Woody Allen, Oscar bait, Hollywood's fear: Where's the movie that hits the 1 percent?

Major films used to engage with the issues of the day. So why are today's acclaimed movies scared to face reality?

Published February 4, 2014 11:59PM (EST)

Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," Leonardo Dicaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street"
Cate Blanchett in "Blue Jasmine," Leonardo Dicaprio in "The Wolf of Wall Street"

It seemed like a pretty big deal at the time: A violent crash on Wall Street of a scale we’d not seen in seven decades, hedge funds and investment banks collapsing, life savings evaporating in a matter of seconds. Millions of homes lost to foreclosure, trillions in lost housing revenues, cascading bankruptcies of large and small companies alike, millions of jobs destroyed as unemployment shot into double digits.

And when the Great Recession turned into the New Normal – with long-term unemployment stretching for many from months to years, median incomes sulking as gains went only to the very rich, and no salve for homeowners or those boxed out of the job market – the national conversation turned to income inequality and the infamous 1 percent. And it wasn’t just on the Occupy left, which caught fire in 2011: Rapacious corporations became so notorious that Newt Gingrich began talking about “vulture capitalism” during his 2012 campaign. Even Tea Party darlings Paul Ryan and Marco Rubio have stopped caricaturing these issues as “class warfare” and begun to acknowledge entrenched poverty: The beleaguered middle class has become a bipartisan talking point. “Suddenly the whole world is talking about income inequality,” David Brooks wrote last month. Despite some superficial improvements, mostly at the top of the scale, this is the world many Americans still live in. Labor force participation hasn’t recovered – it’s now at 62.8 percent, meaning that a proportion of Americans working continues to fall even five years into a supposed recovery.

Take a look at the movies released last year – the New York Times reviewed almost 900 -- and you’ll see glimpses of these overlapping crises. "The Wolf of Wall Street" and "The Great Gatsby," while set in the past, look at charismatic con men of the kind that seem all too familiar these days. "Inside Llewyn Davis" focuses on a musician – part of a Greenwich Village scene built on social protest -- who’s living the kind of limbo many Americans are experiencing today. And "Blue Jasmine" concentrates on the disenfranchised wife of a Bernie Madoff figure who gambled with other people’s livelihoods, and lived in luxury until the whole system blew apart.

Overall, though, the glimpses remained fleeting: American feature films are still reticent to engage fully with the crash, the recession and the larger rigged economic game that precedes both. "You can see the class struggle from up here!'' one character says from a high-rise apartment in Mike Leigh’s "Career Girls": Don’t expect to hear this in a movie made stateside. We've not had a rallying cry in recent years half as sharp as the line from "Network": "I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!" If an alien were monitoring American life from a distant planet’s cineplex, he could be forgiven for thinking the republic consists primarily of fast cars, rich people, men in tights, women in lingerie, and robot avengers. (We did, this year, get a better and wider slate of films about black Americans.)

The movies, of course, have other things on their mind than tracking social and economic changes: People who make movies aim to entertain, to make money, to bathe us in two hours of glamour, to get kids through summer vacations. Movies are not Op-Ed pages, and film has always been an aspirational art that loves winners and up-from-the-bootstraps Horatio Alger stories.

But in a period when economic issues dominate a lot of discussion – and restrict and contort plenty of lives – film’s treatment of these crises seems superficial at best. We get a sense of the adrenaline rush that bad behavior can offer, for instance, but little sense of the consequences or the human toll. When "Wolf" provokes cheers and high-fives at a Wall Street showing, it’s pretty clear that the cautionary message that director Martin Scorsese claims motivated him is not exactly getting across loud and clear.

To some Americans, especially those hammered by the recession, the Wall Street crash or historic inequality, the central fact of contemporary American life has gone missing in our movies – even, perhaps, in movies that purportedly wrestle with recent history. It’s what’s motivated, for instance, the angry letter from Christina McDowell, the daughter of one of the real-life Wolf’s colleagues, who denounced the film’s "reckless attempt at continuing to pretend that these sorts of schemes are entertaining, even as the country is reeling from yet another round of Wall Street scandals."

This blind spot may not be entirely new. “The crucial thing about American postwar films has been the absence of class,” says Peter Biskind, author of "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" and "Seeing Is Believing," an insightful political reading of ‘50s B-movies. “What you almost never see is factory jobs or unemployment or strikes. When you talk about economics in film, it’s conspicuous by its absence. And when films are about politics, they tend to be about elections – politics defined in a very narrow way.”

Except in documentaries – films like "Inequality for All" and "Inside Job" have taken aim and named names – the movies have largely missed the opportunity to comment on 21st century social reality. Why do these subjects remain so invisible, and what’s happened to the outrage we felt not so long ago? In short, are our movies lying to us?

* * *

Despite American directors' general reticence to deal with political and economic subjects – very different from the approach of European filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard or Ken Loach -- American movies have engaged with these issues over the years. There was a time, for instance, when a major studio – Warner Bros. – trumpeted its films as being “ripped from the headlines.” Take the long view, and it’s clear that some serious, genuinely critical films have made it through the general apolitical studio system. In fact there’s been a long push-pull between social reality and structures dedicated to keeping the bad news quiet.

These films go back to the very beginning of American moviemaking, says UCLA film historian Jonathan Kuntz. A number of the films of D.W. Griffith took aim at big business or wealth concentration: "A Corner in Wheat," from 1909, looked at the impact of commodity speculators on the poor, and "Intolerance" (1916) portrayed a fight between capitalists and striking workers in a way, Kuntz says, that would not be out of place in the Soviet films of Sergei Eisenstein. There were others, but film censorship – which took place at the state level – beginning in the ‘20s helped squash political content, and the Motion Picture Production Code that kicked in hard in 1934 clamped down further. The Code was especially concerned with sex and violence, but it also warned against what it called sedition. “Inevitably it had the effect of smoothing most of the rough edges,” Kuntz says. “It suppressed the discussion of fascism in Europe, for instance. It had the effect of making everything mild and pleasant in Hollywood.”

The majority of Depression-era films, then, dodged politics and avoided a real look at poverty. Still, there were some filmmakers who refused to avert their eyes. "The Grapes of Wrath" is among the most famous, but there were others, including "Wild Boys of the Road" – about teenagers turned train-jumping hobos because of tough times, or the films of Frank Capra. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" was so tough on government corruption that Columbia Pictures boss Harry Cohn came close to not releasing it internationally, for fear that it would damage America's image in a Europe newly plunged into war. “The films of Frank Capra are very much about social and economic issues, even if they’re framed in an entertainment structure,” says Kuntz.

By the late ‘40s, Hollywood produced a large number of “problem films” -- sometimes called “social consciousness” films. "Knock on Any Door" considered juvenile delinquents, "The Lost Weekend" was about alcoholism, "Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?" concerned racism, "All the King’s Men" took on a demagogue politician, and so on.

Whether it was growing postwar optimism – and the sense that America was a classless society whose problems were beginning to fade away – or the Red Scare clampdown on screenwriters like the Hollywood Ten, socially engaged movies fell off as the ‘50s got going. (In some cases the critique became deeply coded in film noirs.)

The next – and perhaps last – great blossoming of American films of social criticism came in the ‘70s, in the window between the breakdown of the studio system and the culture of the corporate blockbuster. Alongside the rush of antiwar movies, numerous films (including Scorsese’s own "Taxi Driver") gave a sense that something had gone deeply wrong in the nation’s experiment. (There was even, with "Norma Rae," a hit movie about a textile workers union.)

Some of the films were more explicit works of critique, even when they were set in the past. "Chinatown"looked at the corruptions of power and money in the building of Southern California’s water system: Politics and individual lives were intimately (and queasily) interwoven. The first two "Godfather" movies looked at political and economic corruption in an unsparing way: Coppola wrote to Marlon Brando that “the Mafia is only a metaphor for America and capitalism, which will do anything to protect and perpetuate itself.”

Sometimes social criticism was baked into what seemed like genre exercises. In "Jaws," Biskind says, “a shark is eating people near the beach, threatening tourism, an the mayor and everyone tries to hush it up.  That was a huge blockbuster. And it was a perfect Watergate film.”

Says Kuntz: “The '70s filmmakers were able to combine big-budget filmmaking with this kind of critique. That broke down afterwards – you got big budget movies on one side, and low budget movies and documentaries on the other.”

A few films kept politics and economic issues front and center. Even the anesthetized early ‘80s offered "Silkwood," about a union activist investigating a nuclear plant, and "Repo Man," which channeled the energy of hardcore punk and suggested that the whole culture of consumerism was a lie. Oliver Stone’s "Wall Street" gave us a nasty corporate raider, one of the ‘80s’ catchphrases (“greed ... is good”) and a character, played by Martin Sheen, who serves as a kind of conscience or moral center for the film.

Michael Mann’s "The Insider" looked at corporate malfeasance from another angle – at the way the lies of a tobacco company could create a devastating public health crisis. In some ways the independent film movement that blossomed in the ‘90s was an heir to ‘70s maverick cinema. It’s produced more and more personal – sometimes insular – stories, but some indie films have tackled business as usual. Steven Soderbergh turned out "Traffic" – an expansive look at the international drug trade from numerous angles – and "Erin Brockovich," whose heroine confronted an energy company poisoning the groundwater.

* * *

So how do the Oscar-worthy movies of 2013 stand up to this tradition? Pretty feebly, on the whole. Let’s look at three of the key films – made by major, critically acclaimed directors – that connect with the zeitgeist, and set in three different decades.

"The Wolf of Wall Street" chronicles the rise and fall of a charismatic and dangerous Long Island financier, Jordan Belfort, who founds a faux-WASP firm called Stratton Oakmont and proceeds to defraud investors of millions of dollars. The script makes all kinds of nods toward this being a representative American story. “This is Ellis Island here!” DiCaprio’s Wolf says of his firm. “The land of opportunity. Stratton Oakmont is America!”

Clearly we’re not meant to believe this kind of hype, but we’re up so close to Belfort that it’s hard not to enjoy his American energy. “Scorsese may be critiquing,” says Kuntz, “but he’s having a lot of fun. There’s not much of a comeuppance to that character. I also expected to see more of the people at the other end of the phone: He missed the opportunity to show the real-life damage done to those people.”

And while "Wolf" works the way an economic cycle does – what goes up must come down – the fall is brief and mostly milder than the wild-ass rise. “For most of the three hours of that movie,” says Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, “it’s just a big, raucous party. That’s certainly a way to sell movies to people in bad times – make it all a big comedy.” The movie, she says, lacks any evident politics despite being about a subject with significant political fallout. (Watch the film alongside Stone’s "Wall Street" or J.C. Chandor’s "Margin Call," from 2011, and the difference is stark.)

Woody Allen’s "Blue Jasmine" does not avert its eyes from the consequences of the Wall Street shenanigans: Two characters have lost their savings to Alec Baldwin’s felonious plutocrat, and they seem permanently damaged. The story is told primarily through a bravura performance by Cate Blanchett, the high-rolling wife left behind when Baldwin’s swindler goes to jail. “Blanchett’s character is genuinely disturbed by what’s happened,” says Leo Braudy, a professor of film and literature at University of Southern California. “And her need to believe that everything is fine has a lot of resonance. Her American Dream fantasy is built on sand, but she has to reassure herself that everything is OK."

Though Allen has rarely seemed a class warrior or social critic – and his recent films have been set in glamorous European locales – "Blue Jasmine" looked at the human toll as squarely as any major 2013 film. But it remains focused on a single story, and does not wage the kind of larger criticism made by a "Godfather," a "Traffic," even a "Knock on Any Door." It has more in common with "A Streetcar Named Desire" than with "Chinatown."

One of the rare films that looked at the poverty and economic instability, the Rust Belt tale "Out of the Furnace," was not able to earn back its budget despite a cast that included Christian Bale and Casey Affleck. But one that looked poised to hit, and seemed to have Oscar written all over it, was the Coen brothers’ "Inside Llewyn Davis." There are poignant moments in this film about a Greenwich Village folkie, and the early-‘60s-inspired music is often lovely. But at least one important subject never shows up.

“The Coen brothers stayed away from talking about the main subject of the folk revival,” says film historian Kuntz. “Politics.” The Village scene, after all, was dedicated to a push for social justice, racial integration and attention to what democratic socialist Michael Harrington called “the other America.” (That was, after all, why the folk scene turned on Bob Dylan when he plugged in his guitar and began singing surreal love songs instead of laments about Hattie Carroll or Davey Moore.) The film digs into exactly none of this.

The best thing about "Llewyn Davis" may be its refusal to sugarcoat its protagonist's plight, which makes it one of the truest films ever made about an artist: We do not get a rousing appearance at Radio City Music Hall, or Newport, at the end of the film to “redeem” all the pain that’s come before.

“I don’t really think Americans like to see suffering without triumph,” says Dargis. “'Inside Llewyn Davis' has a very different ending. It’s a movie that hasn’t been embraced by Oscar voters or the audience; it doesn’t have that kind of happy ending. This is not the kind of movie that makes you feel good at the end, or say, ‘Wow, that ordeal is over.’ If filmmakers tend not to give us the brutal truth, that’s why.”

* * *

So why, besides the usual Hollywood shallowness, are we not getting films that match the frustration many Americans still feel, or that capture the lives they’re living? And will we ever get them?

Perhaps appropriately, movies about America’s fractured economics may be harder to find because of changes in the economics of the movie business. We don’t need censorship to restrict expression anymore: Corporate logic, in which movie studios become simply revenue generators, means that uncomfortable topics become rare unless they offer a feel-good morale or triumph of the human spirit. Cross that with the way movie revenues have gone global – with the falloff of the domestic DVD market and the rise of Chinese and Russian audiences – and thoughtful, grown-up films on all subjects face an uphill climb. “America’s economic crisis may not seem as relevant to someone in Khazakstan,” says Kuntz.

Of course, income inequality and the rise of the plutocracy are international phenomena – a recent Oxfam report found that the world’s 85 richest people own as much wealth as the 3.5 billion in the planet’s bottom half. But this doesn’t make it a popular topic anywhere.

Could the movies have missed their chance? Some think it’s still too early. “I don’t think the stories will be told at the time we’re living through them,” says Gene Seymour, a film critic nonetheless frustrated at the lack of movies that show the casino economy’s consequences. “We’re just seeing the 9/11 stuff start trickling out; Thomas Pynchon is just now getting to it.” This lag has always existed: The gloom of the Depression, he says, did not find its way to screens until the film noirs of the ‘40s: The movie "Double Indemnity" came out in 1944, but took place in 1937, and was based on a novella published in a magazine in ’36.

“For works of the imagination, history proves it takes a while for those ideas to gestate,” Seymour says. “We’re still working our way out of a kind of Gilded Age rot. As far as a whole movement of films like that, we’re still about two years away.”

Braudy thinks strong, wide-appeal films about inequality are still possible. “A movie has to present these things in terms of individual people -- a film can tie a mystery on the individual level, a romance, or a familiar dramatic story in with a larger perspective. 'Chinatown' is a perfect example.” Something smart and tough-minded can come again.

“As long as there are Oscars, there will be prestige films,” says Braudy. “And people will try to deal with serious issues. What shape those will take is the important question. Will it be a displaced film – what we’re talking about now, but set in the ‘70s or ‘80s?”

Until then, we have books: Mainstream publishers don’t love bad news either, but the work of Barbara Ehrenreich, the social criticism of Thomas Frank, and George Packer’s "The Unwinding" (itself a kind of documentary in prose) all capture the cause and effect of our current state.

And it may be that work engaged with social, political and economic issues will come from television. So far, shows like "The Wire," which came out before the economic crisis, may be the best at looking squarely at how politics and economics works in 21st century America. But there’s no shortage of other shows – "The Sopranos," "Breaking Bad," "House of Cards," "Treme" – that look beneath the surface of American life better than most films. Even something as slick as "Mad Men" has serious social criticism tucked into its fedora.

Biskind holds out some hope for politically minded stars like George Clooney and Brad Pitt – who have directed or produced films that tackle political or economic subjects. This doesn’t always lead to great work. “There was a fracking film ['Promised Land'] that Matt Damon starred in that was pretty preachy,” he says. “It’s not like those themes, on their own, can make a great movie. But it’s nice to have movies that are about something. A steady diet of superheroes is insane – it’s like a trip back to the Roman Empire, with bread and circuses.”

If you’re growing weary of waiting for mainstream filmmakers to turn out a movie that looks squarely at income inequality or at the Great Recession and the world it’s made, you’re not alone. None of the major Wall Street players who provoked the financial crisis have gone to jail, either. If you’re eager to see justice, or a serious imaginative treatment of the New Normal, you’ll have to – for now -- keep on waiting. And until American movies face American reality, an engaged anger is the only proper response.

By Scott Timberg

Scott Timberg is a former staff writer for Salon, focusing on culture. A longtime arts reporter in Los Angeles who has contributed to the New York Times, he runs the blog Culture Crash. He's the author of the book, "Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class."

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