“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” ~ John Muir
Worthy of your attention: two films this past weekend that are unlikely to capture any of the big movie industry prizes and yet, taken together, are indeed ‘hitched’ to each other and to the current state of our union. One is set in the nation’s capital and the other, deep in Mike Pence country. I recommend you see both with a group of friends and follow-up with a conversation, maybe more.
First, The Front Runner, starring Hugh Jackman as Senator Gary Hart and Vera Farmiga as his wife, Lee, J.K. Simmons as Hart’s campaign director, Alfred Molina as Ben Bradlee of The Washington Post, along with a great ensemble cast. Based on the book, All the Truth is Out by Matt Bai, the narrative follows the rise and fall of the senator from Colorado who hoped to challenge the belief that the West had yet to produce a president. Gary Hart had everything going for him: he was attractive, experienced, smart, and he had good ideas for the country. He also had a rocky marital history that would surprise no one given the times, and one that had not kept others from occupying the Oval Office, before or since.
One take away from the film: Hart, who was leading in all the polls, had the misfortune to be running for president at the exact moment when the media, that heretofore had kept a “gentleman’s” (sic) silence on the private lives of politicians, decided that everything was fair game. If films like All the President’s Men and, more recently, The Post, depict journalism as a noble, even heroic, calling, Front Runner flips to the dark, conspiratorial side you’ll find all too familiar.
Today, the line between news and entertainment has become so blurred in search of eyeballs for advertisers, it’s wise to adopt a healthy skepticism toward even your favorite, most trusted news outlets. I’m troubled that 60 Minutes gives so much free airtime to the current occupant of the White House. And why always opposite Leslie Stahl? Did we really need to squirm through Anderson Cooper’s interview with Stormy Daniels when the important part of the story was the payoff and possible obstruction of justice? How many New Yorker covers devoted to #45 are enough to keep that much-loved magazine afloat? The Front Runner argues that the 1988 Hart campaign was the turning point in reporting on politics, and suggests that we, the American public, paid a price and continue to pay it.
If you doubt this, consider the actual footage (shown in the film) from Johnny Carson’s opening monologue about the breaking scandal. Here’s Johnny, rocking on his heels, bringing down the ‘front runner’ by describing the meeting between Hart and Donna Rice on — smirk, smirk — the party boat to Bimini called Monkey Business. Of course, Carson was soon joined by Joan Rivers and David Letterman also piled on. By the standards of Saturday Night Live, this is pretty tame stuff. Don’t get me wrong: I think comics like Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver, are performing a public service when they mock those in high places for their corruption and lawless behavior in the performance of their official duties. The gratuitous, graphic details of consenting adult relationships: porn by any other name.
Consider also Gary Hart’s announcement of his withdrawal from the race at his press conference, quoted in the film: “Politics in this country – take it from me – is on the verge of becoming another form of athletic competition or sporting match. We all better do something to make this system work or we’re all going to be soon rephrasing Jefferson to say: I tremble for my country when I think we may, in fact, get the kind of leaders we deserve.” For his entire speech, click here. The film’s last words: Gary and Lee Hart are still together.
Monrovia, Indiana, another masterpiece from Frederick Wiseman, our longest living documentarian (88), runs 143 minutes as if to bring home in personal terms the tedium and minutiae of the lives of Monrovia, (pop 1,063). If you’ve not experienced a Wiseman film, you may find his story-telling approach unusual to say the least: sans narrative, sans interviews, sans music, is it cinéma vérité American style. Made shortly after the 2016 election (with little doubt how the town voted), Monrovia, Indiana brings you into the life of the town (and thousands others like it, by implication) via a fly-on-the-wall view at a town council meeting debating, longer than most would sit still for, one bench vs. two for the library. The camera takes you inside a barbershop, a beauty salon, a tattoo parlor, an animal hospital (alert: very graphic). You’re in the high school classroom among the bored-to-death students, being lectured about the town’s days of basketball glory. You’re in a gun store as the proprietor and a customer weigh the pros and cons of certain models, while a poster on the wall declares: Gun Control Is Holding With Two Hands. You’re testing mattresses with the wife in the gym. You see pigs being marked for slaughter and herded into a truck, a couple of them trying to turn back. You see the impact of Big Ag in single crop fields, pesticide spraying, and massive, labor-saving equipment. Scripture affirms that a wife ‘is subject to’ her husband at a wedding ceremony, and the wedding singer, the only person of color, sings “Always.” More scripture quoted at the closing scene of a funeral, affirms the deceased is ‘at home.’ We observe the casket being lowered, the clods of earth piled on top.
There’s big trouble here in the Heartland, and though the opioid epidemic is not mentioned, you can’t help but think of J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. Monrovia is struggling with water issues; conflict over a new development, though the town needs the taxes; soil-depleting farming practices; restless young; elders, some sick, some obese, some who have ‘run out of gas.’ And this before climate change — heat waves, bigger storms — rolls over this unprepared region and its citizens.
We Americans tend to romanticize our small towns*, and there are many scenes of pastoral beauty in Monrovia, Indiana, as well as a sense of public service, decency, honest labor, and neighborliness among its citizens. For the most part, A.O. Scott’s New York Times review celebrates those qualities, while also noting this is “a slice of red-state America at a time of fierce political polarization.” I saw on the faces a quiet desperation of which Henry David Thoreau wrote, and I wonder when and how it might erupt; where it will take them … and us. I wonder if anyone is really listening within the halls of power once the votes have been tallied, the winners declared. I wonder how any of us might make connections across the political divide that offer and invite compassion and respect.
*There are more than 16,000 towns in the United States with population under 10,000, as of 2015.