The Subversive Optimism of “The BFG”

SPOILER ALERT: This post contains a discussion of the plot and ending of “The BFG.” Consider yourself warned.

For ninety minutes, The BFG is one of the most intimate, apolitical movies Steven Spielberg has ever made. Despite his reputation as a popcorn auteur, Spielberg’s work has always carried at least a hint of politics, even if only in retrospect. His early work, including Jaws and E.T., often contains strong anti-government messaging that some critics have noted line up well with the conservatism of the Reagan years. In his excellent essay on Spielbergian politics, Bilge Ebiri wrote that his brand of cinema “was a conservative one of comfort, of old-fashioned values returning in the wake of Vietnam, Watergate, and the economic turmoil of the era. In his films, communities were healed and families were reassembled or reunited (albeit often symbolically).” Of course, this was all subtext; Spielberg’s early films were overtly non-political. In fact, it often seemed like the only ideology that mattered to him was commercialism.

In the years after 9/11, Spielberg began engaging more directly with the American character in War of the Worlds, The Terminal, and Munich. More recently, his work has taken turned openly political; specifically, he has devoted the last half-decade towards promoting a singular idea: optimism in government. On the surface, Lincoln was about how the sixteenth president cajoled and strong-armed the 13th Amendment into existence, but arriving in the election year of 2012 – when Obama’s legacy was essentially on the line – it felt more like a defense of insider politics that purposefully clashed with the rising tide of anti-authoritarianism defined then by Occupy Wall Street and the Tea Party. With those movements having been co-opted by the campaigns of Sanders and Trump, respectively, Spielberg’s comment feels even pointed today. It was also quite a change in philosophy from the young, subversive buck of New Hollywood who seemed to fear or despise authority.

Last year’s Bridge of Spies had a similarly glowing view of government. Although James Donovan (Tom Hanks) was not a government official (and was, in fact, obstructed by the soulless diplomats overseeing his work), his brave work to rescue two hostages from East Germany in the midst of the Cold War was portrayed as a shining example of American diplomacy, and Donovan himself was motivated by service to country. The film’s gentle optimism stands out in a media and movie landscape that seems increasingly loud and cynical.

The BFG continues this recent run of rosiness, although it arrives at a plot point that I was sure would cause Spielberg to revert to his young, skeptical self. A quick primer: Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) is a young British orphan who is abducted by the Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance), a gentle colossus who spends his night blowing dreams through the windows of London’s children.

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After being whisked back to his faraway cave and making friends with the big galoof, Sophie learns that not all giants are so friendly. Her new pal is actually the only friendly giant in a community of dumb, murderous psycho giants that have been snatching unsuspecting kids from open windows. So she and the BFG do what anyone would do when faced with a national crisis: they ask the Queen for help.

Sophie knocks on the Queen’s window and explains the situation. She wants to introduce the BFG, but first she makes the Queen promise that the BFG won’t be hurt. The Queen agrees, and the BFG appears from behind some trees. Immediately, the Queen’s right-hand man orders the royal guards to surround him with their guns drawn. Anyone who has watched a movie in the last forty years has an expectation of what will happen next: The Queen (or her smarmy assistant) will renege on her promise and capture the BFG. Sophie will have to break him out, and she and her giant will come up with a plan to neutralize the evil giants and save the day. Oh, and we know that smarmy royal assistant will get some comeuppance. This arc has been featured in hundreds of movies. In fact, it was even in a trailer that played before The BFG, for something called Pete’s Dragon.

But that’s not what happens at all. Here’s what does: The Queen commands the guards to stand down. And they do. She invites the BFG in for breakfast, and what follows is a delightfully farcical sequence that opens with the dining staff bringing in comically large plates of food for the BFG and ends with the Queen’s dogs propelling themselves across the floor in a fit of flatulence.

Then, of course, the Queen and her army help the BFG save the day. Even though it plays out similarly in the Roald Dahl book on which the film is based, is there anything more Spielbergian than that? The film brings us to this moment that we have seen turn anti-government so many times before, and then Spielberg defiantly refuses to portray government as anything less than entirely benevolent. He chooses optimism. Even in only a cinematic context, it’s a hugely subversive move, upending a common trope and rejecting the cynicism that has become a dominant part of our national identity.

But in 2016, this type of optimism in government borders on revolutionary. This entire presidential season seems defined by a thundering dissatisfaction in government. Trump’s entire campaign is based on it, and Sanders almost pulled off the biggest upset in presidential political history by tapping into it. As of now, neither candidate is inspiring much enthusiasm, even among the party faithful. Now more than ever, it’s cool to hate the government. The BFG loves it.

This might explain more than anything why The BFG was such a financial flop. The film, which cost $140 million to make, has grossed less than half of that so far. As of this writing, it has made only $47 million domestically ($64 million worldwide). Box office pundits have listed a number of reasons for the film’s failure, from its lack of stars to the relatively obscurity of the source material. Perhaps the answer is just one of timing. The BFG is a fundamentally optimistic tale that was unfortunately dropped into one of the most cynical summers in recent history. Maybe it will find its audience later on, when history catches up to it. Let’s hope so.

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