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Wall Street Journal


George W. Bush Is Out of the Picture

December 18, 2009

By Anthony Paletta

“The Road,” John Hillcoat’s adaptation of the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same title, has been receiving conventionally varied reviews this season. The Los Angeles Times described the apocalyptic film—depicting a man and his son clinging to survival in a future America devastated by an unnamed catastrophe—as “no more than a reasonable facsimile, an honorable attempt at filming an unfilmable book.” The Guardian praised “a brutal portrait of a dying planet stalked by starving, desperate men.”

People who recall the reviews of the novel a few years ago will notice something missing in nearly all of the movie analyses, and that something is George W. Bush. Yes, it seems that, at least as of a few years ago, “The Road,” which contains no proper names, let alone any political message, was, according to many reviewers, a commentary on the likely consequences of the former president’s policies. Writing in the Guardian in 2006, Alan Warner noted: “It’s perverse that the scorched earth which ’The Road’ depicts often brings to mind those real apocalypses of southern Iraq beneath black oil smoke, or New Orleans—vistas not unconnected with the contemporary American regime. Could its nightmare vistas reinforce those in the U.S. who are determined to manipulate its people into believing that terror came into being only in 2001?” In a 2007 review essay of “The Road” and three other novels in the L.A. Times, Scott Timberg asked, “What does it mean that the dream life of the richest, most scientifically advanced nation in history is troubled by nightmares of the end? The simple answer is that the attacks of 9/11 and the Iraq war have brought a sense of unease and vulnerability to both artists and audiences. Growing worries about global warming and the greater visibility of the Christian right—Protestant fundamentalists, for whom the apocalypse is not metaphor, are thought to have swung the last two presidential elections—have brought the end of the world in from the shadows.”

For eight years reviewers could be relied upon to construe almost any mildly dark artistic output as a sure comment on Bush-era cruelty, greed, or amorality. Two that came in for particularly tortured interpretations were “There Will Be Blood” (2007), the story of an oil prospector’s rise to riches based on an Upton Sinclair novel, and “No Country for Old Men” (2007), another bleak Cormac McCarthy tale. J. Hoberman of The Village Voice found it “suggestive that both . . . were shot in mid-Texas Bush country.” The film journal Reverse Shot observed, about “There Will Be Blood”: “While not a movie immediately about George W. Bush, Dick Cheney and their ilk, the film’s, and [the industrialist protagonist’s,]silent guiding ideology is the ruthless McKinleyan social Darwinism so in vogue among contemporary conservatives.”

A historical account is being written, depicting the cinema of the Bush years as one of widespread alienation and discontent. Michael Atkinson wrote in the British Film Institute journal Sight and Sound about the dark and socially conscious films that he believed to exemplify the Bush years, such as the 2005 Best Picture winner, “Crash,” a drama of failed race relations. He explained that “few ’serious’ subjects moved Americans more than their neighbours’ imperfections; the ’Crash’ microgenre may well represent an unconscious effort to understand how we—or they; the rich, the immigrants, the upwardly mobile blacks, the addicts, the paedophiles—allowed the Bush administration to form in the first place.”

No film was too remote from 21st-century America to escape such comparisons. While most rational viewers would understand “The Lives of Others” as an account of the evils of the East German Communist surveillance state, Andrew Sarris, writing in the New York Observer, pronounced it a “cautionary tale for all societies, not least our own, with its ominous mantra of secrecy for the sake of a conceivably endless war on terror.” According to a Variety review, “Doubt,” a movie about suspicions of pedophilia in a Catholic school in the early 1960s, “directly reflects” the era in which it was written, “when the inflexible certitude of the Bush administration resulted in the Iraq War.”

Things were so bad in the first eight years of the millennium that many characters simply fled. According to a 2006 article in Interview Magazine, “road movies are back in vogue, perhaps because alienation is as common in Bush’s America as it was in Nixon’s.” Among the exemplars of alienation, the article claimed, were Jack Nicholson in “About Schmidt,” Paul Giamatti in “Sideways” and Bill Murray in “Broken Flowers.” Easy Riders, all of them.

Is there anything that wasn’t tied to the Bush administration? Well, no. ran a piece in 2004, concerning the Lord of the Rings series villain, and titled it “Who’s Sauron—bin Laden or Bush?” ABC News asked, of 2007’s “300,” a tale of Spartan-Persian conflict, “Does Bush resemble Leonidas or Xerxes?” And yet how to explain the miserable failure of most films whose content actually related to the former president? Critical wisdom is one step ahead of us: A New York Times article on the box-office receipts of 2007, a year in which the worst performers were antiwar flicks such as “In The Valley of Elah,” “Rendition” and “Redacted,” was headlined “A Film Year Full of Escapism.” Audiences didn’t want to watch these films because they wanted to “escape” the realities of the Bush era. It’s a far easier explanation than that viewers simply didn’t like the films’ messages.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing in the 2008 edition of the Time Out Film Guide, suggested a connection between the former president’s policies and a general drop-off in moviegoing. “Growing alienation of much of the film audience from public cinemas,” he wrote, was a “development paralleled in some respects by the growing public disaffection with George W. Bush.” (I’m assuming that the theatergoers alienated by the Bush administration were all on winery tours.)

Well, this holiday season, change has come and the whole of cinema is no longer the Rosetta stone for the iniquities of the Bush administration. Thanks, President Obama.

Original Source:



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