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The Wrong Stuff

Hero worship in late-capitalist Hollywood

Life in Trumpland is, first and foremost, a reckoning. You sure can’t say “the best lack all conviction,” because activists nationwide contradict poor old W. B. Yeats’s “The Second Coming” on that count every day. But the worst are definitely full of passionate intensity, not to mention unlikely to get less full of it anytime soon.

Both sides are convinced they’re defending fundamental American values from people aiming to ruin everything “America” means. Liberals’ rediscovery of the ardent, outraged patriotism that’s been a right-wing cultural monopoly since the 1960s may even be among the most salutary effects of Trump’s presidency. But because neither crew is wholly wrong in claiming ownership of this country’s enduring traditions, let’s try to understand the fissure. That involves recognizing how ideals we consider fixed, immutable, and above all, shared turn out to be salad-bar Americanism at crunch time.

Proof is in our national character’s longest-lasting tug-of-war, between hell-raising individualism and the placid common good. When we’re feeling optimistic, we strive to accommodate the demands of both, which isn’t as delusional a goal as it first sounds. But usually our factions seize on one end or the other—a choice that, more than we’d like to admit, tends to fluctuate with the fashions of ideological self-righteousness.

Because consistency is the hobgoblin of recent immigrants, it’s no sweat for the rest of us to reconfigure yesterday’s transcendent moral imperative into today’s root of all evil. On the left and right alike, Americans who’ve had some practice at the gig can switch on a dime from condemning individualism as heedless (if not criminal) irresponsibility to damning somebody else’s notion of the common good as the template for a society fit only for automatons.

What makes Trumpism unique is how its leader’s voracity for contradictory extremes lets him embody the dismaying attractions of heedless-if-not-criminal irresponsibility and a society fit only for automatons simultaneously. His idea of community is balefully exclusionary, defined by its enemies and galvanized by the prospect of threatening, persecuting, and finally smiting them: a recipe for authoritarianism, in short. But his idea of individualism—by which he means his own, although any fellow white lardbutt in a red MAGA cap is implicitly welcome to mimic him—is terrifyingly stripped of concern for consequences, anyone else’s good opinion, or basic decency.

To oppose him, we can champion more humane versions of both poles of our national identity crisis, doing our best to locate a sensible balance between the two. But with the exception of rare interludes—you screwed-from-birth millennials will never know how good life briefly seemed in, oh, 1964—the United States has never had much luck with that before things turn wacko and acrimonious again. We’re left with an ongoing dichotomy, not a sustainable blend, and it isn’t a choice we make only at the ballot box. We make it at the multiplex too, or lately on Netflix or Hulu.

Sometimes in herds, sometimes in a state of gloomy eccentricity, we’re always either confronting or fending off the kind of profound question that only our robust national shallowness can inspire. To wit, when does America’s right stuff turn into its wrong stuff from our unavoidably biased POV, and vice-versa? Luckily, one handy way to start mapping this dilemma is to revisit The Right Stuff itself.

The Skies, the Limits

Launched with a whole Alpha Centauri’s worth of hype, director Philip Kaufman’s idiosyncratic adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s bestseller about the original Mercury 7 astronauts was the most unexpected box-office bomb of 1983: the high Reagan era, so to speak. That is, unless you count the concurrent demise of John Glenn’s bid for the Democratic presidential nomination.

Glenn’s vogue fizzled almost overnight after Newsweek put his charismatic screen impersonator (Ed Harris) on its cover and solemnly wondered whether the movie would help vault Glenn into the White House. There’s a nexus here—Kaufman the Bay Area liberal’s misreading of the public mood, Glenn the genuine America hero’s failure to convert stature into votes, and our first movie-actor president’s rather more successful mashup of craggy pioneer verities and rank Hollywood artifice—that’s oddly fraught with embryonic anticipations of Trumpland.

At least in my tattered corner of Cinephileville, where the rum comes cheap and policemen’s winks at our petty crimes come cheaper, Kaufman’s flavorful movie has plenty of fans. All the same, it’s not hard to see why 1983 audiences had trouble grasping just what he was driving at. As exuberant as The Right Stuff often is, it’s also a meandering pop essay disguised as an epic docudrama, prizing waggish sideshows over narrative drive. But the director’s formal insouciance wasn’t really the problem. Anyone expecting to see Glenn and his silver-suited coevals lionized as heroes or pining for a celebration of the space program as a gigantic national achievement got treated instead to an ambivalently derisive look at the whole shebang as a cavalcade of PR stunts, political posturing, and manufactured goals.

Long before Trump came along, the “Great Communicator” was the guy who invented the template for turning movie-fed nostalgia for a bygone America into a revanchist call to arms.

What gave the space program urgency and drama during JFK’s New Frontier was the larger contest with the Soviet Union that Reagan was ramping back up again twenty years later. That’s the sort of geopolitical synchronicity that, in a different filmmaker’s hands, might have provided the material with jingoistic or triumphalist topical brio. But the Kennedy administration’s anxious belief that we’d darned well better overtake the Russians to score a propaganda victory after multiple Cold War setbacks was much too square an idea, post–Dr. Strangelove, for Kaufman to bring himself to play it straight. His sinister Soviet rocket scientist is a Boris Badenov caricature of gloating commie evil, mocking American perceptions of Red diabolism rather than coming to grips with the USSR’s dismal apparatchik reality. While the astronauts themselves aren’t outright ridiculed, they’re depicted as sometimes disgruntled, sometimes puckish accomplices in an orgy of Camelot-era media hype.

As far as Kaufman was concerned, the true, uncorrupted, and incorruptible right stuff resided exclusively in test pilot Chuck Yeager. The movie’s epitome of retro male cool was played by Sam Shepard, who was almost unforgivably good back then at making mythomania seem winsome. But Yeager gets an awful lot of ultra-romanticized screen time for a guy whose only relationship to the main story is one of symbolic rebuke.

All laconic, self-reliant prowess, he’s presented as the last of a dying breed, too pure for NASA’s fripperies. As the astronauts grow famous even before they’ve accomplished anything, the frenzy surrounding them is counterpointed by glimpses of Yeager going about his gutsy, solitary business without any nonsense about celebrity being his reward or his due.

Because Kaufman is no fool, or anyhow wasn’t back then—his later filmography tells a sorry tale of someone trying to commercialize increasingly oddball fixations—he probably knew he was overdoing the contrast between Yeager’s old-school pluck and the space program’s hoopla. But he was too much of a popcult enthusiast not to relish pitting one genre of movie-fueled Americana against another. A lot of The Right Stuff plays like a Billy Wilder mashup—half Ace in the Hole, and half Some Like It Hot with moon helmets instead of flapper wigs. But the Yeager scenes combine John Ford at his most adulatory, the Howard Hawks of Only Angels Have Wings, and vintage Marlboro commercials.

Making the connection to an earlier era’s heroes explicit, Yeager is often shown cantering around Western vistas on horseback between experimental flights. Yet because Kaufman can’t figure out how to keep Yeager’s recurring presence meaningful otherwise, he settles for the bewilderingly accusatory implication that this is the man we should have sent to the moon—if, that is, we’d just stayed true to our frontier values instead of getting all corporate about the endeavor.

Dutch Treats

All this is more than a little absurd. Yeager’s heroics were every bit as dependent on taxpayer dollars and swarms of hard-working government drone bees as the Mercury astronauts’ missions, not to mention every bit as much an offshoot of our Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union. The only difference is that his exploits were less publicized, although Wolfe’s book did bring him some late-life fame. But Kaufman’s premise required sanctifying Yeager’s illusory autonomy while satirizing the astronauts’ roles as the public faces of a huge collective project.

If the director thought he was making a movie attuned to Reaganite values, he certainly missed the mark, not least by being too much of a smartass for his own good. Treating Yeager’s brand of valor as if it had become archaic in an age of media packaging didn’t jibe very well with Reagan’s shrewd conflation of the two. Long before Trump came along, the “Great Communicator” was the guy who invented the template for turning movie-fed nostalgia for a bygone America into a revanchist call to arms.

Besides, planting an American flag on the moon had been just about the only large-scale government initiative of the 1960s that heartland patriots had liked, at least once winning the Vietnam War began to look hopeless. As Norman Mailer recognized at the time, Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo represented Squaresville’s crewcut triumph over all those un-American hippies, hairy antiwar activists, and demanding black folk. Middle America wanted The Right Stuff to hail a famous victory, not denigrate it as a public-relations boondoggle.

If you want movies that convey a sense of a vibrant community that’s able to get important things done, you’re pretty much stuck with Pixar.

Hollywood took the lesson to heart. Ever since Kaufman’s misfire, popular dramatizations of the space program, from Apollo 13 and Tom Hanks’s HBO miniseries From the Earth to the Moon to last year’s Hidden Figures—every bit as much of a surprise hit as The Right Stuff had been a surprise flop—have celebrated teamwork, summonses to greatness, and can-do American grit as the key inspirational values in play. (The African American heroines of Hidden Figures hardly want to be troublemakers; they’re campaigning for an opportunity to participate.) Yet what’s striking is how few other movies tell that kind of success story anymore, not least for the obvious reason that this country hasn’t had that kind of success story—premised on shared national resolve—in quite some time. It’s either NASA or World War II, and World War II is just about used up.

That’s why, from our own time’s perspective, Kaufman’s definitions of the right stuff and the wrong stuff can seem almost bizarrely wrongheaded. In 2017 the demise of intransigent individualism hardly seems like the worst problem that ails us. The demise of an intelligible, non-dysfunctional social fabric does. From vigilante superheroes to randomly (and weightlessly) anarchic farces like 2013’s This Is the End, Hollywood reflects this lack by treating it as either irrelevant or no great loss. If you want movies that convey a sense of a vibrant community that’s able to get important things done, you’re pretty much stuck with Pixar. As for Chuck Yeager, who’s still with us at age ninety-four, the last time he made the news was when he felt obliged to deny, not very convincingly, that he’d endorsed Donald Trump for president.

Men of the West

The tension between noble group effort and unrestricted autonomy in American life dates back at least to the Mayflower Compact. That 1620 accord was cobbled together from hunger just to convince the malcontents aboard—they’d been promised Virginia, not God-damned Massachusetts—not to strike out on their own. Some of us still think the malcontents should have swum for it instead of caving.

In our movies, this seesaw’s fulcrum has always been that most (and in part literally) indigenous of American screen genres: the Western. Yet its conclusions on the matter haven’t always been as lopsidedly in favor of lone gunslingers as people with hazy memories believe. The gunslinger’s metaphorical antipode is the barn-raising—or the schoolmarm teaching pioneer children, or ranch hands sharing a bunkhouse meal, or any of the rustic community rituals so beloved by John Ford.

Even when great collective projects aren’t their subject—as the completion of the first trans-continental railroad was for, most famously, Ford’s 1924 silent epic The Iron Horse—classic Westerns tend to treat unreconstructed, violent individualists as necessary preludes to, enablers of, or obstacles to the important job of organizing a coherent, orderly, and ultimately thriving society. When they die or, more euphemistically, ride off into the sunset, they die or ride off into the sunset for our sakes, like so many cigarette-rolling Jesus Christs in ten-gallon hats.

But what about John Wayne, you ask? Exactly. Wayne’s mythos as the movie West’s ultimate avatar of unadulterated, bellicose autonomy is borne out only sporadically at best in his filmography. In Ford’s Stagecoach (1939), the movie that made him a star, he is indeed a loner and an outlaw—one who ends up making his getaway, with fellow misfit Claire Trevor in tow, to escape what another character sardonically calls “the blessings of civilization.” But Ford almost never used him that way again, except to much darker effect. Seventeen years later, Wayne’s brutalized, vengefully racist irreconcilability to civilization’s blessings in The Searchers is no advertisement for the bliss of untrammeled freedom in the great outdoors.

In Rio Grande, Fort Apache, and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon—Ford’s “cavalry trilogy”—he’s a humane and thoughtful career Army officer, devoted above all to the military’s institutional values. From Ford’s point of view, he’s admirable for his steadfast loyalty to a greater good, most fascinatingly in Fort Apache’s enigmatic conclusion, which has him stoically praising (and emulating) a Custer-ish superior he knows perfectly well to have been a vainglorious blunderer. However exotic this particular “greater good” might seem to viewers today, it’s the opposite of every-man-for-himself individualism. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, his real swan song with Ford, Wayne is once again a violent outsider, but his most decisive act is a self-abnegating one; he gives up his own happiness to help foster the more civilized future he knows he won’t be part of.

For that matter, Wayne’s dream project, The Alamo, centers on three prickly, idiosyncratic, mutually suspicious men—Wayne’s own Davy Crockett, Richard Widmark’s Jim Bowie, and Laurence Harvey’s William B. Travis—coming together to sacrifice themselves for a shared ideal. Yet their progress from braggart frontier vanity to selflessness hardly wins the movie plaudits from left-wingers, because the cause in question—making Texas safe for predatory gringos by wresting its independence from Mexico—no longer seems especially enlightened.

Autonomy now comes at us masked, vengeful, and stoppable only by Kryptonite.

Similarly, right-wingers are likely to discover there’s no merit in old-fashioned, frontier-style American autonomy the minute it’s waywardly incarnated by, say, Peter Fonda in Easy Rider. Part of what makes this ongoing tussle in our movies—between Mayflower Compacts and malcontents we’re hoping will dive overboard, between barn-raisings and gunslingers, between Hidden Figures and Chuck Yeager—such a telltale map of our national character is that which choice looks virtuous is, from a political point of view, endlessly mutable.

Consider, for instance, two of the most celebrated Westerns of the 1950s, only one of which stars Wayne. In the first, a haggardly determined frontier marshal stays true to himself by confronting the bad guys alone once everybody else craps out on him. In the second, conceived in indignant response to the first, a sheriff relies on an amiable crew of nonconformists—a nasty old geezer, the town drunk, a callow singing cowboy, a Mexican-American hotel owner, and a prostitute who’s just passing through—to help him out of a similar bind. Off the top of your head, which would you say is the “liberal” one?

Guess again. The first movie is, of course, High Noon—left-wing screenwriter Carl Foreman’s bitter transposition to the Old West of his isolation in Hollywood once the House Un-American Activities Committee came after him. (Refusing to name names, Foreman ended up self-exiled to England soon after the movie’s release; the whole behind-the-scenes saga is superbly reconstructed in Glenn Frankel’s very enjoyable new book, High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic.) The second is Rio Bravo, which Wayne and director Howard Hawks cooked up to express their contempt for High Noon. “The most un-American thing I’ve ever seen in my whole life,” Wayne was still calling Foreman’s and liberal producer Stanley Kramer’s unduly rigged morality play years later.

To later generations, however, High Noon is the one that looks like a conservative tract. That’s partly because it’s so moralistic—no shades of gray in Foreman’s mousetrap—and partly because star Gary Cooper so plainly incarnates upstanding, conformist values. He just can’t find anyone to conform to them except him. As for Rio Bravo, which is by far the better movie, it’s a safe bet that moviegoers never saw anything “political” in it at all. But its merry, flexible sense of the variety and unpredictability of human virtues—the Hollywood version of “From each according to his abilities,” more or less, and perhaps the ideal mean between community and individualism—isn’t radically at odds with the 1960s counterculture Wayne would loathe every bit as much as he’d loathed Carl Foreman.

The counterculture returned the favor. Even now, anyone trying to sell left-leaning audiences on Wayne’s greatness as an actor (and he was formidable) has to contend with the atrocious public figure he became in his later years: a blustering, crapulous spokesman for reactionary politics at their worst. It’s no easy job convincing people that this was a travesty of his screen persona, not its logical culmination—though it did have elements of both. But even at the time, left-wing folksinger Phil Ochs knew better. When Wayne told Playboy magazine that he’d made 1968’s jingoistic, abysmally crude Vietnam epic The Green Berets “to counteract the lies that people like Phil Ochs and Joan Baez are spreading,” Ochs supposedly replied, “I’m thrilled. John Wayne is one of my heroes.”

From Gangsters to Superheroes—and What’s the Difference Again?

The earliest movie insurrectionists were the clowns of the silent era. The resourceful, sap-headed romantics played by Harold Lloyd did aspire to normality, but they had mighty unconventional ways of achieving it. Chaplin preferred the pathos (and sometimes the nose-thumbing anti-authoritarianism) of permanent outsider status, and Buster Keaton was just imperturbably, impassively Keaton; it’s a shame he never got home to Easter Island to see his parents again. But during the Depression years, the Marx Brothers aside, the most prominent—and the cockiest—American individualists on the silver screen were gangsters.

They paid for their charisma in the final reel, even if something as trivial as death seemed unlikely to squelch James Cagney’s impudence. But then something odd happened. Humphrey Bogart, who’d spent most of his first decade in movies playing antisocial reprobates, got transformed into Hollywood’s first antisocial leading man in 1942’s Casablanca. (The year before, both High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon had anticipated this—one by turning Bogart’s desperation sympathetic, the other by turning his cynicism sexy.) Because his contempt for authority went unpunished from then on, he became the first officially sanctioned rebel in Hollywood’s history.

In both Casablanca and 1944’s To Have and Have Not, however, he plays rebels ennobled by their conversion to a certifiably worthwhile cause: defeating the Axis. (“This time I know our side will win,” Paul Henreid purrs in Casablanca, as if roping in Bogey clinches the victory.) In one of his more conventional wartime roles, 1943’s Sahara, he’s a U.S. tank sergeant organizing a raft of international allies: a dapper Brit, a roguish Frenchman, the great Rex Ingram as a grizzled Sudanese, and even (this is fun) an Italian POW won over to the Allied side. One of the most enjoyable propaganda movies ever made, Sahara is chockablock with idealistic messages about disparate people—that is, nations—learning to work together for a better world. You just know the screenwriters would have included a Russian if they’d figured out how to get one to North Africa.

John Wayne’s mythos as the movie West’s ultimate avatar of unadulterated, bellicose autonomy is borne out only sporadically at best in his filmography.

With the war safely won, Bogart went back to being a cagy, wry lone wolf. But the postwar crop of screen rebels—Marlon Brando and James Dean above all—represented something new by not being susceptible to conversion to anything, and certainly not the common good. (Drolly enough, the one time a 1950s Brando antihero is induced to do the right thing, it’s in On the Waterfront, screenwriter Budd Schulberg and director Elia Kazan’s defense of informing; its transparent apologia for both men’s friendly HUAC testimony drove Foreman and other victims of the McCarthy-era witch hunt up the wall.) By and large, their epigones still rule the screen today, to increasingly deformative effect.

Ever since the 1970s, thanks to Robert De Niro’s imposing if thematically narrow example—and, more distantly, Brando’s as well—several generations of gifted male stars have been mysteriously convinced that playing alienated loners and obsessives is their only meaningful job. Tackling another psychopath is no problem, but they wouldn’t be caught dead playing family men, for instance, or anyone defined (never mind fulfilled) by his job or community. You could say this has cheated us of a whole lot of interesting social dynamics onscreen, except that the audience no longer seems much interested in social dynamics either. Yet it’s rare for these priorities to actually produce fresh insights—as they did when Leonardo DiCaprio, in Baz Luhrmann’s underrated The Great Gatsby, became the first actor to recognize that Jay Gatsby is a somewhat unnerving crackpot, not a dreamboat.

All the same, such actors are still chasing capital-a Art, however fatuously. Commercially, along with Star Wars, the two most predictive new genres to emerge in the 1970s were the urban-vigilante film—Charles Bronson’s bread and butter for decades once 1974’s Death Wish invented the form, and still with us in Liam Neeson’s Taken movies—and the superhero franchises that followed on the heels of 1978’s Superman. What nobody could have guessed back when Bronson was grimly stalking the big city in search of vengeance while red-caped Christopher Reeve flew around championing the American way was that, eventually, these two opposites would merge.

Beginning with Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, which now looks positively sunny next to Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight dystopias, caped-crusader movies and urban-vigilante flicks have increasingly come to share a view of social breakdown as neither a problem with any plausible civic solution nor even much of a tragedy. Today, it’s simply a given.

In a way, we’ve come full circle to the buccaneering gangster flicks of the 1930s. But now, without any apparatus of justice to hold either in check, our vigilante superheroes and their latest nemeses aren’t much more than rival crime lords brawling for turf. In 2013’s Man of Steel, Superman even killed his enemy, something unimaginable when Reeve had the job. The Marvelverse does better at preserving some vestiges of idealism than its DC Comics equivalents, especially in The Avengers—if nothing else, a showcase for collaborative resourcefulness, not solo derring-do. But for the most part, seldom do superhero franchises even pay lip service anymore to the idea that the protagonist is defending benign values, protecting a system, or making the world safe for democracy. He’s simply the strong man we root for to defeat the strong man we root against. Meanwhile, the ordinary citizens of Metropolis and Gotham have been demoted to CGI herds, midway between props and pawns.

In other words, in movies—and perhaps in life—the Mayflower Compact’s appeal has gone the way of the dodo. As for barn-raisings, who even knows anymore what they were? The counter-tradition of baleful individualism rules the multiplex, but without the benefit of having anything stable to rebel against—or in favor of. Autonomy now comes at us masked, vengeful, and stoppable only by Kryptonite. Movies contradicting the trope’s power are few and far between, and even fewer are set in the present.

If social compacts without any leeway for idiosyncrasy or dissent tend toward dictatorship, untrammeled individualism tends toward nihilism. The once-again great America Trump envisages is a fusion of the worst of both, and you can’t say our movies didn’t predict him. Wherever America’s right stuff now elusively resides, its wrong stuff in right-stuff disguise is on display for all the world to see—at multiplexes everywhere, not just on Fox News.