Nothing we’re going through is new
Everyone is frustrated and outraged with the current state of the union, and why wouldn’t they be? The media serves up a new outrage or indiscretion on a daily, if not hourly, basis and then they masticate it endlessly before yet another morsel of outrage appears and starts the whole process again. And then there’s the honest truth: We really are in crisis.
Plenty of parallels exist between today’s political scene and the issues that people were debating 25, 50, or 100 years ago. Fascism, socialism, demagoguery, pandemics, class, the list goes on. And even though we often like to flatter ourselves by telling ourselves that it’s never been as bad as it now, glancing over art and history can remind you that this is actually the natural state of things. And movies help us understand that. Here’s a list of films that deal with political conflict in a variety of different forms, either as abstract principle or as visceral reality. Hopefully they can remind us of how bad it can get, and maybe give us some insight to help us keep moving forward.
Good Night, and Good Luck (Amazon Prime)
The 4th Estate is supposed to be one of the bulwarks against demagoguery, and loyalty to the truth above all else is what ultimately keeps it intact. This acclaimed, George Clooney-directed black-and-white period piece takes on McCarthyism by examining the effect that Tailgunner Joe’s blustering, paranoid, conspiratorial bullying had on the newsrooms that covered his lies and intimidation to avoid McCarthy slandering them as un-American. The Academy nominated David Strathairn for his magnificent portrayal of stoic newsman Edward R Murrow. Giving Murrow a steely confidence and innate dignity, speaking slowly and clearly in an elegantly dark suit, chain-smoking his way through the official assaults on his character and on objectivity itself: “We must remember that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.”
The People Speak (Amazon Prime)
Historian Howard Zinn taught the kind of history that they don’t usually tell you about in school. A People’s History of the United States has sold a zillion copies and is still a great opportunity for discovering the rich chorus of marginalized and dissenting voices that resounds from the first settlers all the way to the War on Terror. This film documents what happens when a series of Hollywood actors got together in Boston to read firsthand accounts of what American life was like for those who dissented, organized, or otherwise spoke out against the status quo. Just to name a few, Sandra Oh reads Emma Goldman, Danny Glover reads Frederick Douglass (who is still doing great work, by the way), and Mos Def reads Malcolm X. Rebel music provided by the likes of Dylan, Springsteen, and Eddie Vedder.
Z (Criterion Channel)
The only film I know that announces early on that any similarities between its characters and situations are not accidental and entirely intentional. Based on real-life events in Greece in the early sixties, Yves Montand plays a left-wing peace activist who is assassinated under shady circumstances, as the military junta (US-backed, IRL) tries to cover up its complicity while comparing political dissent to eradicating mildew. With performances from committed actors ranging from volatile to calmly righteous, the crackling tension of fictionalizing still-simmering conflict, and a propulsive soundtrack from a Greek composer who was under house arrest at the time, and you have a genuine thriller with an uncompromising message.
Rome: Open City (Criterion Channel)
Rome is “open” in the sense that it’s closed—the Nazis are occupying it during WW2 and are monitoring every bit of resistance. That means everything counts—any small act of subversion, tenuous relationship, or overheard conversation could give it all away. The Italian film industry scraped it together to make the movie happen—director Roberto Rossellini was pawning his furniture to buy film stock, Fellini helped write the screenplay, leading lady Anna Magnani showed how to be defiant and romantic all at once. It worked—the film helped to rally the Italian people during a particularly bleak period in The Eternal City and began a trilogy of neorealist masterpieces that eventually (and infamously) caught the attention of Ingrid Bergman.
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Amazon Prime)
John Ford’s 1962 western is a classic parable of the Old West. A young, idealistic lawyer played by Jimmy Stewart comes to the homely frontier town of Shinbone and gets mugged by the outlaw sadist Liberty Valance, played by Lee Marvin. Valance threatens the otherwise helpless town John Wayne’s Tom Doniphan, a swaggering cowboy who is the only one with the power to stand up to his lawlessness, holds him in check. The story unfolds into a nuanced, suspenseful, and morally complex meditation on what keeps people safe and what really makes American civilization work—the law book or the gun. And maybe even more importantly, it discusses who gets to tell the story.
Black Girl (Criterion Collection)
From the influential Senegalese author and filmmaker Ousmane Sembene, the story concerns a women from Dakar who goes to work for a middle class French family. The original French title is more officious, referring to “their black girl from…”. This major inspiration of African cinema explores the inner life of a woman who does the household grunt work in order to earn a living wage, alone and alienated by her circumstance and surroundings. The political conflict lies in all the small gestures, the passive aggressive culture clashes between Europe and Africa, the potent symbolism about who serves whom and why. Using everyday people in real life locations, the film offers an intensely unsentimental look at colonialism’s subtly degrading and enervating effects, a message that resonates all over the world.
They Live (Amazon Prime, Hulu)
This very 80’s John Carpenter film features Rowdy Roddy Piper, the kilt-clad WWF wrestler, as a mulleted drifter named John Nada who accidentally finds a pair of sunglasses that allow him to see the consumerist, conformist orders in black and white that are implicit in the billboards and magazines all around him: OBEY, MARRY AND REPRODUCE, BUY. He also suddenly notices that the humans around him aren’t as they first appear, either. Carpenter mastered the art of cinematic paranoia with Halloween and The Thing and in this film he finds the true horror of modern life embedded in the mass media and market manipulations that are perpetually flashing before our eyes. It’s an insight that has become even more relevant—and hotly debated–since.