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States of the Union, Part 3: The Fruits of Distress and Unrest

As Richard Nixon reemerged in American politics and ascended to the White House in the late ’60s, the country was immersed in violence, protest, and the rejection of progress. Movies like ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,’ ‘Hearts and Minds,’ and ‘The Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ could only reflect the overflow of emotion and the divided mind-set of Nixon’s United States.

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 died 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.

1968-74: Sock It to Me

At the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, Keir Dullea’s astronaut is reborn as a massive, embryonic starchild; hovering ominously in orbit over Earth in the film’s final shot, the Starchild is simultaneously legible as evidence of alien intelligence and a secularized Christ, returning to usher in some sort of millennial transcendence.

Released in 1968, a year before the Apollo 11 mission, 2001 represented several giant leaps for science-fiction cinema, both in terms of its special-effects mastery (all those elegant, rotating model shuttles and space stations, rendered awe-inspiringly via the wide screen) and a more ephemeral sense of mystery—a willingness to leave audiences baffled. In that way, Stanley Kubrick’s classic stood in contrast to the year’s other enduring future-shock saga, Planet of the Apes, which concluded with an exclamation point instead of a question mark: Where the Starchild existed as a symbol of some larger unknowability, the image of Charlton Heston on his knees on the beach in front of a decapitated Statue of Liberty was an unambiguous confirmation of his—and our—worst fears about the fate of humanity. We blew it up. God damn us all to hell.

Just like the nightmarish flock at the end of Alfred Hitchock’s The Birds or the all-obliterating mushroom cloud that concludes Dr. Strangelove, the coda to Planet of the Apes puts a poetically pulpy spin on palpable American anxieties. Underneath its broad, irresistible parable-slash-parody of debates over evolutionary science—relitigating the Scopes trial through the lens of The Twilight Zone, or maybe Mad Magazine—Franklin J. Schaffner’s film was an apocalyptic shaggy-dog (or maybe shaggy-gorilla) story in which the detonation of a weapon of mass destruction yields a Utopia where the descendants of the human perpetrators are cast deservedly lower on the food chain. (In the underrated sequel, a lost sect of non-simian survivors learns to literally stop worrying and love the bomb.)

That shattered Statue of Liberty was a perfect emblem of distress in a year when the country seemed to come apart at the seams. The same week that Planet of the Apes was released in March, Lyndon B. Johnson announced that he would not be seeking reelection, a distancing strategy grimly contextualized by the ongoing and disastrous failure of America’s military presence in Vietnam; a few days later, Martin Luther King was assassinated, extending the decade’s legacy of prematurely silenced leaders already stretching from JFK to Malcolm X, with Robert Kennedy’s death to come a few weeks later.

The white-hot polarities percolating throughout the United States—the heated struggle over desegregation, deepening stratifications of wealth, social movements oriented against and in defense of some vaguely defined but unmistakable status quo—were in the process of boiling over, and while Planet of the Apes box office dominance over 2001 had more to do with its giddy premise and A-list leading man than any kind of zeitgeist-surfing savvy, its superficially escapist pleasures came with a reality check: Why look to the stars when things are so thoroughly fucked on the ground?

In his superlative 2003 book The Dream Life: Movies, Media and the Mythology of the Sixties—a work to which “States of the Union” is deeply and inevitably indebted—the former Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman locates 1968 as an epicenter in an unstoppable, ever-escalating bleed between politics and multimedia theater, a year of protests, riots, and cultural ultimatums both met and unresolved. You could build a pretty formidable syllabus out of any half-dozen titles released therein, from 2001 and Planet of the Apes to the horror movie triple bill of Rosemary’s Baby, a work of cynically grinning satire featuring a cameo from a real-life Time magazine cover wondering “Is God Dead?”; Night of the Living Dead, with its unstoppable, sturdily metaphorical zombies; and Peter Bogdanovich’s surpassingly creepy Targets, in which no less than Boris Karloff, playing a version of himself, confronts and defeats a doppelgänger for Lee Harvey Oswald.

Though as chilling as that trio’s encapsulations of a frightening American era are, they could not compete with 1968’s most nightmarish on-screen moment: a cameo by Republican presidential hopeful Richard Nixon on NBC’s late-night variety show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh-In. The appearance was the true Night of the Living Dead, with Nixon—who dug his own grave in the early ’60s by sweating through televised debates with Kennedy and then lay in it in 1962 by quitting politics during a gubernatorial concession speech—lurching back to the surface and reversing his own prophecy. “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore,” he’d informed the media in 1962, a self-pitying message broadcast around the world in black and white. But six years later, alive(ish) and in color, surrounded by the Day-Glo, sexily hippified aesthetic of Laugh-In, Nixon put the boots to himself. “Sock it to me?” he stammered, and even though the line was supposed to be a statement rather than a question—comic timing never being one of Nixon’s strong suits—it got the intended reaction as the audience somehow laughed more with him than at him, all the way to the White House.

By socking it to himself on a countercultural television show that unexpectedly rolled out the red carpet for him—an institutional failure of nerve invoked in 2015 when Donald Trump danced to “Hotline Bling” on Laugh-In’s NBC descendant Saturday Night Live—Nixon shored up a smidgen of hipster credibility to go with the so-called “silent majority” he would cite a year later as making up his base, easily winning an election defined more by fissures on its leftward flank. That lack of solidarity among Democrats in the wake of LBJ’s dereliction of duty is captured in Haskell Wexler’s docu-fictional Medium Cool, filmed in and around that summer’s disastrous Democratic National Convention, which featured violent, terrifying collisions between intersecting groups of anti-war protestors, student activists, and thousands of Chicago policemen and National Guardsmen. While Wexler’s film ostensibly focuses on the romance between a news cameraman (Robert Forster, extremely cool) and a single mother whose husband is (apparently) fighting overseas, its hook is the documentary footage of actual police brutality woven into its narrative.

There are two unforgettable moments in Wexler’s film. The first is the use of Milton Ager’s rousing “Happy Days Are Here Again” over shots of student protestors battered bloody by baton-wielding cops—a rejoinder, however incidental, to the optimism of dutiful political conventioneers serenading JFK with Frank Sinatra’s “High Hopes” in Robert Drew’s 1960 film Primary. The second is the sound of a cameraman remarking, “Look out, Haskell, it’s real,” as a burst of tear gas is released—a bit of dialogue that smashes right into the fourth wall that supposedly protects filmmakers and their audiences from any kind of real, immersive implications in on-screen carnage. That partition would be fully demolished a few years later by the courageous Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman in his epic Battle of Chile, a South American companion to Medium Cool whose record of a brutal military coup includes footage of a cameraman being killed on the job: In one of the most morbidly profound sequences in film history, Leonardo Henrichsen records his own shooting, Zapruder and JFK combined into a single person.

Medium Cool’s hybridized mix of fiction and documentary—its daring overlay of narrative atop reality—was a sign of a paradigm shift at the end of the 1960s, a trend in which the apparent authority of documentary was being undermined from the inside out by filmmakers skeptical of objectivity. Other reality-blurring standouts included Jim McBride’s David Holzman’s Diary—whose narcissistic, self-filming protagonist was at once not “real” and absolutely representative of an increasingly media-saturated reality—and Peter Watkins’s The War Game, a sober rebuttal to Dr. Strangelove that horrifically re-creates and “reports” on what a nuclear holocaust would look like on the ground in lieu of Kubrick’s satirical abstraction.

In the same way that the calamity of the 1968 DNC mirrored and echoed the even wilder protests that began in France in May of that year, the bumper crop of subversive American filmmakers honing their chops took their cues from the innovators of the French New Wave. The tone-shifting influence of Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut was felt on both sides of the fiction/documentary divide, first in the transatlantic homage of 1967’s Bonnie and Clyde and then in subsequent films. Following the infamous, bullet-ridden finale of Bonnie and Clyde, many others took the same approach of painfully obliterating their heroes. A list of the most memorable movie climaxes of the late 1960s, along with the Starchild and Charlton Heston on the beach, invariably includes the almost identically staged and intended endings in 1969 of Easy Rider, The Wild Bunch, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, all riffs on Bonnie and Clyde featuring outlaw heroes gunned down by faceless external forces—tragic murders suggesting a pitiless, contingent world.

It’s significant that Butch Cassidy—directed by one of Bonnie and Clyde’s screenwriters, Robert Benton—didn’t have the heart (or the guts?) to show its beautiful bandits getting torn to pieces. Where Easy Rider’s story of drug runners moving the wrong way across America (from west to east in a reversal of wagon-train trajectories) signified an attempt to wrestle with the present tense, Butch Cassidy was a retreat into a largely idealized past—one of the last gasps of the Western. The year 1969 also saw John Wayne, who famously said, “I’m a Nixon man,” ride off heroically into the sunset (with an Oscar in tow) for True Grit, as if ceding the floor to Clint Eastwood, another Nixon man (at least at first). Eastwood backed Nixon’s second run for president in 1971 after the commercial smash of Dirty Harry, a thriller that some critics saw as existing in Nixon’s law-and-order image: As one-liners go, the distance between “Sock it to me?” and “Do you feel lucky?” wasn’t all that far.

That Nixon’s first term in office happened to coincide with one of the greatest four-year stretches in American cinema can be chalked up to circumstance, and the classics that seem most resonant in the context of his presidency—Dirty Harry, for sure, but also The Godfather, with its grimly Shakespearean view of absolute power, corruption, and lies, and Chinatown, whose conspiratorial portrait of California graft in the 1930s took place on Nixon’s college stomping grounds—are too good to reduce to mere allegory. Certainly, there were movies that tried to tackle the president’s perceived mendacity head-on, like Michael Ritchie’s The Candidate, which hired the miraculously unscathed Sundance Kid to play a Democratic candidate charismatic enough to oppose an incumbent Nixon; if Robert Redford’s smooth celebrity persona sometimes suggested a movie star running for president, Ritchie’s skillful comedy was the equivalent of a platform—albeit a self-consciously rickety one, envisioning a liberal victory without much possibility for follow-through. (Redford would finally, actually be elected president—at Nixon’s expense—in the closing pages of Alan Moore’s comic book Watchmen, and actually shown at the controls in HBO’s largely terrific TV sequel.)

When one thinks about “Nixon Movies,” it’s usually a list of movies made during or in response to Watergate: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation, with its wire-tapping antihero; All the President’s Men; or, of course, Alan J. Pakula’s paranoid double shot of The Parallax View—an update of The Manchurian Candidate starring Warren Beatty as an innocent man railroaded, rather than mind-controlled, into becoming Lee Harvey Oswald. These movies deserve analysis, of course, but they belong, either in terms of their production date or more late-breaking resonance, to an era of fallout and aftermath, as opposed to the movies that more unconsciously—and in their way, provocatively—express something about the divided mind-set of a country under Nixon’s leadership.

Think, for instance, of the weird correspondences between the doomed hippies of Easy Rider and the weekend warriors of John Boorman’s amazing 1972 thriller Deliverance, all of whom are swallowed up and either killed or transformed by their experiences in what the music critic Greil Marcus has termed “the Old, Weird America”—predatory rednecks who resent the intrusion of urban types on their territory. Here, the “silent majority,” while submerged as per Nixon’s dictum, are anything but quiet about their feelings or resentments. It’s a schism that plays out even more spectacularly—and grotesquely—in Tobe Hooper’s 1974 masterpiece The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, whose big-city interlopers are even more explicitly coded as post-Woodstock hipsters poking around a dilapidated property, getting punished for trying to see how the other half lives. The rednecks in Deliverance insist their victim “squeal like a pig,” but Leatherface does the squealing for himself; the climactic view of him dancing ecstatically against the sunset rhymes with the fallen Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes as a vision of a world turned upside down, with Leatherface as a reverse starchild, a terrifying but liberating symbol of regression closer to 2001’s bone-smashing apes.

By now, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre—like Psycho and Night of the Living Dead before it—has gone from the grind house to grist for the academic mill, and that’s fair enough: Like any great work of art, it contains multitudes, and one angle among many is that it depicts a bunch of young Americans dying for no good reason at all. For a less hypothetical indictment of Vietnam, there was Peter Davis’s Hearts and Minds, a monumental and pioneering work of agitprop drawing on the breakthroughs of the late 1960s—including the scabrous films of Emile D’Antonio and the satirical savagery of shows like Laugh-In—and weaponizing them against a sitting president.

Davis’s mandate was to redirect the implication of the phrase “hearts and minds,” coined and conceived by American military intelligence as a kind of parallel metaphysical battleground to the swamps of Southeast Asia, back toward the home front. Boldly juxtaposing on-location combat footage with after-the-fact interviews and bursts of rhetorical montage and soundtrack manipulation—e.g., deploying the uplifting World War II anthem “Over There” over images of a more morally contentious conflict—Davis laid the template for Michael Moore’s whole career, including his saber-rattling indictments of specific politicians. The un-retouched passage of General William Westmoreland explicating his views on “Oriental” attitudes toward life and death is one of the great smoking-gun/give-em-enough-rope moments in documentary history, while the cross-cutting between Nixon pontificating about “difficult decisions” in between shots of planes being loaded with bombs is a more slanted example of rabble-rousing—a confrontational call to leave objectivity in the dust.

From its title on down, Hearts and Minds is aware of the divide between intellectual consideration and gut feeling, and its unapologetic attempt to marshal both against Nixon—strengthened in 1974 by the spiraling, cataclysmic impact of the Watergate scandal—stands as a timeless example of punching up and below the belt at the same time. “Sock it to me?” Nixon had asked six years earlier. With Hearts and Minds, he got what he wanted, and Hollywood would spend the rest of the decade kicking him around while searching for new heroes anywhere but the White House.