We are either in the third or fourth year of the great economic crisis, and Hollywood’s response has been, quite simply, to act as if there isn’t one. To date, there has been one movie—let me repeat that, one movie—that has made the effect of the crisis its central subject. And that film, The Company Men, starring Ben Affleck and written and directed by the television veteran John Wells, came and went early this year with barely a whisper of attention.
Indeed, to judge by Hollywood’s output over the past few years, you might think we were living in a time so untroubled that our primary national concern has to do with the difficulties that might come with living life as a superhero. There is nothing wrong with escapism, to be sure, especially at these prices. But Hollywood might wonder, as I pointed out a few weeks ago in this space, to what extent its obsessive focus on the unreal and fantastic as opposed to the kinds of problems experienced by ordinary people has caused the number of tickets it sells to fall to a lower level relative to the overall population of the United States than at any time since the medium reached its maturity in the second decade of the 20th century.
And while the multiplex might not be reflecting the national mood, as the movies released by Hollywood in the 1930s certainly did, it is no longer the only audiovisual game in town, as it was back then. Cable television is awash in present-day lower-middle-class anxiety. Series like Breaking Bad on AMC and Justified and Sons of Anarchy on FX certainly capture the frame of mind even when they don’t go at the subject directly; and supernatural fare like True Blood on HBO and The Walking Dead on AMC seems to get at it symbolically as well.
Even so, the unwillingness of Hollywood to engage with the disposition of the country stands in stark contrast to the last time America was in dire economic straits—the years between 1973 and 1983. America was in a very bad mood in those years, and Hollywood reflected that bad mood. It was commonplace for bad guys to prevail over good guys, for evil to win out over innocence, for crooks to get away with the crimes they committed. They gave people a vivid sense of decaying cities and fraying small towns and the fracturing social order.
This was so much the case that it became fodder for one of the most fascinating misfires ever made—a wild black comedy called Americathon recently released for the first time on DVD by Warner Archive (an interesting make-a-copy-on-demand service that sells its wares only over the Internet). Americathon, made in the midst of the stagflation of 1979 and released only months after the oil panic created by the fall of the shah in Iran, is set in 1998. Bicycles and joggers fill the freeways of Los Angeles; people, even the wealthier, live in their cars; and the executive branch has relocated to a condominium in Laguna Beach formerly owned by a Mr. and Mrs. I. Siegelstein of Long Island.
“Good morning, White House, this is Lucy, can I help you?” says the airheaded girlfriend of the airheaded president, Chet Roosevelt.
Chet Roosevelt, played by a very funny and very young John Ritter, is intended to evoke Jerry Brown, then the governor of California—and of course, once again the governor of California now. This is not the only strange bit of prophecy to emerge from the imaginations of screenwriters Michael Mislove, Monica Johnson, and Neal Israel (working from a sketch by Phil Proctor and Peter Bergman, two of the founders of the drug-hippie comedy troupe called the Firesign Theatre). Another is that China has become the world’s foremost economic power (though in this movie through its takeover of the fast-food business selling the “Mao Tse-Tongue Sandwich”).
Most prescient, the plot of Americathon is about the country going broke. Indeed, as it begins, America will cease to exist because it will be foreclosed upon by a billionaire Indian-casino owner named Sam Birdwater who loaned the Treasury $400 billion it can’t pay back. Twenty years earlier, when all the trouble started, the narrator tells us, our leaders were “no brains and all teeth, which brings us to this guy”—and we see a picture of Jimmy Carter delivering the “malaise” speech. He was, we are told, lynched in its wake.
Carter was, of course, the president at the time, and he had generated no enthusiasm whatever in Hollywood. Popular culture had no difficulty turning on Carter or portraying the America he was leading as a country in decline—even in a bit of misfired fluff like Americathon. That is not the case with Barack Obama’s Hollywood, where it will evidently be Recovery Summer all decade long until the president no longer deems it so.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.