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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 September 2018

In awards season, look to Hollywood to understand modern America

The film industry is capable of rapid change. With luck, so is the United States, writes Gavin Esler

Tom Hanks portrays Ben Bradlee, left, and Meryl Streep portrays Katharine Graham in a scene from "The Post." The film was nominated for an Oscar for best picture. Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Fox via AP
Tom Hanks portrays Ben Bradlee, left, and Meryl Streep portrays Katharine Graham in a scene from "The Post." The film was nominated for an Oscar for best picture. Niko Tavernise / 20th Century Fox via AP

The outgoing German ambassador in London, Dr Peter Ammon, believes British people may be attached to the idea of Brexit because we harbour a nostalgic fascination with “standing alone” against Nazi Germany in the Second World War. It is certainly true that two films that touch on precisely that public sentiment, Dunkirk and Darkest Hour, are very popular in British cinemas right now. But a bigger point is that movies are often a guide to the soul of a nation, our own self-image — and nowhere is that more obvious than in Donald Trump’s America. The United States is on the brink of the Oscars season and the British equivalent, the Baftas, is coming up soon. I’m a voting member at Bafta and the films I have been watching touch the beating heart of Trumpland. They help explain why the strangest president in living memory made it to the Oval Office, and they portray an America at peace — but not at peace with itself.

The most obvious Trump-linked movie is The Post. It’s a Steven Spielberg account of the bullying by President Nixon’s administration of newspapers including the Washington Post. The performances of Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep make clear parallels with the “fake news” bullying going on in Washington now. Nixon, like Mr Trump, attacked newspapers for publishing not lies but the gloriously embarrassing truth. The film reflects the American psyche in 2018 in an even bigger way. It is about a strong woman finding her voice. Streep’s Katharine Graham, the Washington Post’s owner, begins as a wealthy socialite, a party goer, not used to taking big decisions and dependent on the men around her. By the end of the film, like the women who have spoken out against Harvey Weinstein and other sexual predators, Katharine Graham is transformed into a formidable decision taker. She risks everything for what she believes to be right. It’s part of the spirit of America now and Hollywood has rightly identified feminist themes and suspicion of people in power as the core of the 2018 American zeitgeist. It surfaces in many of the best Oscar contenders.

In Molly's Game Jessica Chastain plays a woman who bursts into the man’s world of high stakes gambling, only to be arrested and bullied by the FBI, leered at and patronised by many of the men who surround her. Or there is I, Tonya, the story of Tonya Harding, once a star US figure skater, whose career was wrecked when she was accused of conspiring to put a rival out of action. Harding (played by Margot Robbie) is bullied by her mother, her abusive husband and by the skating establishment who look down on her as a symbol of poor, uneducated, unqualified and sometimes violent white America. Like the Streep and Chastain characters, Harding refuses to be bullied, yet the film is populated by losers from the white middle class or working class, the left-behind people who built modern American prosperity in the 1950s but who by the 1990s felt the American Dream had died. Many of them voted for Mr Trump in 2016.

It would be also surprising if American audiences did not recognise, like Caliban, their faces in the Hollywood mirror. Many will be shocked at what they see. These films and others, including the harrowing Detroit, set during the 1967 race riots in that city, or Saoirse Ronan’s performance in Ladybird, set against the background of the 2003 Gulf War, portray America in many different decades, but they are, as always with Hollywood, insights into America now. They examine the great fault-lines of class, race, power and money. As the director of Detroit, Kathryn Bigelow, put it when comparing the 1960s race riots in her film with those which took place in Ferguson, Missouri as she began production in 2014, “These events seem to recur — this (the Detroit riot) is a situation that was 50 years ago, yet it feels very much like it's today.”

Yet that is where there is room for hope. Hollywood is itself a flawed American institution, but the film industry is capable of rapid change. In the past the Oscars have been condemned as “so white”, tending to marginalise African Americans and women. A couple of years ago I interviewed two of the most powerful women in American film-making, Meryl Streep and the African-American director Ava DuVernay (the excellent Selma and 13th are among her credits). Streep said Hollywood often failed to recognise that women’s lives were interesting. This was morally wrong and also bad for business, since women form more than half the available audience. I asked DuVernay why so few women, especially African American women, were Hollywood film directors. She laughed sarcastically and replied that the number of African American women Hollywood directors was so small that she knew them all personally and they could meet for lunch and sit around one table. DuVernay, Bigelow and others, have driven change for women behind the camera in Hollywood and in film-making worldwide. The characters played by Streep, Chastain, Robbie and Ronan are also symbols of change. They confront some of the toughest problems in American society, and they demonstrate that Streep’s observation about women’s lives not being seen as interesting, has also begun to change.

This is also the week of Mr Trump’s first State of the Union message, and he declared that “there has never been a better time to start living the American Dream”. That might be a convenient political message in Washington, but on the other coast, in Hollywood, the Oscar contenders suggest that for millions the Dream died a long time ago. Nevertheless Hollywood also caters for those whose dreams are escapist fantasies. Another high profile movie shows an embattled woman bravely surmounting difficulty, Wonder Woman. A comic book hero may not tell us much about America, but it does tell us that Hollywood’s instinct to appeal to the paying customer remains assured. Wonder Woman has grossed more than $800 million so far and you will not be surprised to learn that Wonder Woman 2 is on its way. Perhaps another Wonder Woman should pay attention — Hillary Clinton. Mrs Clinton must be "wonder woman" in the sense of still wondering why she is not president. But instead of picking the brains of pollsters and political experts in the Democratic Party, Mrs Clinton should go to the movies. Ladyird, Molly's Game, I, Tonya and many other Hollywood productions provide a better guide to America now than opinion polls, and the empty rhetoric of political speeches. Mrs Clinton might enjoy one of the best Hollywood efforts this year, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri. It is the story of a wronged woman. She sets out for revenge. I will not spoil it by saying how it ends.

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