THE RINGER'S ADAM NAYMAN LOOKS AT CINEMA DURING THE GEORGE W. BUSH YEARS
Adam Nayman's monthly series for The Ringer focuses on "the direct and subtextual representations of U.S. presidents and their social and political impact" from the past six decades. The latest entry, posted yesterday, delves into the George W. Bush years:
[Steven] Spielberg was one of several reigning elder statesmen to weigh in during the Bush era, most powerfully in his heavy-artillery remake of War of the Worlds, which envisioned America under attack before reversing the terms of the metaphor to suggest that the Martians and their machines had a distinctly imperialist appearance. Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York was gestating for a decade before its completion in 2002, at which point its NYC creation myth had extra resonance (and its own subtle World Trade Center cameo). In The Departed, Scorsese had Alec Baldwin’s shady Boston cop Captain Ellerby invoke the Patriot Act (“I love it! I love it!”) as a symbol of ostensibly good guys doing very bad things.
Unsurprisingly, the ’70s survivor who confronted Iraq head-on was the indomitable Brian De Palma, whose Redacted adopted the same polemical hybrid of style as Moore, Cohen, and Range. The film is loosely based on a true account of U.S. military personnel raping a civilian girl, and unfolds as a series of video diaries, surveillance tapes, and YouTube clips that replicates an entire online multimedia landscape around recreations of the horrific event at the story’s center. By returning to the incendiary approach of his sardonic anti-Vietnam films Greetings and Hi, Mom!, De Palma transformed the recency of an ongoing catastrophe into an artistic strategy. Redacted proved so controversial that its producers insisted on recutting it for its New York Film Festival premiere, leading to a war of words with a filmmaker unafraid of biting the hand that feeds him. At one point, De Palma volunteered to buy the movie back and release it un-redacted, at once savoring and savaging the irony of the situation.
As images of distress go, Redacted’s photo-realistic final tableau of a broken, bloodied casualty of war was true nightmare fuel, while Paul Haggis’s money shot in 2007’s other major Iraq War movie, In the Valley of Elah, was constituted of simplistic semiotics: an American flag turned upside down. The film’s tale of a father learning the hard truth about his son’s activities while overseas earned Tommy Lee Jones an Oscar nomination for Best Actor, although he was better that year in a different role—as the reactionary, benevolent, and finally ineffectual sheriff in Joel and Ethan Coen’s No Country For Old Men. The film’s long, clean narrative lines, biblical severity, and setting in Bush’s old gubernatorial stomping grounds begged the questions of whether or not the Coens had instrumentalized Cormac McCarthy’s drug-runner thriller into a State of the Union address; critic Jonathan Rosenbaum interpreted the movie’s “gorgeous carnage” as an indirect mediation on the violence of the Iraq War.
No Country was a hit, but the Coens’ more incisive Bush-era commentary was their follow-up Burn After Reading, a delirious mashup of screwball stupidity and cloak-and-dagger paranoia featuring John Malkovich as a past-his-prime spy struggling to adapt after the thaw of the Cold War. It’s a funny movie set in a cruel universe: Its best scenes feature J.K. Simmons and David Rasche as CIA operatives performing a heartless, hilarious audit of the story’s ever-escalating body count—a callback to Dr. Strangelove minus the apocalyptic ending. Even as the film’s seemingly anachronistic analysis of tetchy (if hypothetical) U.S.-Russia collusion proved eerily prescient a decade after the fact, the dismissive dialogue in the movie’s ruthless coda couldn’t help but connect to cycles of foreign-policy fuckups and the political buck-passing that went with them.
“What’d we learn, Palmer?” queries Simmons’s high-ranking intelligence agent to his underling.
“I don’t know, sir.”
“I don’t fucking know either … I guess we learned not to do it again.”