What I Learned About Democracy From the Movies

In the past few years I’ve found myself questioning my assumptions and doubting what I thought I knew about my country. What if the good guys don’t always win? What if people can’t find a way to get along in spite of their differences? What if the flawed heroes were really the villains all along? What if the arc of the universe bends toward chaos? I wonder sometimes why I ever believed otherwise. Maybe because I’ve seen too many movies, or maybe I misunderstood what I saw.

Like many Americans, I had a movie education that was idiosyncratic, haphazard and intensive. I learned at least as much about American life from what I saw in multiplexes and revival houses, on late-night television and on VHS and DVD as I did from my teachers or parents. Moviegoing isn’t really a civic duty, but it can feel like a ritual of citizenship. You may know that what you’re watching isn’t real — historians and journalists are always eager to point out inaccuracies, omissions and outright fabrications in the Hollywood version — but you also might believe that, on some level, it’s true. That’s how mythology works: not as blatant propaganda, but as a set of stories that shape our perceptions of what’s fair, good and natural.

The only way to see clearly is to look again, even into a warped mirror. What follows isn’t a history so much as a key to the national mythology, a guide to the civic imagination through moving-picture images. It’s inevitably both subjective and collective, since movies, though we consume them alone, are something we have in common. Maybe the only things.

And like so much else in our common life, they are full contradictions, inconsistencies and outright delusions. Often a single movie will pull in both directions at once, offering reasons for faith and grounds for skepticism in the same gesture.

Each of these seven movies plays that kind of double game. But since no movie exists in isolation, each one is accompanied by others that heighten the contradictions and flesh out essential lessons. Together they suggest a syllabus, less a set of operating instructions than a guide to what we aspired to be, should have been and never really were.

“Extremists on both sides” is a treasured phrase in the American political lexicon. It’s a rallying cry of the embattled middle, an appeal to moderation, a motto of pragmatic whataboutism. And in spite of occasional outbursts of radical or reactionary zeal, Hollywood has avidly upheld the ideal of heroic centrism.

Which is not exactly the same as defending democracy. Look at Caesar, the hero of the 21st-century “Planet of the Apes” trilogy. His name evokes the leader who transformed Rome from a republic into a dictatorship, and at the start of the second episode (“Dawn,” which comes after “Rise” and anticipates “War”) he is the wise, brave, beleaguered warlord of a simian settlement in the forests north of San Francisco. His ministate is hierarchical, patriarchal and militaristic, a utilitarian utopia rather than a revolutionary experiment.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) faces two main threats: from the humans who are his kind’s historic oppressors and from Koba (Toby Kebbell), an ape whose experience of human cruelty has imbued him with a bitter, vengeful radicalism. The main drama involves the struggle of Caesar and his human counterpart to negotiate terms of peaceful coexistence. Each faces resistance from his own side, since anti-ape prejudice is still part of the formerly dominant species’ worldview.

To maintain control, Caesar must violate the prime ethical imperative of his movement — “ape not kill ape” — with the excuse that Koba has forced his hand. Caesar kills his rival and onetime ally with a heavy heart, an awareness of the tragedy of the situation. That combination of ruthlessness and regret is what legitimizes Caesar’s assertion of dictatorial authority.

Benevolent tyranny — the rule of the smart and sensitive in the name of progress and good sense — is the political ideal of 21st-century Hollywood. It defines the utopian horizon of the Marvel universe, where a politburo of super-empowered, unelected strongmen (and a few women) defend the interests of a passive and vulnerable public. Meanwhile, the Caesar-Koba dynamic repeats itself in the contests between Professor X and Magneto, and T’Challa and Killmonger, reminders that the test of leadership is how mercilessly — and sensitively — you deal with the extremists in your own ranks.

“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” is available to rent or buy on major platforms.

In politics, freedom has many different meanings and ideological colorations. Onscreen, it’s mostly a matter of geography. The kind of freedom that movies capture most naturally and celebrate most eagerly is the freedom of movement. The cinematic idea of liberty is bound to the romance of the open road.

Road movies offer visions of escape — of the headlong flight from convention, oppression, habit and home — made vivid by danger and buoyed by the possibility of friendship. Our most cherished vagabonds travel in pairs, sometimes romantic (like Bonnie and Clyde or the young outlaws in “Badlands”), but more often platonic. Some visions of solidarity on the run are more politically charged than others, like “Thelma and Louise,” which inspired some pearl-clutching back in 1991 for its forthright feminism. A Time cover story then purported to explain “Why ‘Thelma & Louise’ Strikes a Nerve.” The answer was that the lengths to which its heroines were willing to go to be free — to be left alone — was thrilling to some viewers while it made others uncomfortable.

That nerve is always raw. When men onscreen fight back, take flight, drive fast and look great doing it, it’s just a movie. When women do the same, it’s an issue, and the question of what they are fleeing from or fighting against risks being drowned out by the question of whether they are going too far. “Thelma & Louise,” released in the year of Anita Hill’s accusation of sexual harassment against the Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, glances back to the second-wave feminism of the ’70s and forward to the #MeToo moment.

The bravery and resilience of the heroines — their humor, their honesty, their pursuit of pleasure, the absolute charm of Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis — collides with an edifice of injustice that seems immovable. It’s not just that some men (not all men!) are awful, or that male allies aren’t much help. It’s that what Thelma and Louise are fighting against is so deeply embedded in the structure of normal existence that a solution seems unimaginable. In Callie Khouri’s brilliantly rigorous script, liberation and desperation become synonymous, a convergence indelibly captured in the final freeze-frame of their Thunderbird suspended in midair over the Grand Canyon. The poetry of the image almost inspires you to lose sight of its fatalism. The drive for freedom is strong, but the law of gravity — the inertia of propriety, patriarchy and state power — will win in the end.

“Thelma & Louise” is available to rent or buy on major platforms.

Is revenge the truest form of justice, or is true justice the transcendence of revenge? This is a philosophical conundrum that haunts American movies, whose obsessions with law and order have fostered an enduring romance with vigilantism.

“Batman” in his mid-2000s Christopher Nolan-Christian Bale “Dark Knight” incarnation, embodies that romance. He is motivated equally by a sense of duty to protect Gotham City’s residents from crime and a personal sense of grievance rooted in the violent deaths of people he loves. The personal and public motives operate in harmony. Bruce Wayne becomes a masked hero because he was a victim first, and his victimhood guarantees his authenticity. He’s not just some guy in a uniform doing a job, and he is free of the corruption and compromise that bedevil the legally constituted authorities.

Extralegal violence as a tool of social control and racist terror has a long and ugly history in America, and Hollywood has played a role in sanitizing and civilizing this toxic strain in the national story. In place of the bloodthirsty mob, movies put the law in the hands of a complicated hero, a lone figure who dwells on the margins of respectability. With or without a badge, he’s a maverick, an anti-institutional player whose disregard for rules and procedures marks him as a rebel, an outlaw on the side of the good guys. That ambiguous DNA connects the gunslingers of classic westerns with the urban avengers of the 1970s and then with the sometimes antiheroic superheroes of our own time.

In the American entertainment system, law and order for the most part occupy distinct genres. The setting of most courtroom dramas is a merciful, rational place, where lies are exposed and gray areas are illuminated by the impersonal workings of a mostly benevolent system. But the real action is on the streets, where everything is personal and where the dirty work of the system is carried out in the dark.

“The Dark Knight” is available to stream on HBO Max.

The relationship between democracy and capitalism is a subject of endless debate among historians and economists. The pursuit of wealth is seen as the basis of a society free from rigid old-world hierarchies, even as the acquisition of wealth creates dangerous inequalities. The rich are worshiped and demonized, and money itself is both the measure of success and the source of corruption.

Hollywood thrives on this ambivalence, and no movie expresses it more vividly than Martin Scorsese’s “Wolf of Wall Street.” Adapted from a boastful, semi-apologetic memoir by the renegade stock trader Jordan Belfort, the film oscillates between disgust at its selfish, obnoxious, amoral protagonist and giddy fascination with his exuberant, unabashed greed. Jordan has such a good time being bad, and it doesn’t hurt that he’s played by Leonardo DiCaprio with just the right blend of kid-brother charm and movie-star swagger.

There are those who insist that “Wolf” is a ferocious indictment of the money culture, or at least of the shallow scammers who treat the serious business of capitalism like a casino. And there are others who can’t stop ogling the drugs, the cars, the boats and Margot Robbie, even if the spectacle makes us feel a little squeamish.

Everyone is right! Disapproval of excessive wealth and unchecked avarice is Hollywood gospel. See “Citizen Kane,” “It’s A Wonderful Life,” “Wall Street” and the “Godfather” movies. But see the same movies for contrary evidence. Wealth onscreen is beautiful, exciting, erotic. Hollywood is as two-faced about money as about sex — maybe more so, since it has more skin in the game. The movies are an industry, a con game with a half-guilty conscience. In “Wall Street,” Gordon Gekko proclaims that “greed is good.” (Does anyone remember a word that movie’s ostensible good guys have to say?) He was flattering us, though — feeding us a line and letting us off the hook of our own hypocrisy. Jordan Belfort offers a more compelling, more troubling lesson. Greed is fun.

“The Wolf of Wall Street” is available to rent or buy on major platforms.

Lonesome Rhodes, the ebullient, harmonica-blowing celebrity played by Andy Griffith in “A Face in the Crowd,” was recently rediscovered as one of the cultural markers who supposedly predicted Trump. There isn’t really much resemblance between the characters, though, and to view Elia Kazan and Budd Schulberg’s post-McCarthy parable through the lens of very recent history is to risk missing its wider application to the pathologies of modern American life.

Movies about the news media tend either to romanticize or demonize the work of journalists. You either get crusading, ink-stained heroes (“All the President’s Men,” “Spotlight”) or unscrupulous, self-serving cynics (“Ace in the Hole,” “Absence of Malice”). Sometimes the cynicism almost accidentally serves the causes of truth and justice, as in “His Girl Friday.” And sometimes the forces of idealism and greed do battle inside the newsroom, as in “Network” and “The Insider.”

“A Face in the Crowd” is a slightly different beast, though — simultaneously a critique and a defense of the power of modern media. Lonesome is discovered in a Southern jail cell by a radio producer played by Patricia Neal, who transforms him (with the help of Walter Matthau) into a popular raconteur and pitchman and then into a populist political force. He connects effortlessly with his audience’s aspirations and resentments, but turns out to be greedy, dishonest, predatory and an all-around threat to decency and civic order. The elites who empowered him, spooked by the monster they have created, contrive to destroy him. A hot mic captures an unguarded expression of contempt for regular folk, and the regular folk want nothing more to do with him.

Lonesome’s downfall echoes that of Joseph McCarthy, who was humiliated on national television by Joseph Welch during hearings about alleged Communist influence in the Army. The reality was a bit more complicated, but the idea that the media can both empower and destroy demagogues — that it can, in effect, break its own spell — retains its seductive charm. Even though the movie looks less like a warning than a fairy tale.

“A Face in the Crowd” is available to stream on HBO Max.

Politicians love to present themselves as outsiders, uniquely capable of rising above partisan bickering and ideological posturing, rolling up their sleeves and solving America’s problems. That attitude is older than the movies, of course, but at the movies the story of a regular guy coming to Washington to shake things up is almost a genre unto itself.

The paradigm may be Jimmy Stewart in “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” but the most memorable recent avatar of this tradition is Chris Rock in “Head of State.” It isn’t a great movie, but that’s part of the point: the anti-political political movie is a form of self-canceling satire, an argument that what the country needs is a bland, boring, uncontroversial approach to public life.

Of course, the name Chris Rock signifies the opposite of all that, and “Head of State” includes a few flights of profane, insightful inspiration. But what it does not include is any political issue that people are likely to argue about. Mays Gilliam, the city councilman whose frustration leads him to the brink of national office, takes stands that nobody could disagree with. He’s for good schools and jobs, fiscal responsibility and honest government. He sounds just like a politician, in other words. And also, perhaps improbably, like the voice of Hollywood consensus.

“Head of State” is available to rent or buy on major platforms.

Politicians love nothing more than to invoke “the American people,” but who exactly are they talking about? We are a pluralistic and often polarized nation, and we might have less in common than we would like to believe. But movies share a persistent reverence for what used to be called “the common man,” and very few films have the nerve to call him what he really is: a fraud, a fiction, an ideological construct hatched from the feverish imaginations of officeseekers, Hollywood moguls and other self-serving hucksters.

“Sullivan’s Travels,” written and directed by Preston Sturges on the eve of America’s entry into World War II, with the Great Depression very much in mind, remains the definitive celebration — and debunking — of Hollywood-style populism. The titular hero, played by Joel McCrea, is a hotshot director dissatisfied with the escapist fare that has made him rich. His filmography includes such gems as “Hey Hey in the Hayloft” and a nameless action picture that ends with two guys slugging it out on moving trains — a cliché even then. But Sullivan wants his studio to greenlight “O Brother, Where Art Thou?,” a passion project that he believes will tackle the real problems of humanity.

To placate their golden goose, the bosses arrange a heavily publicized junket through real America. Along the way, Sturges and Sullivan — with the help of Veronica Lake as “the Girl” — swerve into romance and farce before stumbling back onto the path of sincerity. After the official tour is over, a mishap throws our hero into the real real America, but without press coverage or an entourage. He winds up in a prison farm on a vagrancy charge, where the harshness of the conditions are relieved only by movie night. The convicts and the guards gather to watch a Mickey Mouse cartoon projected on a bedsheet, Sullivan learns his lesson and Sturges delivers his moral. What do the people want? They want to escape. They want to laugh. They want Disney.

“Sullivan’s Travels” is available to stream on the Criterion Channel or to rent or buy on major platforms.

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