In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Ross Douthat has a very fine essay on what he frames as Hollywood’s return to the 1970’s. It puts last fall’s spate of Iraq war films in context, bringing them into place alongside everything from the neo-exploitation slasher flicks of Eli Roth to the Bourne series and mediocre remakes like The Manchurian Candidate. Lots of ink (some of it mine) was spilled last fall dissecting the movie biz’s dreary, self-righteous takes on the war, but his essay paints the clearest picture by far.
I would say, however, he gives short shrift to one point: lame-brained politics or no, the crusading, politically-infused films of the 1970’s were simply better films–and that goes for the prestige pics as well as the B-movies. Douthat notes this in passing, agreeing that the 80’s were “a more middlebrow, conservative decade in pop culture” in comparison with the political engagement of 70’s cinema.
But it’s essential to note that today’s crop–at least in its most explicitly political incarnations–is by any standard rife with unambiguously rotten material. Lions for Lambs, Redacted, and In the Valley of Elah were painful to sit through. Even the better stuff, like the 2005 Clooney duo of Syriana and Good Night, and Good Luck were merely average–decent productions that fail to rise to the level of most cable television series. The only recent productions in this vein that stand out at all are the three Bourne films, which tend to use their political framework as a background and succeed mostly on the strength of their dazzling action setpieces.
Contrast this with the films of the 1970’s. There’s little comparison. Apocalypse Now may have little to do with the real-life experience of Vietnam, but it’s a hypnotic, singular vision from an accomplished cinematic artist working at the peak of his powers. All the President’s Men remains one of film’s best detective stories, and probably the best movie about Washington or journalism ever made. Middlebrow fare like The Parallax View and Flight of the Condor sparkled in a way that today’s mainstream thrillers rarely accomplish. And even low-budget films like Death Race 2000 and The Warriors crackled with a sense of outrage, awareness, and energy. Movies like these, as well as the early works of directors like John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, indulged in exploitation flick shenanigans. But they also had a tremendous amount of fun, and maybe even managed to say something about the state of the world, too.
Heaven knows the politics of Hollywood in 1970’s were off the wall, perhaps even wackier and more radical than today’s. But somehow, they still managed to turn out movies that were far less irritating than the artless, self-satisfied liberal consciousness-raisers we seem to be stuck with now.