Smalltown, USA: Recap and Thoughts on Conservative Movies

Last week, we counted down the Top 5 Most (Secretly) Conservative Movies of All-Time. When I started thinking about the list, I was as shocked as you were to see some of my favorite movie stars in such conservative movies. Does this mean that the actors, writers, and directors involved in those movies are really conservative? Not necessarily.

Take “Knocked Up,” for example. Although embedded in the plot is a strong pro-life message, Seth Rogen and Judd Apatow contributed more than a combined $60,000 to the Democratic National Committee this election cycle. Apatow contributed an additional $35,000 to the Obama Victory Fund 2012.

When it comes to “Forrest Gump,” #2 on our list, the political leanings of its creative team again do not match the movie’s message. Screenwriter Eric Roth contributed $4,600 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008, and Tom Hanks, in addition to giving $35,000 to the Obama Victory Fund, recently narrated a 17-minute “documentary” that is actually a long-form Obama campaign video.

On the other hand, Dan Aykroyd who created, co-wrote, and stars in “Ghostbusters,” #4 on our list, gave $2,300 to John McCain’s failed presidential run. And Bill Murray, although he has no giving history that I can uncover, made some fairly strong conservative remarks recently on CNBC.

Bruce Willis, star of “Die Hard,” Reel Change’s most conservative movie of all time, also has no giving history but has a long history of associating himself with Republican politicians. Most notably, he was a featured speaker at the 2000 Republican National Convention.

So what does this all mean? I noted in my original post that all of the films chosen for the list were hugely successful in terms of box-office receipts, and I think there lies the answer. For a movie to be a hit, it must on some level project a conservative message.

It seems clear that it is easier to get a liberal to go see a movie with conservative values than it is to get a conservative to go see a liberal movie. The right-wing media is on the lookout for hidden messages in Hollywood movies, as evidenced by Lou Dobbs’s recent warning against the dangers hidden within “The Lorax” and “The Secret Life of Arriety.” Right-wing pundits raise these issues because it feeds into their pre-conceived narrative – that Hollywood is filled with communists and hippies who want to steal your daughters and indoctrinate your sons. Once Dobbs, Limbaugh, and the rest of them put up a warning flag against a movie, their followers will stay away from the theater out of principle, regardless of how much entertainment they are missing. So if I were a film producer, I would be very careful about invoking the ire of the right-wing media because it would hurt my grosses. I wouldn’t be so worried about antagonizing liberals because they have never been able to mobilize their base on social issues as well as conservatives.

But there’s another point to make: conservative messages are just easier on the ears. Look at the narratives produced by the Republicans currently running for the presidential nomination. Mitt Romney says that America’s best years are in front of us. Ignoring the deep recession that America is just beginning to crawl its way out of and the damage done to our reputation by the wars started by the previous administration (and in one case, escalated by the current one), he says that President Obama shouldn’t apologize for America; he should just be proud of it. Rick Santorum’s focus is on the most generically positive institution of all: family. In that way, Santorum’s message is on the surface most like “Knocked Up.” Even if you don’t agree with the details, it’s hard to argue with the basic premise.

Liberals, on the other hand, have had to struggle for years to find a positive message. They drew attention to the poor and the downtrodden and, as proponents of further government intervention, focused on all of the problems that government was needed to fix. From the New Deal to the Great Society, this messaging produced meaningful change, but in the last two decades, it has been an uphill battle, as Americans seem to want more varnished positivity out of their leaders.

In trying to determine why our most successful movies have such strong conservative message, the answer lies in a question. It is the question that movie producers have for years been asking themselves before committing to a project: will it play in Peoria?

Here is the complete Reel Change list of the Top 5 Most Conservative Movies of All-Time.

5. “Bruce Almighty”/”Evan Almighty”

These two films by director Tom Shadyac package strong, pro-religion, anti-government messaging into broad, commercial comedies. “Bruce Almighty” stars Jim Carrey as a newscaster who gets an opportunity to prove he can run the world better than God (Morgan Freeman). Although he is initially successful in using his new power to make the world better for himself, it’s when he starts to consider the needs of others that he runs into problems. Forced to deal with a huge backlog of prayers to be answered, he does what any good-hearted mortal would do: he gives everyone what they want. But as most true conservatives would tell you, giving hand-outs to those in need is a short-sighted solution. Bruce answers every prayer, and mass chaos ensues.  Bruce becomes convinced that only God can do the job of overseeing the human race. This kind of logic parallels messaging from certain people on the religious right, who argue against government intrusion in our lives because God can do it better.

The conflict between religion and government is depicted more literally in the sequel. Steve Carell expands on his small role as local news anchor Evan Baxter – now a newly-elected Member of Congress – who is tasked by God with building an ark for a flood that he must take on faith is coming. Baxter’s new carpentry project comes into direct conflict with his duties as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He is in fact ridiculed by his peers for his new facial hair and his sudden affinity for animals. But the real dramatic tension in the film is derived from whether his faith will be rewarded or whether he would have been better served focusing on the business of legislating. While the rain never comes, a flood does arrive, caused by a poorly designed dam that was commissioned in a shady, back-room deal by one of his colleagues in Congress. Thousands board his ark for safety, and Baxter steers them down the Potomac, crashing into the nation’s capital. As metaphors go, this one is a little too on-the-nose. But the message is clear: the best way to help people is not through the business of government but through faith and family.

4. “Ghostbusters”

Like many of my generation, I grew up loving this movie and was surprised to discover its political subtext. Released in 1984, smack-dab in the middle of the Reagan years, the script by Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis depicts its lead characters as the private-sector solution to a serious crime epidemic. Where the city and its incompetent mayor fail to address a growing problem, the Ghostbusters succeed. Not only that, they are canny entrepreneurs when it comes to marketing – their logo and uniforms are snappy and iconic.

It seems to be a swell partnership between the city and industry until a pompous regulator from the federal government – the Environmental Protection Agency, in fact – shows up to sniff around. Played smugly by William Atherton, Walter Peck is concerned about the nuclear power used by the Ghostbusters in their storage facility, but Atherton portrays him as a man who is simply irritated by their success. The Ghostbusters did the city a public service, but it is Peck who ignores the facts, disregards the experts in the private sector, and ends up unleashing a vengeful Sumerian god on America’s unofficial capital city. 

The script deftly attributes to Peck two of the qualities vilified most by the 1980s right: he is a hippie (as evidenced by his anti-nuke stance), and he is from the federal government (and, as Reagan would have warned us, “is here to help”). Plus, in an era in which women were gaining ground in the workforce and elsewhere, Peck embodies none of the qualities of the traditional male. As Peter Venkman informs us, “this man has no dick.”

3. “Knocked Up”

At first glance, a Seth Rogan vehicle by comedy-juggernaut Judd Apatow seems an unlikely candidate for this list, but in “Knocked Up,”  Rogen’s character, Ben Stone, serves as the perfect stereotype of the left as seen by the right –  an unproductive member of society and engages in numerous activities that conservatives would like to outlaw. He is a habitual drug user (War on Drugs).  He has no job and lives off payments from an old court settlement – he sued the city when a garbage truck ran over his foot (tort reform). He is trying to create a pornographic web site (Rick Santorum). But Ben’s life changes when when he impregnates entertainment news reporter Alison during a one-night stand. Much like in another 2007 film, “Juno,” the idea of getting an abortion is raised immediately then dispatched with just as quickly. In both films, what might be an agonizing decision takes all of one scene.

The rest of the film exists to prove that Ben and Alison’s decision was the correct one. Ben grows up and ditches his hedonistic ways, while Alison’s faith in Ben is rewarded, and the movie’s end finds them as a happy family. But one sequence early on, when each of them tell their parents about the unplanned pregnancy, perfectly encapsulates the film’s pro-life position. Alison’s mother responds to news by encouraging Alison to “have it taken care of.” She is depicted as cold, unsupportive, and uncaring. Ben’s dad, on the other hand, reacts with glee and gives Ben a warm and fuzzy pro-life speech. He tells his son that “life doesn’t care about your visions. Stuff happens, and you just gotta deal with it.” Not the most eloquent pro-life argument, but an effective one. Ben’s dad comes off as a mensch, while Alison’s mom seems more like a bitch. As a matter of likeability, pro-life beats pro-choice.

2. “Forrest Gump”

Much of the political language developed by conservatives in the 1980s drew from the anti-hippie rhetoric of the 1960s (see David Sirota’s insightful book, “Back to Our Future,” for more on this). While “Gump” was released in 1994, it was adapted from a book published in 1986, during the boom of the Reagan years, and it contains one of the most conservative portrayals of the 1960s ever seen in a mainstream film. Gump, a religious Southerner, is involved in every major event of the era, but, because he is not burdened with intellect, he survives them with his moral compass intact. He serves his country dutifully in Vietnam, never questioning the war’s aim, and becomes a successful entrepreneur with his own small business. After he leaves the shrimping business, he wisely re-invests his profits, making a fortune while helping another small business (Apple Computers) grow and prosper.

But his girlfriend Jenny takes a different path. She succumbs to the counter-culture and follows her dreams of being a famous folk singer. Even though it is Forrest who goes to war, Jenny goes to an even darker place. Her singing career leads only to a go-go bar, where she sings naked while being groped by unenlightened men. The film’s portrayal of the protest movement takes a hit when Jenny dates a Black Panther who physically abuses her; Forrest, expertly dressed in his military uniform, steps in and corrects the situation. And in the end, it is the free love movement itself that kills Jenny. She contracts AIDS, but Forrest – whose sense of forgiveness has not been corrupted –  takes her in, and she dies peacefully in his antebellum mansion.

 1. “Die Hard”
Released during the last year of Reagan’s presidency, “Die Hard” is a paradigm of 1980s conservative dogma, decrying Communist governments, the breakup of the traditional family, Japanese takeover of American culture, and big government. John McClane (Bruce Willis) is a New York cop who has recently separated from his wife, Holly. More specifically, McClane has lost his wife to the feminist revolution. She left him and their home in New York (taking the kids) for a great job in L.A., choosing career advancement over her role as domestic homemaker. She has even started using her maiden name again.

As the film opens, Holly is working late on Christmas Eve, neglecting her family on a major holiday to put in time at the company Christmas party. McClane surprises her at her office in the huge Nakatomi office building. The Christmas party is a great opportunity for the filmmakers to drudge up the old anti-hippie propaganda that originated in the 1960s but was employed politically in the 1980s to rally conservative support. The filmmakers depict Holly’s new world as hedonistic and anathema to McClane’s traditional American values. At the party, he catches one of Holly’s colleague doing cocaine, and another pair having a drunken office tryst.

By the time German thieves storm the building and take everyone hostage, it is clear that McClane has two geopolitical enemies. The depiction of Germans, our chief enemy in World War II,  as villains further cements the film’s value system as post-war, pre-counterculture. But in some ways, it is Holly’s Japanese bosses who pose the biggest threat to McClane.

Throughout the film, McClane is depicted as a cowboy, the most traditional of American icons. He even nicknames himself Roy, after famous cowboy Roy Rogers, and his catchphrase – “yippee-ki-yay” – comes straight from every old cowboy film you’ve ever seen. But in the 1980s, Japanese culture was enjoying great influence in America. From sushi to Hondas to Mr. Roboto, Japanese culture was everywhere, and their economy was booming. Japan was seen to be a manufacturing powerhouse while American industry was struggling to keep pace. Many credited the Japanese work ethic, while inherently criticizing American workers for becoming complacent.

“Die Hard” is a bombastic, violent, and brainless response to America’s fear of losing its global superiority. By depicting the promotion of Holly by her Japanese bosses as the catalyst for the dissolution of her family, the filmmakers link the 1980s Japanese takeover of American culture with a deep existential assault on traditional American values. The Nakatomi Corporation lures McClane’s wife away from his family with a promise of financial independence, symbolized by a gold watch given to Holly as a company Christmas bonus. In film’s thrilling climax, villain Hans Gruber is dangling from the top floor of the building, certain to fall to his death. He wants to take Holly with him, and as he tries to pull her down, his hand grips the watch on her wrist, while McClane tries to pull her back into the building. In this moment, the watch symbolizes everything: Holly’s feminist desire to be more than a homemaker; the decreasing stature of the American male; and the rise of foreign economies at the expense of our own. The stalemate is broken when McClane gracefully unhooks the watch from her wrist, freeing her from the shackles of independence. Gruber to falls to his death.

In the final scene, McClane introduces his wife to the street cop who was helping him from the ground. He introduces her with her maiden name, but she quickly corrects him. She is “Mrs. McClane” again, re-domesticated. The cop informs her, “You’ve got yourself a good man. You take good care of him.”

I have no doubt that she will.

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