By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By David Villano
By Jose D. Duran
By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Luther Campbell
Audiences that once took chances now yearn to sentimentalize (or melodramatize) their own lives, including the times when they took chances. Former hippies can wear out their videos of Forrest Gump because it depicts the counterculture as a phase they did well to grow out of. The whole production, with its oldies soundtrack and its flip-book approach to history, is like a Big Chill aimed at the entire political spectrum. It enables everyone to feel nostalgic about something. That nostalgia has become the true political content of our movies; it's a queasy kind of homesickness, on a national scale.
In American movies (as in American political campaigns), the paranoid left (say, Oliver Stone) and the simpy left-to-middle (Rob Reiner, of The American President and A Few Good Men) make only a few noises. The amorphous middle-to-right rules. A few years ago, in True Lies, Arnold Schwarzenegger rehabilitated himself commercially both by playing a James Bond clone instead of a Terminator and by having this superagent impersonate a suburban family man, a workaholic computer salesman named Harry Tasker. But the way True Lies pans out, Arnie unites the family through his typical high-octane mayhem. With the Taskers, as with Travolta's clan in Face/Off, the family that slays together stays together. In their own opportunistic ways, movies like True Lies and Face/Off get at the anxiety and blood-fear lurking under a gemYtlich culture's surface. Donald E. Westlake gave that subject shrewd, dispassionate treatment in both his 1987 script The Stepfather, about a serial killer who keeps hoping to marry into a perfect family (and is always disappointed) and his 1997 novel The Axe, about an unemployed middle manager who knocks off the men most likely to beat him out for a job. Recent movies merely exploit the volcanic malaise of Middle America for cheap thrills -- or, in Oliver Stone's case, avant-garde burlesque.
Stone wants nothing more than to crayon in scars and a mustache on our happy-face culture. But his films are so chaotically melodramatic and weirdly sentimental that they fit comfortably onto the Hollywood fairgrounds. (The slipshod and affectless Natural Born Killers was a couple-that-slays-together-stays-together sort of movie.) Stone's oeuvre makes up the Nightmare Alley of the tattered American-movie carnival. His brain is locked into a pop-romantic Sixties cosmology, with JFK as the righteous monarch and the country falling into darkness at his death, thanks to Natural Born Conspirators as different as LBJ and Nixon.
Even a supposedly forward-looking film like Robert Zemeckis's Contact (current gross: $97 million) caps the close-encounter quest of scientist Jodie Foster with the resolution of her bitter, long-held grief for her dead father, and her acquisition of a secular sort of faith -- an interstellar Unitarianism. The White House objected to Contact director Zemeckis's alteration of President Clinton's press conferences and news clips in order to make him appear a part of the action. But in spirit this movie is more tied up with the consensus-driven Clinton presidency than either The American President or Air Force One, which present daydreams of Clinton remade as an inspiring, resolute leader. Just as Clinton has been at his most vehement when championing women's rights, Contact reserves its contempt for male authority figures: the scientific bureaucrat (Tom Skerritt) who keeps grabbing the credit for Foster's discoveries; the national security fixer (James Woods) who tries to persuade the public that she didn't reach the end of the universe, though he suspects she did. The guy who should be the villain is a new-age religious scholar who has been advising the White House on a politics of "meaning" and at one point betrays the heroine -- whom he says he loves -- because she doesn't believe in God. In real life, Tikkun editor Michael Lerner tutored Hillary Clinton in the politics of meaning. In Contact, Zemeckis's followup to Forrest Gump, the role is filled by that WASP police-composite heartthrob Matthew McConaughey. Foster's an agnostic, McConaughey's a believer, but she does acquire faith in superior beings -- and in the Clinton era's split-the-difference spirit, that proves to be enough for the two of them to form a new coalition.
However much I can see the value of compromise in politics (even of the Clintonian sort), I hate it in art, especially when it hides fuzzy thought and bad faith the way it does in Contact. This movie is liberal agitprop: It demonizes anyone who doesn't love the heroine. Zemeckis was a spunky fellow when he was making films like I Wanna Hold Your Hand and Romancing the Stone and Who Framed Roger Rabbit; too bad in his post-Gump phase he approaches the audience as if he were a pollster. If the heart of Spielberg's Close Encounters of the Third Kind was its hallowing of homegrown UFO believers, the folks who yearn to reach out and touch an alien in Contact are overgrown collegiate types, bland (well, in one case, blind) technocrats, or the wacky group on the outskirts of the tracking base. In the climax, the alien home that's right next door to Heaven resembles one of those mall-like faux beaches so popular in Japan. All the feelings in mainstream American movies, from the mundane to the exotic, are set the way the temperature is at a shopping mall -- at the right pitch for gliding through.