Today and yesterday, Grierson & Leitch honors America by spotlighting films that exemplify the best our country has to offer—and the worst. Yesterday: Movies that made us feel worse about America. Today: Movies that made us love this goddamned country.
Twenty-one years after the fact, it's still amazing that JFK was ever made. A film that doggedly, fanatically pursues the conspiracy theory that President Kennedy's assassination was orchestrated by, among others, the CIA and Lyndon Johnson, JFK is that rare Hollywood film that caused controversy not because of its violence or sexual content, but because it unapologetically insisted that everything the government told us about the events of November 22, 1963, was a lie.
Only someone who had won two Best Director Oscars in the span of three years would have the clout to get a movie like this made. But even then, only someone like Oliver Stone would have the gumption to do it. Watching this three-hour behemoth, you got the sense that Stone was willing to set his career on fire, that he was pouring every ounce of his skeptical heart and paranoid soul into this hyperbolic whodunit. Working with Oscar-winning cinematographer Robert Richardson and editors Joe Hutshing and Pietro Scalia, Stone didn't just recreate an era—he made it feel as vital and alive as the present, as if the filmmaker were insisting that we're all still living in the shadow of that dark period in American history. Even more astoundingly, he got a big star (Kevin Costner) and a major studio (Warner Bros.) to get behind it. Big corporations exist to keep such subversive, reckless art from reaching the masses—how the hell did this thing escape?
But JFK isn't a great American movie because Stone lays out an airtight case for his conspiracy claims. (He doesn't. His theory's nuts, not to mention offensive. When in doubt, Stone seems to be saying, suspect anybody who's homosexual—after all, you know how "they" are.) No, what makes it great is how Stone brings all his talent and passion to bear on a cause he cares so much about. And that cause isn't so much "Who killed Kennedy?" as it is preserving the dream of the 1960s counterculture that's been his Rosebud in films as different as Platoon, The Doors, and Nixon. And so it was perfect that he cast Costner to play New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison. After Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, and Dances With Wolves, Costner was Hollywood's official American Everyman, and Stone utilized his star's air of Reagan-era righteousness to show that dissent was as patriotic as waving the flag.
For all of Stone's bluster and hyperventilating stylishness, JFK has a steady, rising anger that goes beyond magic bullets and Clay Shaw. It's a rallying cry for ordinary Americans to expect their leaders to live up to the high ideals they profess to hold dear. JFK wouldn't be nearly so stirring if, deep down, it wasn't about what a great country this is—not a perfect one, but a land with such promise that has yet to be fulfilled. Costner's concluding speech—though terribly sappy—is still uplifting because it argues for the power that individuals have in a democracy, and its messiness is part of what makes it compelling. When I think about America, I always consider what a blessing it is that it's a country that allows people to take chances, fail, pick themselves up, and try all over again. That's what makes JFK such a quintessential American film: It sets its goals high, and even if it falls short, it reaches anyway.
Americans love a self-made man. We love the idea of someone starting with nothing and building himself up, through good old American know-how and elbow grease, to become a captain of industry. We fetishize this American entrepreneur, to the point that we imagine the most wealthy in our society to be like this, rather than silver-spoon trust-fund kids who keep finding ways to fall upward. (You see this with every professional sports labor dispute: People imagine the team owners to be the ones who earned their wealth rather than the players, when it's of course the exact opposite.)
I am not immune to this: This is part of the great American myth that we all sort of need to survive even if we know it's not real. I know that Daniel Plainview is a monster, a devouring miscreant who openly "hates most people" and who "looks at people and sees nothing worth liking." But I also understand his perfectly logical response: "I want to earn enough money that I can get away from everyone." Today, he'd be in a gated compound in Florida, screaming at the president when he comes on television, fighting his heirs incessantly and on his fifth trophy wife, whom he hates (and who returns the favor).
This might not be the prettiest picture of America, but I prefer to think of that part, the fall, as more Daniel Plainview than Typical American. (And even Daniel is hopeful, in his own way; after admitting he doesn't care about his son, he wonders whether that'll change, like a man regaining his hearing.) To me, I like to believe in the first 45 minutes, the idea that a man can show up in the middle of nowhere—in a truly dreadful, dead part of nowhere—and make something of himself through hard work, determination, and a willingness to break his damn leg to get by. He doesn't need anyone but himself. This has always been an American ideal, for better or worse. Plainview will let nothing stand in his way. We love a self-made man. It's a driving force behind our economy, our desires, our dreams, our platonic ideals. We will always believe anybody can make something of himself. This is empirically false. That doesn't mean it doesn't matter that we still all believe it.
I can look at Plainview's indulgences and excesses and misanthropy and pity him, but that doesn't mean deep down I don't respect how he built himself up from nothing. It's in our bones; it ultimately hurts us more than it helps. I still love it, about us, about America; we still, always, believe. He is an American ideal. He is a monster. You can watch There Will Be Blood and know that Paul Thomas Anderson knows that there's nothing wrong with him being both. I'm not sure the American Dream has ever been summarized better than this exchange:
Plainview: There was that house in Fond Du Lac that John Hollister built—do you remember? I thought as a boy that was the most beautiful house I'd ever seen and I wanted it. I wanted to live in it, and eat in it and clean it. And even as a boy, I wanted to have children to run around in it.
Henry Brands: You can have anything you like now, Daniel, and you should. Where are you gonna build it?
Plainview: Here, maybe. Near the ocean.
Henry Brands: Would you make it look like that house?
Plainview: I'm sure if I saw that house now it'd make me sick.
America is about dreams, and wanting, and aspiration: And never being satisfied. It's not good for us. It hurts the world. But it's who we are. It is undeniably, and sorta proudly, who we are.
Grierson & Leitch is a regular column about the movies. Follow us on Twitter, @griersonleitch.