Gary Ross’s 1998 dramedy Pleasantville begins with a satirical montage tailored to Gen-X angst. Three high school teachers address their seniors’ post-graduation prospects: the first describes a woeful job market; the second, the STD epidemic; the third, global warming-induced environmental catastrophe. Just as quickly as the film raises these very real issues, however, it drops them in favor of a back-to-the-future fantasy set in the late 50s/early 60s, from which the sibling-twin protagonists emerge with renewed appreciation of how far American society has come since those more overtly racist, sexist, sexually repressive times. As the issues proposed and then disposed in Pleasantville not only persist but, especially in the environmental arena, have grown far worse, a few off-Hollywood films have begun tackling the looming disaster head on. An added twist is that in focusing on the mainly young people most committed to averting apocalypse, these films reveal the strong link between today’s radical activism and the counterculture/anti-Vietnam War movements to which they’re indebted. What the films tend to lack, compared to those of that New Wave-influenced period, is a film style that matches the fervor of the content, and a message that upholds the courage of its convictions.
The first of the new political films, Robert Redford’s The Company You Keep (2012), acts as connective tissue between the original counterculture and its contemporary, if still fledgling, revival. Redford himself and Julie Christie, two liberal acting icons of the 60s and 70s, play variations on Weather Underground co-founders Bill Ayers and Bernadine Dohrn. Like their real-life ex-fugitive models, who have become respected academics and a married couple, Redford’s Jim and Christie’s Mimi are ex-Weathermen who went into hiding, were romantically involved, and Jim is now a lawyer, as Dohrn became. The stigma of past affiliation that affected Ayers, when his community activist contact with then-candidate Barack Obama threatened his presidential bid, is mirrored, more darkly, in Jim’s need to clear himself of a murder charge stemming from his Weathermen days. Where the analogy falters, crucially, is that Dorhn and Ayers’ mutual refusal to renounce their radical stance is matched only by Mimi. Moreover, although Mimi holds her own in an ideological debate with Jim late in the film, his conversion to a more moderate liberal stance carries the day.
Political ideals are trumped more deviously in Gus Van Sant’s Promised Land (2012). Matt Damon’s energy-company operative, initially outwitted by an Earth First-style activist who alerts a farming community to the dangers of fracking, initially regains the upper hand by disclosing the activist’s falsification of evidence. The true falsification, however, is the activist himself, who actually was a charlatan hired by the energy company—a shocking discovery that triggers the protagonist’s political transformation. Unlike Jim’s tempering his radicalism in The Company You Keep, Damon’s farm-boy-turned-corporate-shill ups the ante, ideologically and geographically, eventually renewing his ties, socially and environmentally, to the grassroots. Undermining the progressive thrust here, however, is the conspicuous absence of any genuine Earth Firsters (or their equivalent), who seemingly, and improbably, have chosen to sit out this battle and let their misrepresentative dig his own grave.
Zal Batmanglij’s The East (2013), as if to compensate for Promised Land’s missing link, devotes most of its time, and sympathy, to a fictionally eponymous (but apparently realistically based) anarchist group engaged in guerilla-style “culture-jam” tactics aimed at exposing corporate malfeasance. The protagonist’s consciousness-raising also goes significantly farther than in Promised Land., as Brit Marling’s Jane, who infiltrates the anarchist group for a private intelligence firm, ends up abandoning the firm and siding with the group. Yet here again, the broader implications of Jane’s personal transformation are tainted, as by the time she comes around, the group is in shambles and the most she can hope to accomplish is damage control.
The latest of the new political films, Kelly Reichardt’s Night Moves (2014), is stylistically the most complex, if also the most adept at political compromise. Narrowing and expanding its countercultural scope, the film centers on three maverick activists who execute the Weathermen-like bombing of a dam to save the river’s endangered salmon. The overall milieu, however, extends beyond the violent radical fringe. Rather than an all-or-nothing proposition, radicalism in Night Moves is not an isolated phenomenon but includes a “middle way” between mainstream materialism and eco-terrorism in the thriving organic farming commune from which two of the bombers emerged. A preferred alternative, as it turns out, given the mavericks’ half-baked planning that wouldn’t have saved the salmon—even if the bombing’s unforeseen tragic consequences hadn’t buried Weathermanism as a viable option, seemingly for all time.
The most we are left with, then, even from the boldest of neo-New Age political films, is aversion to radical excess and sympathy for enlightened back-to-nature hippieness—clearly not enough, by itself, to avert impending planetary calamity. At most, heart can be taken from the revived countercultural consciousness the films display and from real-world manifestations such as 2011’s Occupy movement, whose ethos was perhaps best expressed by an Occupy LA couple hunkered down on the lawn in front of City Hall. Asked about their “We’re mad as hell and not going to take this anymore!” poster, the couple responded, “Only this time we’re not going to be co-opted!”
Vincent Brook teaches at UCLA, USC, Cal-State LA, and Pierce College. Besides dozens of journal articles, anthology essays, encyclopedia entries, and reviews, he’s authored or edited five books, most recently Land of Smoke and Mirrors: A Cultural History of Los Angeles and (as co-editor) Woody on Rye: Jewisheness in the Films and Plays of Woody Allen.