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States of the Union, Part 2: A Failure to Communicate

As Lyndon B. Johnson took office—just after JFK’s assassination and just before the Vietnam War—the country’s adherence to authority began to waver, reflected in movies like ‘Cool Hand Luke’ and ‘Bonnie and Clyde’

Ringer illustration

In 2016, the Toronto-based author and my friend Kevin Courrier was working on a book proposal based on a lecture series he had started entitled Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors, an examination of the past six decades of American cinema organized by various presidential administrations. Kevin passed away in 2018 after a long illness without writing the book, by which point I had taken over the lecture series. It is out of respect to him and the many long conversations we had on the topic that I’m introducing a monthly essay series at The Ringer that looks at the direct and subtextual representations of U.S. presidents and their social and political impact, beginning in 1960 with the campaign and election of John F. Kennedy and continuing through October to the Age of Trump—ending on a cliffhanger that may or may not have a sequel. By integrating some of Kevin’s film selections with more of my own, it is my hope to simultaneously reexamine a series of classic American movies and call attention to some neglected titles to further the idea of cinema as a fractured funhouse mirror that distorts and reflects in all directions.

1964-1967: A Great Society?

“What we’ve got here,” says the man brandishing a whip to the prisoner on its business end, “is failure to communicate.” Clocking in at no. 11 on the American Film Institute’s 2005 list of the 100 most memorable movie lines, this faux-folksy bit of wisdom—delivered in a laconic drawl by the Indiana-born character actor Strother Martin—is the thematic mantra of 1967’s Cool Hand Luke, a drama about a World War II veteran (Paul Newman) sentenced to two years’ labor on a chain gang after a night of drunken disobedience. In this context of hard time, Martin’s character, the Captain, is an avatar of top-down authoritarianism, a petty tyrant taking his cruel cues from an even higher institutional power; if he’s particularly nasty to Newman’s Luke, it’s because the latter represents a potential insurrection within this patch of sun-baked Florida land. The “failure” the Captain is referring to is Luke’s refusal to follow a very explicit set of rules, an infraction necessitating severe physical punishment. After all, actions speak louder than words.

By the late 1960s, such principled acts of defiance were commonplace in Hollywood. Four years before Newman got to play an American Jesus (complete with the crucifixion symbolism of Cool Hand Luke’s final shot), Steve McQueen’s Virgil Hilts baited his Nazi captors into throwing him into the cooler in The Great Escape (1963)—a scene lovingly re-edited by Quentin Tarantino in Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood to imagine Leonardo DiCaprio’s Rick Dalton in the lead part—while Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965) used Sean Connery at the height of his Bond stardom to play a stoically subversive inmate marinating in a sweltering British “glasshouse” in the Libyan desert (a fate more grueling than any of the traps set for 007).

What these movies have in common beyond their strapping, shirtless, alpha-male stars is an underlying distrust of authority—insubordination depicted heroically, as a rejection of a predatory, soul-destroying status quo. In the 1950s, when Marlon Brando’s biker in The Wild One threatened to rebel against “whatever you’ve got”—the “you” being anybody not on his leather-jacketed wavelength—he was still presented as a figure of menace. A decade and a half later, those words had the ring of cultural prophecy. The 1950s had been defined politically and culturally by the Manichaean boundaries of the Cold War, of “us against them,” with additional paranoia about whether “they” had already breached North American borders (the panic encoded into A+ B-movies from Pickup on South Street to Invasion of the Body Snatchers). The ’60s, however, were subdivided around a set of different, homegrown conflicts: not just left versus right and Democrat versus Republican, but an establishment built on the apparent moral certainties of a post–World War II era versus those who not only noticed cracks in the foundation of what Kennedy’s successor Lyndon B. Johnson called the “great society,” but sought to slip through them—radicals and revolutionaries both in the Brando mold and other, more diversified guises.

If, as I argued in the first part of this essay series, the key image in American cinema in 1963 was the climax of Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds—a world perched on the verge of apocalypse—the films of 1964 picked up and literalized this nuclear anxiety. Last month, while reviewing The Hunt, The Ringer’s Sean Fennessey invoked Lumet’s Fail Safe as an all-time feel-bad movie—a ticking-clock drama about the attempt to mitigate an accidental doomsday scenario in which American pilots deploy to drop a 10-megaton payload on Moscow. Shot in gleaming, precise black and white by Gerald Hirschfeld and directed with a combination of sweaty realism and grand theatrical flair by Sidney Lumet—the most talented and industrious of the filmmakers who emerged from the world of television drama at the onset of the decade—Fail Safe imagines a no-win situation backing a sturdy, dependable American president in the proverbial corner, where, in a bit of sentimental and masochistically crowd-pleasing fantasy, he manages to do the right thing.

Twenty years before WarGames informed us that “the only winning move is not to play,” Henry Fonda’s nameless commander-in-chief makes the ultimate sacrifice, opting to wipe Manhattan off the map to offset the destruction being caused in Russia by his country’s computer error. “Would the offer have been enough?” he hopefully queries the Soviet leader on the other end of the hotline, who responds by turning the president’s question against him—if the situation were reversed and the U.S. was on the receiving end of a bombing raid, what would he say? Fonda’s mix of recognition and resignation as he answers in the negative and musters up the resolve to do the unthinkable is devastating, as is the film’s final bit of abstraction, a shot of New York City pigeons (a nod to Hitchcock?) taking flight at the moment of impact.

Although Fail Safe’s plot line predates the assassination of John F. Kennedy—the film was adapted from the 1962 novel of the same name by Eugene Burdick and Harvey Wheeler—it’s hard not to feel the slain president’s presence in Fonda’s character and performance. In 1957, Lumet had cast Fonda as a kind of progressive superhero in 12 Angry Men, drawing on the actor’s legacy as the Depression-era social justice warrior Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath to have him play the personification of liberal tolerance: the only member of an all-white, middle-aged jury to give a Puerto Rican defendant the benefit of a (reasonable) doubt.

In the courtroom drama, Fonda wore his saintly charisma and spotless white suit like he was auditioning to be president, making Fail Safe his inevitable promotion. 12 Angry Men came out before Kennedy’s media coronation as America’s white knight, and Fail Safe was released (and failed commercially) in his absence, but for all of their argumentative ideological tension—both films are constructed largely out of scenes in which characters bat their entrenched points of view back and forth as if in a badminton game—they ultimately advocate for existing systems of justice and governance. Provided, that is, that we defer at the right times to the wisdom of those best-suited to offer guidance.

The flip side to Lumet and Fail Safe’s tortuous moral equivalencies—and probably a better movie, and certainly a more universally enduring one—was Stanley Kubrick’s almost identically plotted and themed Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, which also includes a hotline call to Moscow at a decisive moment. In lieu of Fonda’s broad-shouldered, iron-spined Kennedy stand-in, Kubrick’s comedy classic gives us Peter Sellers as the nerdily invertebrate Merkin Muffley, a frail, balding nonentity whose big ask of the Soviet premier is to “please turn the music down, Demetri.” Sellers’s triple-tiered work here ranks as one of the greatest comedic performances of all time, and Muffley exists at the very peak of his invention, as well as serving as the satirical fulcrum of the movie as a whole. The script’s most grimly hilarious joke—that Sellers’s other indelible creation, the eponymous über-Nazi scientist Dr. Strangelove, pulls the strings of U.S. policy less than 20 years after the defeat of Hitler—only really works because Muffley is so vivid as an embodiment of the president-as-invisible-man. In a movie full of shouters, he can barely be heard. He’s dominated by the loudest voices in the room, including Strangelove and his own in-house, five-star-general Buck Turgidson, played by a rampaging George C. Scott as the chilling, hilarious embodiment of dick-swinging American exceptionalism. (Buck’s name, like many of the absurd monikers in the movie, is a gag kidding male impotence and/or virility taken to some lethal vanishing point.)

“I’m not saying we wouldn’t get our hair mussed,” Buck admits while cycling through facts and figures about casualty rates in the event of a Russian tactical strike. This line—and many others in Kubrick’s masterpiece—have been invoked in recent weeks in the context of a very different sort of international catastrophe and its dubiously motivated overseers; this currency speaks to the timelessness of Dr. Strangelove’s vision even as everything in it is rigorously specific to the mid-’60s: the wryly sacrilegious use of Vera Lynn’s World War II standard “We’ll Meet Again,” a song dedicated to British soldiers leaving their loved ones, to soundtrack a mushroom cloud; the Playboy magazines strewn in the cockpit of the B-52 bomber; the political power vacuum in which the lack of a Kennedy-esque stalwart prefigures mutually assured destruction. But if Kennedy is Dr. Strangelove’s structuring absence, Scott’s jowly, Southern-fried shtick as General Turgidson manifests a weirdly prescient riff on LBJ, who’d shortly be advocating his own callous calculus during the onset and development of the Vietnam War.

As second in command during the Camelot years, Johnson’s down-home persona served as ballast to his ticket-mate’s perceived elitism. A career politician with friends on both sides of the aisle, LBJ cultivated a reputation as a man who got things done, serving as an architect of the civil rights acts of 1957 and 1960 (despite well-documented evidence of personal racism) and overseeing aspects of the Kennedy administration’s national security plans. After being sworn in as president, however, Johnson’s tensions with the rest of JFK’s staff and complex (some might say contradictory) personal politics made him a polarizing figure. The landslide victory he won at the polls in 1964 seemed more out of respect to Kennedy’s legacy than a true vote of confidence.

To return to Cool Hand Luke, it’s easy to see a bit of Johnson’s vulgar, bowdlerizing style in Martin’s villainous warden, as well as in Scott’s Strangelove general: Both characters exist as manifestations of the powers-that-be and their worst impulses. What Cool Hand Luke carries, in addition, is the extra subtextual baggage that came with its release in 1967, when the Vietnam War began to drag out and U.S.-Soviet conflict extended into Southeast Asia. More and more, the war became widely identified as Johnson’s conflict the further he strayed from his initial, infamous assessment that he wasn’t going to send “American boys ten thousand miles from home to do what Asian boys should be doing for themselves.”

Cool Hand Luke’s parable about a soldier who suffers terribly upon his return from Europe anticipates the upcoming cycle of key American movies about damaged veterans—from Hearts and Minds and Taxi Driver to The Deer Hunter and Cutter’s Way—while suggesting that certain American values weren’t holding up under scrutiny. A failure to communicate, yes, but what the Captain is trying to say isn’t worth hearing.

Johnson’s evolving legacy was evoked in Norman Jewison’s Best Picture–winning In the Heat of the Night (1967), which allegorized his antisegragationist sentiments via Rod Steiger’s overtly racist yet ultimately justice-minded Mississippi police chief, who teams up with Sidney Poitier’s big-city Philadelphia cop to solve a murder. Poitier actually pulled double duty in 1967, emerging as the Summer of Love’s most significant sociological symbol. Besides sparring with Steiger, Poitier won over some not-so-liberal in-laws in Stanley Kramer’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, a dated conversation piece of a movie updated and given a satirical flip on its 50th anniversary by Jordan Peele in Get Out. In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner toe the line between thoughtful, responsible social commentary and didactic messaging; their contents reflect a genuine national uncertainty in the wake of LBJ’s landmark bipartisan 1964 legislation formally outlawing discrimination on the basis of race. What undermines both films is the idea—particularly grating in Kramer’s film—that Poitier’s paragon-like nature (underlined by his status as the first black actor to win an Academy Award, as a saintly workman in Lilies of the Field) is what compels tolerance from his onscreen partners. Their shared implication is that to win even grudging respect from the older white cohort, an African American character has to embody a sort of baseline perfection.

Both box office hits, neither In the Heat of the Night nor Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner was necessarily an explicit shot across Johnson’s bow: For that, you’d need to survey the margins of American moviemaking, where subversives were marshalling a belligerent resistance to LBJ’s efforts. The president’s central role in forming the Warren Commission to investigate the Kennedy assassination—and identify Lee Harvey Oswald as the lone shooter—was critiqued in Emile de Antonio’s 1967 essay-documentary Rush to Judgment, an adaptation of a book by lawyer Mark Lane that stands at the epicenter of subsequent conspiracy theories. De Antonio, the son of Italian immigrants who attended Harvard alongside JFK, would grow to be a thorn in the side of two consecutive U.S. presidents, lambasting Johnson via selectively edited clips in 1968’s scabrous In the Year of the Pig, which castigated American involvement in Vietnam, and 1971’s Millhouse: A White Comedy, which the filmmaker claimed earned him an (unofficial) place on Richard Nixon’s famed enemies list. In tackling JFK’s death and Vietnam, de Antonio distinguished himself as a genuinely contentious documentarian, adopting the fragmented, fractious filmmaking language of the French New Wave and applying it to his home turf.

Occupying an even more formally audacious space—and drawing direct parallels between Kennedy’s death and America’s overseas quagmire—was the young Brian De Palma, whose 1968 comedy Greetings was styled as a faux-vérité picaresque about three draft dodgers (costarring an impossibly young, handsome, and game-for-anything Robert De Niro) traipsing around New York City, hooking up, pulling scams, and getting off on their own voyeurism. The film opens with television footage of Johnson proudly addressing the country, proclaiming “I’m not saying you’ve never had it so good, but that is true, isn’t it?”—a dubious claim of prosperity rebuked by the remainder of De Palma’s wild counterculture farce. In the film’s incredible centerpiece sequence, a conspiracy aficionado played by Gerrit Graham pores over a photo spread of the Zapruder film and traces the trajectory of the fatal bullet on his half-conscious girlfriend’s body, a bit of choreography conflating sex and violence (and physics and pornography) in such a full-frontal manner that the movie was branded by the MPAA with a dreaded X rating. In a way, De Palma’s broad, politicized version of sketch comedy anticipated Saturday Night Live by a decade even as its style and tone were closer to the contemporaneous provocations of Jean-Luc Godard, who skewered Johnson and his policies in 1967’s La Chinoise, about a group of young Maoist revolutionaries plotting in Paris.

Already ensconced as the great modern auteur of French cinema by 1967, Godard had been lobbied by Warren Beatty to direct his upcoming gangster-Western hybrid Bonnie and Clyde; he declined, and Arthur Penn—a devotee of the French New Wave with Hollywood-style chops—stepped in and delivered one of the most influential American movies of the era, if not of all time. No less than the staunch hero of Cool Hand Luke, Bonnie and Clyde’s namesakes (glamorously inhabited by Beatty and the stellar, statuesque Faye Dunaway) took aim at the status quo, albeit as career criminals rather than misunderstood martyrs. What gave the film its power—and marked it as a piece of work closer in spirit to Godard, De Palma, and de Antonio than to In the Heat of the Night or Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner—was its reluctance to flatter its audience.

No sooner has the viewer come to accept the Barrows’ thefts as bloodless, Robin Hood–style high jinks than the senseless, bloody death of a bystander recalibrates our moral compass; by the time the movie reaches its indelible finale, our judgment is once again rerouted by the excessiveness of the pair’s execution by an FBI death squad, a blood-soaked set piece collapsing the gap between Psycho’s shower scene (quoted via Dunaway’s desperate reaching out at the moment of her death) and the Zapruder film, with a little bit of Fail Safe in the form of birds taking flight right before the shots are fired. If it’s possible for a film’s ending to feel at once ambiguous and definitive, Bonnie and Clyde leaves the viewer feeling torn apart without necessarily knowing why. Its mix of lyricism, brutality, and ambivalence would seep into other landmark titles of the late 1960s, as the impending changing of the political guard only deepened the ideological fault lines at the center of American life—and cinema.

Adam Nayman is a film critic, teacher, and author based in Toronto; his book The Coen Brothers: This Book Really Ties the Films Together is available now from Abrams.