected to organized crime, Cuban exiles, and deep state plotters. If you watch this film as a historical reenactment, you will be disappointed; instead, view it as capturing an ideology that was to become dominant in the 21st Century.

Jackie (2016, directed by Pablo Larrain)

Alongside the JFK assassination, is the erasure of Jackie Kennedy as a fully dimensional human being. What Pablo Larrain accomplishes here is to humanize the grief of a figure turned into an abstracted icon by the media, a real person who is processing the loss of her partner in the most violent way possible. Additionally, it highlights how marginalized women were and continues to be in so many circles. Jackie is expected to grief in a certain way and just go along with the established funerary protocols. Instead, she imposes her wishes not only to honor John Kennedy but to show she still had a voice and place in this story. What is most telling is how the framing device, an interview with a magazine reporter, is focused on Jackie’s adamant belief that she owes the American public nothing. My Full Review.

Zodiac (2008, directed by David Fincher)

Serial killers are one of the “great” American media products of the latter half of the 20th Century. Director David Fincher recreates the late 1960s/early 1970s San Francisco in meticulous detail. Beyond this picture’s technical achievements is the expert atmosphere building where we begin to feel the creeping fear of the average citizen as the Zodiac killer seems to loom large in every shadowy corner. I’d argue this is the film to watch instead of All the President’s Men when you want to look at the newspapermen of the era. Most journalists were not crusaders trying to take down the president but working schlubs, attempting to sensationalize current events to drum up readership. The most crucial component in Zodiac’s story is the role the media played in turning him into a superstar and folk monster. 

Apocalypse Now (1979, directed by Francis Ford Coppola)

There is a disturbing correlation between military service and serial killers in America. This is likely due to our nation’s refusal to seriously address the effects of PTSD and force young men to kill people. Coppola perfectly captures the waking nightmare of the Vietnam War and truly forces the audience to feel the PTSD. I recommend the original cut, not the redux cut, which is too explicit with the story. The original is more impressionistic and lets the audience float down a river in this dream. My favorite and most chilling moment comes when the characters have reached the last American outpost before they cross the point of no return. This base has collapsed in chaos with continual shellings between the enemies and the soldiers who are unaware of who is the commanding officer in charge anymore.

The Times of Harvey Milk (1984, directed by Rob Epstein)

Director Rob Epstein has created a profoundly absorbing documentary with some of the best interviews I’ve seen in a doc of this style. The people he speaks with still love Harvey with all their hearts some six years later, and I imagine even to this day. What is so important about the interviews is both their personal recollections of the man but also the way they were radicalized in the wake of his murder. It makes complete sense that the LGBTQ participants were outraged, but most telling to Milk’s legacy is that a gruff union guy speaks frankly that if it was only the mayor who was murdered, the killer would have gotten a life sentence. He elaborates that because Milk was a gay man and the jury was so meticulously stacked that a poisonous message was being sent to gay people in the Bay Area. My Full Review.

American Psycho (2000, directed by Mary Harron)

The 1980s was about the veneer of success through the acquisition of wealth. Patrick Bateman may be the most shallow protagonist I’ve ever seen in a film; that is what makes him both terrifying and hilarious. There is a constant drive to show-up his peers in clothing, business cards, and the ability to order food at overpriced restaurants. People literally cannot tell the difference between others because they have bought into a lifestyle that makes them completely homogenous. Batemen is mistaken for the wrong man throughout the picture, which gives him an advantage when he gives in to his homicidal impulses. For how similar he is to everyone else, there is a deep rot inside of Bateman that he tries to hide, but eventually, it gets exposed. The big question at the end of the film is if he’s any different from the other shallow people. My Full Review.

The Social Network (2010, directed by David Fincher)

America has always been about the myth of the self-made man, and our current era is all about social media, whether you like it or not. Aaron Sorkin, a writer I personal revile, gives his version of the Facebook story. Thankfully, David Fincher there to filter the Sorkineseque-ness so that the picture is more palatable. Once again, this is less a historical document than how media highlights how our culture talks about success and “great men.” Mark Zuckerberg is portrayed as a brilliant yet deeply flawed person who allowed his hubris to ruin his friendships. The film never questions the entire corporate culture that would fuel Zuckerberg’s desire to develop Facebook into such an all-encompassing beast. Instead, it’s diluted into a personal lack of human connection; thus, capitalism escapes condemnation once again.

The Big Short (2015, directed by Adam McKay)

I am a big fan of the Zoomers and highly impressed with their historical, cultural, and political literacy. I imagine a movie like The Big Short is one of many things that have informed them of the stepping stones that have led to an end-stage capitalist society like ours. Adam McKay brilliantly blends documentary and narrative into a hybrid that successfully communicates how the 2008 economic collapse came about. It’s entertaining and informative and actually has substance. This should come as no surprise if you’ve seen The Other Guys and his HBO series, Succession. McKay is a strong voice for the American Left and is very uncompromising in his autopsy of the what remains of the United States in the 21st Century.

2 thoughts on “A Brief History of America on Film”

  1. Pingback: July 2020 Digest

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