Everyone in America knows that we live in times of gridlock. We despair of anything really getting done, as we bump from one budgetary crisis to another. Nothing seems to work, and our expectations have plummeted. But there is a place where, against the odds, people seem to accomplish exactly what they desire – a place where no obstacle is insuperable. That place is Hollywood.
Not Hollywood as a physical location but the Hollywood of the imagination. If you look at this year’s Oscar contenders for Best Picture, you will find that – as disparate as their subjects are – many of them share a thematic bond. These films are about efficacy. They are about the ability of people, and even institutions, to get things done – whether it is smuggling diplomats out of revolutionary Iran, or killing Osama bin Laden, or wreaking vengeance on a powerful plantation owner and slaveholder in the antebellum South, or toppling the French monarchy, or at least setting the process in motion.
Americans have become accustomed to inertia. Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and liberals, pro-gun folks and anti-gun folks, pro-choice and anti-choice, pro-immigration and anti-immigration – everyone seems to be engaged in a standoff.
American movies have generally functioned as an antidote to our own sense of helplessness. They are, after all, predicated on vicariousness. As the critic Michael Woods explained, our movies typically take our problems and then paper them over, making them disappear.
But because movies are also sensitive to the zeitgeist and not just to our continual psychological need for imaginative empowerment, they can also capture a national mood. The noir films of the late 1940s and early 1950s spoke to postwar anxieties, without necessarily assuaging them. The downbeat films of the late 1960s through the mid-1970s – from Bonnie and Clyde to Chinatown and Nashville – spoke to the angst prompted by the Vietnam War and then Watergate and the putative corruption of the American soul without hiding it.