Moral Lessons for Our Trumpian Moment
“Arguably, that undermines everything this flag over here stands for. Arguably, you sold your country out,” US District Judge Emmet Sullivan said to Lt. General Mike Flynn last week. It was a surprise to the pundits. After a year of cable news legal expertise, Trump tweets, and heavily redacted cooperation agreements between Flynn and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, all the smart takes said he’d walk with a minimal sentence at most. The judge felt different. “I’m not hiding my disgust, my disdain, for this criminal offense.”
A clear moral voice from the bench reminded us there is still right and wrong in the world. Hollywood movies used to do that, a lot: Young Mr. Lincoln (1939), The Ox-Bow Incident (1940), Gentleman’s Agreement (1947), The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), Judgment at Nuremburg (1961), To Kill a Mockingbird (1962), stuff like that. Message pictures. Movie heroes got a lot more ambiguous in the 1960s and 70s, because, as we all know, life is not always so black and white. Our faith in the people who assured us they knew the difference was no longer as strong as it once had been.
But in the Age of Trump, the lines of right and wrong have grown clear again. Trump has brought us back to the moral basics. Things we assumed obvious: Racism, corruption, mob violence, mocking the disabled, bullying, selling out your country–all must be declared wrong again. No brainers, as the brainy like to say. That’s why, when the Library of Congress announced its 2018 National Film Registry entries, the 25 films chosen this year to be preserved for the rest of our nation’s existence, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) stood out.
It’s a great message picture, produced by a master of the genre, Dore Schary. There isn’t a plot to Bad Day at Black Rock, really, just a situation. In a dusty California desert town in late 1945, a sleek passenger train stops in Black Rock for the first time in four years, since just after Pearl Harbor. Off gets Spencer Tracy, playing a man whose left arm is disabled from combat in Italy. He tells locals he wants to visit a place called Adobe Flats, but we don’t know why. And no one in town wants him to go there, they really don’t want him to go there, but we don’t know why.
Local goons Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin–and has there ever been a better pair of goons in movie history–follow Tracy everywhere. Tracy seems like a cop or an investigator to them. Their boss, we assume, Robert Ryan, has everyone in town under his thumb. Eventually we find out what they don’t want Tracy to know: A Mr. Kamoko, a Japanese-American farmer, was killed by the racist, vengeful, drunk inhabitants of this town, led by Ryan, the day after Pearl Harbor. But Tracy isn’t a cop. He’s come to find Kamoko and give him a medal his hero son earned in Italy when he got killed.
From minute one, Black Rock just vibes bad. It’s rundown, dusty, mean. Almost everywhere Tracy goes, Marvin and Borgnine walk behind him, lounge in chairs in the hotel lobby when he checks in or out, sit around him at the diner while he eats, and make sure they’re always nearby to remind any locals he talks to keep their mouths shut. And lurking behind them is Ryan. Cinematographer William C. Mellor, two-time Oscar winner for A Place in the Sun (1951) and The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), composes shot after shot of Tracy at the center of this desert goonery, artfully creating a cinematic claustrophobia. Mellor and director John Sturges are anti-Hitchcockian in how they build tension: No ingenious use of miniatures, lenses, or cameras gliding about. Visually, it’s static.
The proximity of menace, the probability of violence in the men placed around Tracy in the frame, with nowhere to go, is enough. Much of the suspense of this tight 81-minute film can be found in Lee Marvin’s cool stare at the back of Spencer Tracy’s head. Finally, Borgnine grabs Tracy in a diner, and Tracy lands a karate chop on Borgnine’s windpipe, sending him to the floor, choking. Another sends him through the door.
“It just seems to me that there aren’t many towns like this in America,” Tracy says at one point. “But one town like it is enough.” When Tracy checks into his hotel and picks up his suitcase with his good arm, Lee Marvin says, “You look like you could use a hand.” Haw haw. A disabled man ridiculed, as Trump once ridiculed Serge Kovaleski, a disabled journalist.
A 1955 Civil Rights Era message picture is depressingly relevant to our own 2018 Trumpian moment. If anything, Tracy’s valor and combat disability only make Robert Ryan resent him more, not respect him. “I know those maimed guys,” Ryan tells his stooges. “Their minds get twisted, they put on hair shirts and act like martyrs. All of them are do-gooders, freaks, troublemakers.”
Likewise, Trump once mocked a maimed veteran he resented quite a bit, Senator John McCain: “I like people who weren’t captured.” Kamoko, an immigrant, was killed because the town bigots were angry about what other Japanese did at Pearl Harbor. The fact that Kamoko turned his dead farmland profitable, which no white man in the area could, or that his son is a decorated war hero who died for his country, doesn’t impress them. It galls them, in the same way that Trump’s anti-immigration politics discount any good thing Mexicans or Muslims do and only focus on crime and terrorism. “Loyal Japanese-American – that’s a laugh,” says Ryan, before listing Japanese war atrocities. “They’re all mad dog.”
Just to put a bow on it, Robert Ryan even rolls into town after hunting at one point in a bright red baseball cap. It doesn’t say MAGA on it, but Trump has turned America’s moral clock so far back, it might as well. “The rule of law has left here,” says Tracy, “and the gorillas have taken over.”
Who knows, maybe Judge Sullivan will steal that line next time he sees Flynn. Bad Day at Black Rock very much deserves to be preserved, or to open again at theaters this Friday night. Sixty-three years later, we still need it.