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States of the Union, Part 4: One Nightmare Leads to Another

The post-Nixon optimism that welcomed Gerald Ford and saw Jimmy Carter rise like Rocky eventually turned to skepticism and institutional distrust, best captured by movies like ‘Chinatown,’ ‘All the President’s Men,’ and ‘Apocalypse Now’

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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.

1974-1979: Bound for Glory?

“My fellow Americans, our long national nightmare is over,” proclaimed Gerald Ford on August 9, 1974, words of reassurance commensurate with his new and unexpected role as the president of the United States. A decade earlier, Lyndon B. Johnson had moved up the chain of command in the wake of a sudden assassination, but Ford—who had been one of LBJ’s most prominent critics as a Republican congressman—adopted the office from a predecessor whose wounds were fully and devastatingly self-inflicted. While the Zapruder film tragically enshrined JFK’s demise—a gory 8-mm portrait of a fallen king—the audio of the Watergate tapes, featuring profanely incriminating conversations between Richard Nixon and his aides and sinister silences hinting at the after-the-fact-erasure of even worse revelations, were the very inverse of mythmaking. By putting everything that the White House would have preferred to be left unsaid on the record, they gave hissing, disembodied voice to a growing, bipartisan skepticism about an administration in a death spiral.

Hence Ford’s careful choice of words during his first address to the nation. Showing due humility, he nodded to the unorthodox nature of his advent while promising a smooth transition of power. Less than a month later, however, Ford would offer Nixon a complete presidential pardon. The gesture was framed as being in the country’s best interest, but suggested shadowy power-brokering; some believed that Nixon’s resignation had been leveraged against a secret promise of clemency. “It could go on and on,” said Ford of the Watergate scandal and its fallout. “Someone must write the end to it … I have concluded that only I can do that, and if I can, I must.”

For Ford, ending America’s long national nightmare was less a question of struggle or soul-searching than a much-needed quick fix. Whatever psychic scars Ford’s pardon was meant to heal, it was received in the media—and by voters of all persuasions—as an act of complacency, if not out-and-out corruption. How can the punishment fit the crime if the crime itself has been erased?

The best American movie of 1974 was Roman Pokanski’s Chinatown, a brilliantly sculpted homage to 1930s detective thrillers whose multileveled historical allegory of the California Water Wars and undertones of romantic anguish lent its pot-boiling plotline plenty of interpretive dimension. Polanski and screenwriter Robert Towne turned their villain, the detestable, incestuous land baron Noah Cross (John Huston), into an embodiment of the capitalist profit motive while using the financially and ethnically stratified city of Los Angeles as a microcosm for larger inequalities. (Decades later, There Will Be Blood would emerge as a spiritual sequel.)

There’s enough expansive, insinuating intention in every frame of Chinatown that analyzing it as a by-product of a particular political moment could seem dangerously reductive. But sometimes, the intersection of cinema and some larger zeitgeist is undeniable. The film’s all-obliterating climax, allegedly rewritten on set by Polanski when he determined Towne’s wrap-up wasn’t fatalistic enough, gained resonance when juxtaposed with contemporary, real-life machinations. Not only does Noah Cross escape punishment at the hands of the film’s perceptive but ineffectual hero, Jake Gittes (a tremendous Jack Nicholson), but it’s confirmed beyond a shadow of a doubt that he controls everything in the film’s world: “He owns the police!” shrieks Noah’s daughter turned sexual captive Evelyn (Faye Dunaway) moments before she’s shot to death by the LAPD—an appalling accident that rhymes with the actress’s demise in Bonnie and Clyde and caps off the bleakest endings in Hollywood history. You can name some other contenders, but forget about it: It’s Chinatown.

Corruption was everywhere on screen in 1974, and you didn’t have to look too far to find symbolic surrogates for Nixon and his cronies. In the Best Picture category at the Oscars, Chinatown faced off against The Conversation, whose plot about a tortured surveillance expert uncovering ominous recordings may have been devised by Francis Ford Coppola before Watergate but resonated powerfully in its aftermath. Coppola’s other film that year, The Godfather: Part II, deepened Michael Corleone’s descent into seclusion and moral turpitude: The shot of Al Pacino staring off into the darkness at Lake Tahoe could easily have been taken for a presidential portrait.

With his treacherous, quasi-Shakespearean demeanor—like Lear, Richard III, and Iago in one slouchy body—Nixon would provide reliable fodder for politically minded filmmakers as the decade went on. It was harder to discern cinematic surrogates for Ford, and not only because his days in office were numbered the moment he showed leniency to his disgraced forerunner. There just wasn’t much there there. The definitive on-screen Ford was the one played by Chevy Chase on the then-fledgling sketch series Saturday Night Live, which emphasized the lame-duck leader’s ex-football-player physicality by ridiculing it. Perhaps inspired by the observation of a colleague that “Jerry Ford can’t walk and chew gum at the same time,” Chase played Ford as a patsy prone to pratfalls, at least one per episode, as if subliminally anticipating his alter ego’s defeat in the 1976 election to an unlikely Democratic challenger.

J. Hoberman has written about how Robert Altman’s Nashville, a 1975 epic designed around a public assassination similar to JFK’s—while also containing eerie foreshocks of the death of John Lennon—captured the Ford administration’s blankness in its device of the faceless presidential candidate Hal Phillip Walker. In a movie filled with two dozen vivid, larger-than-life protagonists, the always campaigning yet rarely seen Walker, whose campaign is represented by an always cruising sound truck, functions as a sort of structuring absence. Nashville is also a celebration of aspects of the American South, indulging in a bruised community’s feisty pride in existing and enduring beyond the purview of coastal elites. It’s the same energy that was harnessed by Jimmy Carter in his campaign. As the first Democratic candidate to truly capture the popular imagination since JFK, the Georgia governor ran on a series of palatably moderate policies while cultivating an unlikely outsider image; his secret weapon, deployed strategically —and in counterpoint to the acknowledged corruption of the Republicans—was a thick coating of good old-time religion, energizing an appreciative Christian Evangelical base even as he enfolded a plurality of liberals beneath his big tent.

The obvious underdog analog to Carter in 1976 was Rocky, a movie about a lovable nobody who comes out of nowhere to win—or at least triumphantly lose—the big fight. Rocky’s Oscar victory over more ideologically ambivalent rivals like Taxi Driver, whose antihero also gets a montage of one-armed push-ups, or Network—a paranoid, reactionary update of the TV-phobia of A Face in the Crowd—channeled a celebratory populism. If any of the year’s heavy hitters featured a discernible Carter figure at their center, it was Hal Ashby’s beautifully crafted dust bowl biopic Bound for Glory, which reconstructed folk legend Woody Guthrie’s early years in the form of a rambling cinematic ballad starring David Carradine.

As the haziest and most meandering of the American auteurs who emerged at the beginning of the ’70s, Ashby was well suited to dramatize the life of an itinerant, nonconformist artist. He was the most explicitly political director of the group (Exhibit A being 1975’s ace counterculture satire Shampoo) and he was uniquely capable of making Guthrie’s principled songwriting and lifestyle signify in a larger sense. Meticulously recreating the Great Depression with the aid of genius cinematographer Haskell Wexler (the trickster behind Medium Cool’s docufictional agitprop), Ashby achieved a genuinely complex expression of American patriotism, the desolate beauty of a country a long way from keeping its promises. A coincidence, at once superfluous and perfect: Bound for Glory’s theme song, “This Land Is Your Land,” was adapted from a protest melody by the Carter family—no actual relation to Jimmy, but similar to the new president’s message of togetherness and renewal.

Yet another 1976 Best Picture nominee explicitly took on the transition from Nixon to Ford and Carter even though it never featured the latter two on screen. By adapting Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s nonfiction account of the Watergate case, Alan Pakula’s thrilling All the President’s Men did its part to put a “long national nightmare to bed.” The film plays like a sober variation on a James Bond movie, all secret meetings and deep-throated informants; its ending, which shows Dustin Hoffman and Robert Redford dutifully typing up their exposé beneath TV footage of Nixon, was so satisfying that audience members could be pardoned for forgetting that the latter had been pardoned.

The subtext of All the President’s Men was that better days lay ahead. Elsewhere, however, the middle of the decade was awash in pessimism, an unease hammered home by genre filmmakers unwilling to make nice. In Paul Bartel’s Death Race 2000, a totalitarian American regime led by a nameless president is challenged by a daredevil driver played by David Carradine (Keith’s action-movie-icon brother); in The Omen, the Antichrist is welcomed into Washington’s inner circle by eliminating his rivals (and a set of beloved character actors) one elaborate accident at a time. And while Brian De Palma’s Carrie was, at its core, just a foray into Stephen King schlock, its depiction of Christian piety as a form of psychopathology, best embodied by Piper Laurie’s Bible-thumping, knife-wielding, self-loathing “backslider” Mrs. White, hyperbolically undermined Carter’s devout persona. As for Carrie’s ending, it challenged Chinatown in the downbeat department, booby-trapping a cliché as old as The Wizard of Oz (“it was all a dream”) and suggesting instead a waking nightmare with no end in sight.

While the biggest hits of the late ’70s, from Star Wars to Superman to Close Encounters of the Third Kind, were awash in optimism, their appeal lay in their essentially apolitical escapism. What Luke Skywalker and Clark Kent had in common besides being magical orphans was a clear-cut mission to battle evil, which they knew when they saw it (and so did we). Close Encounters had some robust anti-establishment subtext, and a quasi-Carter figure in Richard Dreyfuss’s Midwestern dad, who upends his life in the service of a higher calling. But its money shots were all about special effects and rooted, emotionally and visually, in the 1960s, splitting the difference between 2001’s psychedelic “stargate” sequence and the LSD-enhanced events of Woodstock. The more prescient sci-fi exercise was Philip Kaufman’s 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, set in an overgrown San Francisco where “flower power” had evolved or mutated into brainwashed conformity.

A year before Carter signed his own political death sentence by speaking openly about the “crisis of confidence” affecting the United States—an address known as the “malaise speech”Invasion of the Body Snatchers visualized the problem and the solution. It conjured up a company of eccentric, brainy, yet marginalized ex-counterculture types (Carter voters, surely) only to have them admit, one by one, that it was easier to just go to sleep and “awake in an untroubled world”—the reward promised by their extraterrestrial colonizers.

Kaufman’s masterpiece was arguably the scariest movie of the 1970s because it emphasized the seductiveness of being body snatched. George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead, also from 1978, took a more sardonic view of mob mentality. Its heroes are a group of zombie-outbreak survivors holed up in a suburban shopping mall, lured there by easy access to consumer goods and the same materialistic muscle memory that brings the undead hordes there as well. No movie captured the nervy stasis of American life under Carter better than Dawn of the Dead, with its images of a stagnant economy and shambling crowds, all shot with a sense of incipient doom. By the time of the film’s release, Carter’s populism had stalled, rocked by an ongoing energy crisis and an economy plagued by inflation. He was caricatured as ineffectual by Republican opponents, and challenged from within his own party by Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy, who had dynasty-minded designs on the presidency.

Despite his very real charisma and a basic decency, Carter faded in the home stretch. He also didn’t yield too many direct cinematic doppelgängers, only accidentally resonant stand-ins like Steve Martin’s goofy Navin R. Johnson in The Jerk, the white adopted son of poor Black sharecroppers whose rags-to-riches story played, however coincidentally, as a strangely absurdist riff on his fellow Southerner’s rise to prominence. Carl Reiner’s 1979 smash, which soared on Martin’s smart-dumb slapstick, used images of African American poverty as a sight gag, while a comparatively underseen indie like Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep unveiled an authentic working-class reality. Shot in Watts and focused on a slaughterhouse worker (the indelible Henry G. Sanders) increasingly alienated from his job, Killer of Sheep met the menace of “malaise” head on, culminating in a shot of husband and wife locked in a swaying embrace to Dinah Washington’s hard-luck R&B standard “This Bitter Earth,” an image of entwining love and despair, surrender, and endurance. Distinguished by a maturity and empathetic social vision distinct from the mandate of blaxploitation, Killer of Sheep was like a distant, melancholy cousin to the exuberant sketch-comedy sensibility of Michael Schultz’s 1976 Car Wash, which featured a thriving Black-owned business patronized by an eclectic, multiracial cohort (a cameo by Richard Pryor as the flamboyant “Daddy Rich” is like distilled joy).

The Jerk’s fundamentally dopey humor found a prestige-picture companion piece in Hal Ashby’s brilliant Being There, starring Peter Sellers as a savant-like gardener who is mistaken for a guru and propelled directly towards the presidency. A proto–Forrest Gump minus the later film’s sanctimonious sentimentality, Being There was Ashby’s swan song; it repeated Bound for Glory’s formula of a lovable innocent on a picaresque journey, but while Woody Guthrie’s stubborn commitment renders him heroic in a staunch, reliable sort of way, Sellers’s Chance the Gardener is a total cipher, equally legible as a symbol of gentle folk wisdom and as a “useful idiot” whose charisma could be yoked to a corporate agenda. In a way, Being There’s anxious allegory of the meek inheriting the earth made for an ideal 1979 double bill with The Muppet Movie, which filled in Kermit the Frog’s origin story by turning him into a weirdly Carter-esque figure— or maybe a felt-tipped Woody Guthrie, lifted out of obscurity with a banjo in tow and tasked with sticking to his guns even as the likes of Orson Welles promised a “standard-issue rich and famous contract.”

As for the year’s other swamp-based, green-hued blockbuster, Apocalypse Now was, among other things, a scathing critique of American institutional authority, getting in swipes at the U.S. military and its unscrupulous motives even before introducing Marlon Brando as the bloated, deranged avatar of Vietnam-era imperialism. Nothing in Michael Cimino’s pumped-up, Oscar-winning The Deer Hunter could compete with the lunatic expressionism of Brando’s acting in Apocalypse Now’s denouement: Here was the Godfather, relocated to Southeast Asia and presiding over a fake empire, flexing supreme leadership and ultimately offering himself to the slaughter in an attempt by the character (and Francis Ford Coppola) to symbolically bring a long national nightmare to an end. (“This is the end” droned Jim Morrison on the film’s soundtrack, in case you didn’t get the point.) The only place to go from Apocalypse Now’s heart of darkness was towards Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America,” a trajectory advertised by its advocates as being bound for glory even as many suspected it was actually a dawn of the dead.